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What, you might ask, is gay about the WNBA calling Atlanta home for its 14th team and newest team? Have you watched a WNBA game?

The gay angles and the significance of this story to the city’s gay and lesbian market make it No. 1 in my picks for the top local gay sports stories of 2007. There’s an obvious attraction to women’s pro basketball among lesbians, something seen anecdotally by quickly scanning the crowd at games. And having a team in Atlanta will diversify the city’s rich, but all male, roster of pro sports teams.

But more importantly, the city’s bid process invigorated gay and lesbian fans, who turned out in large numbers to volunteer for the effort, buy season tickets and build grassroots support. Bid organizers, both in the political and business worlds, recognized the importance of reaching out to gay and lesbian fans and once the league awarded the team to Atlanta, new owner Ron Terwilliger (pictured above with head coach and general manager Marynell Meadors) spoke of the importance of drawing lesbian fans.

In short, the entire process showed the significance of the city’s large gay market and indirectly, demonstrated once again that Atlanta enjoys a thriving base of gay sports fans and athletes ready to support a team that supports them.

A collection of excerpts from my coverage of the bid process brings home the point:

“We are very inclusionary and embrace everyone,” WNBA President Donna Orender said. “That is part of our core value system.”

“At some level, [the WNBA] clearly knows what their market is and that it has a large lesbian market,” said Jim Buzinski, co-founder of Outsports.com. “If you go to a WNBA game, it is obvious that there is a huge lesbian base.”

“We didn’t conduct a scientific survey, but based on my experience, I can say that there were more than a handful of lesbians at the Verizon Center. Our gaydar was going off continuously,” said Beth Schapiro, a strategic consultant and founder of the Schapiro Group.

“They can’t ignore gay fans or pretend they don’t exist. Some cities have embraced gay fans and put ads in gay publications, while others have kept things under the radar. The successful franchises seem to be reaching out to the gay community,” said Jill Barry-Kessler, a Decatur resident who owned season tickets to the Mystics when she lived in Washington, D.C.

“Obviously, it has a lesbian component to it. We are going to reach out to that audience and sell the event based on the fact that it is fun, family-oriented and should appeal to women. We are going to go and sell it on the basis of who has demonstrated an interest in the past and not play up the hard-nosed side of it,” said team owner Ron Terwilliger.

Marynell Meadors, head coach and general manager of the new Atlanta team, said the franchise can appeal to lesbian fans simply by putting a “great team on the floor.” “We want people in the stands and to be involved in our team. We want to go out and get as many fans as we can and go wherever we need to go.”

When Atlanta’s yet-to-be named WNBA team hits the floor of Philips Arena for its home opener on May 23, expect gay and lesbian fans to be out in full force, showing once again that it pays to be inclusive.