Checking in With the New Owner in Atlanta
The WNBA is coming to Atlanta! And local real estate executive Ron Terwilliger is a big reason why. The CEO of Trammell Crow Residential, one of the nation's largest developers of apartments and condominiums, Terwilliger is the principal owner of the new WNBA franchise in Atlanta.
On the eve of the historic expansion announcement, Terwilliger spoke with WNBA.com's Adam Hirshfield about the support of women's basketball in the area, his ideas for a team nickname and bringing a team back to the Southeast.
Q. Welcome to the WNBA! How long has this been in the works? How long have you and your group been eyeing the WNBA? Who else in Atlanta has been involved in the process?
A. "Thank you! We've been talking about it for the last six months. I think it started with the league itself coming to the conclusion that Atlanta would be a good place to have an expansion franchise. Everyone knows that women's high school and college basketball in the Southeast is terrific and the league felt like it was missing out on a strategic location.
"So the league approached people here in Atlanta and found a positive response from the mayor (Shirley Franklin), the city council chair (Lisa Borders) and the head of Central Atlanta Progress (A.J. Robinson). They spoke with the league and concluded that the next step was to go out and gauge what kind of support they'd get in the community. And they pulled together a list of about 1,200 people who expressed an interest in season tickets. Then, they approached me and asked if I would be interested.
"They know I'm kind of a sports nut. I played college basketball and baseball at the Naval Academy. I serve as subcommittee chair of the Athletic Committee there, as well. And I'm very much into all sports. I made a bid for the Atlanta Braves last year and I used to own a professional indoor soccer team in Atlanta.
"I've watched some women's basketball on TV, and I'm amazed by the level of ballplayers they are. So I began exploring it seriously and talked to Donna Orender and came up to New York to talk to David Stern. And those conversations made me enthusiastic about the prospects for the future.
"I have two daughters and I have watched girls' and women's sports become increasingly popular over my 66 years. And I'm pleased to see that."
Q. What were the negotiations like? And at what point did you cross that threshold, of sorts, where you realized "Wow, this is really going to happen! I'm going to own an Atlanta franchise in the WNBA!"?
A. "After I met with David and Donna and Harvey Benjamin (the NBA's executive counsel for business and finance), it became clear that they really wanted to have a team in Atlanta and that if I were willing to make the financial commitment -- as well as the commitment of time and energy -- that it could happen.
"I figured we could make the finances work. After all, I had a sense of what went on when Chicago joined the league in 2006. But I wondered whether it made more sense to try to buy an existing team instead of an expansion team. With an expansion team, you're in the position of having to build from scratch, but with an existing team, some of the pieces are already in place."
Q. You've been very successful in the real estate business and had made a bid to purchase the Braves. What about the WNBA appeals to you as a businessman?
A. "I like the fact that it's a successful league that still hasn't completely matured.
"It's also hard not to notice that there is growing female empowerment in this country. You read things like 60 percent of the students in college today are women… that, because they're better educated, women are increasingly making more money in the workplace than men. You saw the U.S. women's soccer team come into prominence almost a decade ago now. So it seems to me that the stars are aligned for women's sports in the U.S. to become more viable and the most outstanding women's basketball league in the world is the WNBA. It makes sense."
Q. What about the city of Atlanta makes it a feasible home for a WNBA franchise? How supportive will the Atlanta metro area and the Southeast in general be of a new team?
A. "Atlanta has had tremendous growth over the last few decades. I've had a home here for 28 years and I've seen the region grow to over 5 million people. It seemed to me that a city of this size should be able to support a professional women's team. Also, the city's demographics are diverse and there are several powerful and successful female leaders in the community -- like Lisa Borders and Mayor Franklin."
Q. Critics of bringing a WNBA team to Atlanta cite the fact that the Hawks ranked 26th out of 30 NBA teams in attendance in 2006-07. Is there any concern the city won't support another major sports franchise?
A. "If you look back, Atlanta did support the Hawks back when Dominique Wilkins was on the court and when they were competing for Eastern Conference titles. But in recent years, the Hawks' record hasn't been very good. The Hawks are going through some attendance struggles now, but I think a lot of that is because they haven't been a winning team.
"I think there's a very different audience in Atlanta that will attend the WNBA games. There will be a lot more women, a lot more families than your typical 18-34 year old male who attends an NBA game. This will be a different crowd, so I don't think it's fair to draw a direct analogy to the Hawks' attendance.
"The team has to catch on. There's got to be a buzz about it and women have to support it or it might not work.
"This city is bigger than a number of cities that have WNBA franchises. And Atlanta has a lot of entertainment options out there, the weather is generally good and people are into their college sports here. But a winning women's professional sports team will draw fans. They'll have to stick with us because it might take a few years to put a winning product on the floor, but my objective is to ultimately win the WNBA championship. That's what I'm aiming for."
Q. The WNBA tends to look at its product as a mix of basketball and entertainment. What do you see this new team doing to appeal to the existing WNBA fans in Atlanta and to bring in new potential customers, ticket buyers and sponsors?
A. "The one thing I'm hoping to do to garner support is to focus on this being a women's professional league. The Southeast has a bunch of terrific women's basketball teams at the college level. Some of them outdraw the men's teams at their university. So I don't see why a good team -- full of the wonderful young women who play this game -- wouldn't appeal to fans at the college level and people who want to support women's professional sports.
"So we'll try to make it a regional draw as best we can. There's a lot to do in Atlanta, and this team will give the people who come to town to shop or go to the aquarium another thing to do. Of course, we also hope that the community, both fans and businesses, will support the team with season ticket sales and sponsorships."
Q. Another concern critics raise is the fact that this team is getting started in the 2008 season. Will you have enough time to get things up and functioning to your satisfaction?
A. "There's no added stress because of that, no. I don't think we'll need any more time than we have. Obviously the collective bargaining agreement needs to be agreed upon. That's my biggest concern at this point. Then we have to have a draft so that we can pick our players and promote the women who are going to play on the team and be in this community.
"We have about seven months before we're really playing, and that should be plenty of time to get the word out."
Q. Like you said, there will likely be an expansion draft in the coming months. Do you have any idea what kind of players you'll be going after? Is there a desire to build around established, big-name stars? Or does it make more sense to build and grow with younger players over the long haul?
A. "I'm probably more inclined to the latter. I want to be in the playoffs by our third or fourth year. I want to be contending for the championship by Year 5, 6 or 7. I think we will try and build around young players, but we'd certainly like to get a couple of veterans, maybe via the unrestricted free agency route.
"One other thing that could really be a plus for us is that I think a lot of players will like the idea of living in Atlanta. This is a very attractive city for young people. We have a very affluent African-American community, we have a vibrant downtown area, midtown is great, Buckhead is great and I think players will enjoy living here. That could hopefully convince some players who are on the fence to come down and join us here in Atlanta. The city itself is a draw."
Q. A couple of things looking ahead a bit… first, do you have any plans for the team nickname? Do you have any favorites going through your head right now?
A. "(Laughs.) Everyone has been telling me that we should call them the Georgia Peaches. It is the state fruit that everybody knows… but we're going to try to let the community participate in deciding the name of the team.
"The other issue is whether we go by 'Georgia' or 'Atlanta.' I've gone back and forth on that one, too, especially given that we're trying to create more of a region-wide draw. So maybe Atlanta is too limiting.
"Every time you think of something that seems to be a good name, it seems like it's already taken. The Georgia Peaches isn't taken yet, but we'll see how many people think that's a good name. It's kind of neat, but it's not exactly a forceful name. It doesn't exactly inspire fear, does it? (Laughs.) Yes, the Georgia Peaches are sure going to terrify their opponents!
"Maybe the fans will give us some better ideas."
Q. What about plans to get a front office and coaching staff in place? Do you have a timetable for that?
A. "Yes, we're interviewing a young lady now to handle basketball operations. I'll be chairman and CEO and I've already named Bill Bolen to be the team president. I've worked with him before and he's a well-educated guy… not a sports guy… but a great businessman. And under him, we'll have a team operations person and an executive VP for marketing.
"Marketing-wise, it doesn't seem like it's that complicated. You have to put a competitive team on the floor and make the experience of going to a game enjoyable and entertaining. Also, you have to market the team well and get individuals to come into the arena to see all of the entertainment you're producing. Those are our two main points of focus right now.
"Bill will really take the reins because I have a lot going on. I'm the incoming chairman of the board for Habitat for Humanity International, I'm still running a national real estate company and I'm very involved with workforce housing around the country. So I'm not really able to run the team day to day."
Q. Finally, what are your hopes in bringing Atlanta into the WNBA? Are you hoping to make money? Grow women's sports? Give the community another team to support? What's your real hope entering into a venture like this?
A. "First off, I'm really doing this in response to the call of the Atlanta community to bring professional women's sports to this city. I am hoping that we'll make money eventually and that the league will make money eventually. I am aware of the financial circumstances, and it could take a little while, but there are some things out there that give me plenty of hope.
"I just finished reading a book about Bob Cousy that looks back on the state of professional men's basketball in the '50s and '60s. They'd only get a couple of thousand people coming to their games and they had to play 20-some preseason games to make enough money for the regular season. The old owner of the Boston Celtics had to take out a second mortgage on his house to support the team. There were a couple of interesting stories like that in there. My point is that every league that is successful now -- the ones we take for granted like the NBA and the NFL -- started out small and took a long time to build into what they are today.
"I'm excited to give Atlanta the opportunity to have women's professional basketball and I'm excited to give young women the opportunity to play professional basketball in Atlanta. And I'm counting on the Atlanta community to support this effort. We'll do the best we can to entertain and make this sport available to them. I can't wait for Opening Day."