- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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The new head of the Atlanta Dream, Kathy Betty, is from Decatur, Ala., which sits on Interstate 65 due north of Birmingham and due south of Nashville, Tenn. She jokes that everybody who grows up there -- call it the north part of the Deep South -- does two things.
"You go to church, and you play sports," she said, then added with a chuckle, "or sometimes it's more like you play sports and you go to church."
From age 4, she had a golf club in her hands, and her parents also encouraged her to take up tennis and other sports. Betty's mother was a club champion at golf and was so good at tennis she could even beat all her daughter's classmates on the high school tennis team. The boys' team.
"I had one sister, and we had a basketball goal and a baseball diamond in our backyard," Betty said, explaining how athletics were always a part of her life in Alabama.
However, Betty, who is 53, and her sister, 16 months older, didn't have organized sports for girls in school. And she certainly realizes what a loss that was for them -- a void that she's happy to see girls today couldn't begin to grasp.
"This generation, they're all growing up playing sports," she said. "The girls play as many sports as the boys. Competition makes you better for the business world. So does understanding how to be a team player. Men have always known this."
But more and more, women are understanding it, too. Even women, like Betty, who were born just early enough in the 1950s that they barely missed the real avalanche of change in regard to sports for females in high school in most parts of the country.
It's in part this understanding that was instrumental for Betty deciding to become the managing partner for Atlanta's WNBA franchise, news that was officially announced Thursday. Betty heads an investment group called Dream Too, LLC; she takes over for Ron Terwilliger, the Dream's original owner whose financial situation made it difficult for him to continue in that role.
Betty, whose late husband, Garry, was CEO of Earthlink, is also head of the Garry Betty Foundation to fund cancer research. But she had stepped away from the business world when her husband fell ill; he died in January 2007.
"You know, at some point, intellectually I knew that I would need to move on," she said of the grief process. "Retirement was not what I was about. I had to find something. But it took me a little while for my heart to catch up with my intellectual side.
"About six months ago, I really began to realize, 'It's time.' And everything fit when this [WNBA opportunity] came together. It wasn't a hard decision at all. I didn't lose any sleep over making the decision. Getting through the 'deal' is always hard, but making the decision was easy."
And it certainly sounds like this is exactly the type of owner the WNBA needs -- the independent-of-the-NBA owner (or ownership group) who has a passion for the product but is also a bottom-line business person.
These are people who are committed to the concept that women's basketball is a viable entertainment option, but really do understand how to run a business. Similar to Sheila Johnson with the Washington Mystics, Kathy Goodman and Carla Christofferson with the Los Angeles Sparks and the Force 10 Hoops ownership group for the Seattle Storm, Betty believes in all the feel-good reasons for supporting the WNBA. But it's not just about that. She also truly believes it's a smart investment.
"I love women's sports. And I'm a very strong believer in mentoring and role models; I work with Big Brothers Big Sisters," Betty said. "As I got more involved in looking at [the WNBA] -- I'm a season ticket-holder -- it combined everything I was passionate about.
"I am a businesswoman, first and foremost. I believe that to be successful, you have to -- at the end of the day -- make money. I can sell something when I'm passionate about the product. Developing more sponsorships and continuing to get the community active in the Atlanta Dream is something that will come naturally to me."
Betty is a graduate of Alabama, while her husband's alma mater was Georgia Tech. Both of them became very supportive of Yellow Jackets sports. But Betty said it was a talk by Georgia Tech women's hoops coach MaChelle Joseph to the school's athletic board a few years back that really hit home for her.
"I thought, 'You know, I could help,' " Betty said. "It really got me interested in supporting them at a different level, not just to be a fan. But to also reach out and make a real difference."
That takes money. It's the same for men's and women's sports in college -- both depend a great deal on the generosity of people who've been successful and believe that they can make a valuable investment in the future by supporting all that athletics does for young people.
Admittedly, though, a professional sports league is a different venture. The WNBA is not about providing a student-athlete experience to anyone. It's a business built on offering a summertime entertainment option that needs to be popular enough to turn a profit.
Certainly, there is societal value in what the WNBA is trying to do in terms of giving a community visible and very active athletic role models who are women. But again, it has to be a product that people will pay to watch. And the experience has to be fun enough to draw in new folks and keep them coming back.
Betty says she's sure the Dream, who went from a 4-30 first-season record to 18-16 and the playoffs this summer, is a product that she can market.
"I believe I can walk into any CEO or business leader here and show them how supporting or sponsoring the Dream will be beneficial to them and the community," she said. "I know women have great purchasing power. I can show how this will contribute to businesses' bottom lines.
"Also, a lot of corporations are trying very hard to help women-to-women networking. I think the WNBA provides a platform for that, too. It's not just the top-level executives, but the level right below, too, who I think will be advocates for this. It's very important how women network with other women, and we're going to be right there in the middle of it."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.