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Better Hate An Owner

There’s Nothing Strange About Kelly Loeffler Owning A WNBA Team

Kelly Loeffler
Illustration by Jim Cooke

Welcome to Better Hate An Owner, a recurring feature in which we learn more about all those awful old people who get to hold the trophy first at championship ceremonies. The first entry in the series is about Atlanta Dream owner Kelly Loeffler.

How much of her soul did she lose in making her money?

Kelly Loeffler owns the stock market. That is not some confusing figure of speech! Her and her husband's company, Intercontinental Exchange, purchased the damn New York Stock Exchange in 2011. The two are reportedly worth around $1 billion.

Is she a fail-child?

She is not. Loeffler made her money the honest way: by going to work for an energy trading startup after business school and marrying the CEO.

How much public financing has she sucked out of the community?

Her team being a WNBA team, none, refreshingly.

The Epstein Degree: How many degrees removed from Jeffrey Epstein is she?

Two, if we count that she decided to be a foot soldier of Donald Trump, who partied with Epstein once upon a time.

What are her political affiliations?

They are whatever Loeffler needs them to be at any given time. As the junior U.S. Senator from Georgia, she was "pro-Second Amendment, pro-military, pro-wall and pro-Trump." In her past life, she was a Mitt Romney mega-donor.

The first time Kelly Loeffler heard about Atlanta’s WNBA team, the Dream, was in the summer of 2010. She was in Arthur Blank’s suite at the Georgia Dome watching Manchester City play an exhibition match. In the suite with Loeffler was another moneyed Atlantan, a businesswoman named Kathy Betty, who had bought the Dream the year before. Betty invited Loeffler to come watch one of their games, sensing that she might extract a more lucrative commitment from Loeffler than just season tickets. To Betty, Atlanta magazine wrote, “Loeffler embodied the WNBA ethos.”

Loeffler had been a three-sport athlete growing up in central Illinois, where her family owned a prosperous grain farm. Five-foot-eleven and thin, she was too ungraceful to take basketball further than high school varsity, but she said in a 2011 interview that “sports gave me the confidence, I think, to succeed in the business world.” She graduated from the University of Illinois, earned an MBA from DePaul and began a career in equity research, poring over quarterly earnings reports and analyzing stocks to make investment recommendations. In 2002, she joined an Atlanta energy trading startup, Intercontinental Exchange. She married the CEO, Jeff Sprecher, two years later. 

Taking Betty up on her offer, Loeffler and Sprecher sat courtside for Game 3 of the 2010 WNBA Finals, a matchup between a young Dream roster and the star-loaded Seattle Storm. The Dream were led by hungry and sensitive wing Angel McCoughtry, whose career has acquired an unfortunate tinge of “always the bridesmaid” in the decade since. (In four Finals appearances, she has yet to win one game.) But that stifling narrative hadn’t yet taken hold. McCoughtry shone even in defeat. Over much taller defenders, she managed a combination of midrange jumpers in tight spaces and acrobatic layups to finish with 35 points, a Finals scoring record she would break the following year. The Dream were outmatched by the Storm, but their promise was apparent. If you were sitting courtside and had millions to spare, you might have bought the team, too.

There are no hints of Loeffler’s eventual fanaticism in the 2011 press conference introducing her as co-owner of the Dream. That may be because the reactionary views she is now known for were not evolved toward but hastily affected. For most of her life, she practiced the dull brand of sports owner conservatism that goes unremarked upon, donating mostly to Republicans but also a few Democrats, and hosting Romney 2012 fundraisers at her mansion, a 15,000-square foot European-style monstrosity named “Descante.”

In fact, fanaticism better characterizes her relationship to basketball than it does her pre-2020 politics. Loeffler watched every Dream game studiously, dissecting the X's and O's with coaches afterward. When Candace Buckner of the Washington Post asked former Dream staffers about their experiences with Loeffler, they described a level of attention to the team that rivaled Mark Cuban’s:

If Loeffler thought a referee made a bad call, one former colleague said, she kept mental notes and threatened to write letters to the WNBA. If the Dream had organizational news to report, Loeffler took the lead in drafting the release, composing almost every paragraph. And when the team held its Inspiring Women programs, celebrating successful leaders from the community, Loeffler wanted a briefing on who would be honored.

(One of those community leaders Loeffler and the organization decided to honor was Stacey Abrams, who was in a close battle for the Georgia governorship at the time.)

In the summer of 2019, Johnny Isakson, the senior U.S. Senator from Georgia, announced that he’d resign at the end of the year, citing mounting health issues. Brian Kemp, who’d beat Abrams narrowly the year before with the help of a years-long voter suppression campaign, opened an online application portal for people interested in being appointed to the seat. Hours before the portal closed, Loeffler applied. 

Kemp’s pick of Loeffler generated intra-conservative controversy. She was sure to appeal to the white suburban women the 2018 midterms had pronounced the new kingmakers of swing-state electoral politics, but among the Trump set, her MAGA bona fides appeared lacking. Loeffler had won the appointment over Trump’s toady and preferred choice Doug Collins. Her cell phone background had for years been a photo of her with the never-Trumper Mitt Romney. The WNBA and the Dream, a few pointed out, had even partnered with Planned Parenthood on occasion. 

But if there were any doubts as to where Loeffler’s public loyalties would lie, the introductory remarks she delivered at her appointment ceremony in December crushed them. “I’m a lifelong conservative: pro-Second Amendment, pro-military, pro-wall and pro-Trump," she said. “I make no apologies for my conservative values, and will proudly support President Trump’s conservative judges.” There were lines about “abortion on-demand” and a “socialist gang” in Washington. And then, perhaps mustering the confidence basketball had provided the scrawny, pigeon-toed Illinois farm girl all those years ago: “Contrary to what you see in the media, not every strong woman in America is a liberal. Many of us are conservatives, and proud of it.” Loeffler, appointed to represent a blue-ing state with a diversifying electorate, made clear what she was willing to do for the sake of power, even if she did not believe much of what she was saying.

She became the wealthiest person in Congress—as of January, she and Sprecher are billionaires—and then wealthier for being in Congress. In late January of 2020, after Loeffler attended a private Senate briefing on the coronavirus, Loeffler and Sprecher made stock transactions so brazenly crooked and damning they are almost funny. Not only did the two sell off $3 million in stocks, but they also purchased shares in Citrix, the teleconferencing software. The news provided ammunition to Collins, the Congressman who’d lost out on the appointment and was running against Loeffler in the 2020 election. The race, already a referendum on her populist sympathies, tightened.

Through that scandal, the wall between Loeffler’s political ambitions and her relationship with the WNBA managed to survive. See, as proof, the weirdly effusive statement McCoughtry made on the matter of Loeffler’s insider trading in April:

I love Kelly Loeffler. She has done nothing but give give give!! She has helped us women continue to maintain a job even when she had made nothing in return. Kelly has always had my back when I needed her, And she would have yours too. I will never judge a person on their political views. That’s what makes the world unique. We get so caught up on what’s going wrong. I remember the million things Kelly has done right. 

By the summer, McCoughtry would feel differently. She had spent her collegiate years in Louisville, where Breonna Taylor was killed, and in June, she floated the idea of honoring Taylor on WNBA jerseys in the upcoming season. Only days after the WNBA announced it was dedicating the season to Taylor and black women killed by police, Loeffler threw a desperation heave, demonstrating the sort of crude foresight suited both to politics and insider trading. “I adamantly oppose the Black Lives Matter political movement, which has advocated for the defunding of police, called for the removal of Jesus from churches and the disruption of the nuclear family structure, harbored anti-Semitic views, and promoted violence and destruction across the country,” she wrote in a letter to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert. “I believe it is totally misaligned with the values and goals of the WNBA and the Atlanta Dream, where we support tolerance and inclusion.” 

Women’s basketball players swim in a sea of bad faith. The reward for their talent is specious arguments as to why they should not be paid more, unsolicited challenges to play Twitter schlubs one-on-one, and a mostly transient lifestyle of shuttling between WNBA teams and clubs overseas, where one can feel profoundly isolated. Someone accustomed to that life does not dole out trust thoughtlessly, which made Loeffler’s a uniquely cruel and strange betrayal. “I can’t believe I ever stepped foot in Kelly’s house and shared a meal with her,” guard Layshia Clarendon, who’d played for the Dream in 2016, tweeted after Loeffler sent the letter. 

Loeffler had reversed a familiar script. A mostly black, increasingly vocal labor force working for a mostly white and sclerotic ownership class is a recipe for discordance, but owners have long ducked public scrutiny by reaching an unspoken understanding with athletes: You launder my reputation, I sign your checks. A sports team offers the 1 percent a way of appearing to be in touch with a world they privately campaign to worsen. But Loeffler found herself in a slightly different predicament. She did not need to hide behind the women of the WNBA; she needed to make a show of throwing a punch. The Republican base was watching.

WNBA players did not allow themselves too much time for feeling wounded by her heel turn, though many, like Clarendon, were. They regrouped, made public their wish that Loeffler be forced out of the WNBA, and began campaigning for Raphael Warnock, a pastor and Democratic candidate for the Senate seat who'd been performing unimpressively in the polls for weeks. In August, players around the league arrived to their games in the Florida bubble wearing "Vote Warnock" shirts. Within two days of the players' stunt, the Warnock campaign had raised $183,000 and attracted 3,500 new small-dollar donors. A political science researcher wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in November that the players' support came "at a crucial moment" for the Warnock campaign's finances. He finished with enough votes in the 2020 election to force a January runoff.

Loeffler, her own political future and Republican control of the Senate on the line, wasted no time launching a hateful campaign against Warnock, inveighing against the black church and darkening her opponent's skin tone in ads—a real 21st century Southern strategy. Her loss to Warnock in the runoff election is a triumph for Georgia, though it still leaves the issue of her ownership—and by extension, the league-wide mood—unsettled.

A favorite pastime of the women's basketball world lately is to perform the sort of root cause analysis an IT department might after a security breach. How is it possible that a league fronted by black and queer players is not impervious to bigots? How could this lady have owned a WNBA team? The answer, in the end, is pretty simple: She likes basketball, too. 

About a week before the 2020 presidential election, the New York Times published an online quiz posing a simple if trollish question: Could you discern from a photo of the inside of someone’s fridge whether they were voting for Biden or voting for Trump? The paper, which for four years fed readers zoological accounts of Trump voters in the far-off lands of Iowa and Ohio, arrived at a conclusion those readers must have found a little head-scratching. It turns out “we can’t distinguish people’s politics from glances into their fridges much more reliably than if we just flipped a coin.” In the comments, various Janet L.s from Westchester registered their surprise at the bipartisan fondness for fruit. 

If Kelly Loeffler has done a single useful thing in her life, it is to shatter the comforting illusion that love of women's sports is a symbol of virtue. For all we'd like to imagine otherwise, following this game is not subscription to a shared ideology but consumption of a product. Now it's time to ask what exactly we're being sold.

Since its inception, the WNBA has enjoyed a reputation for offering a distinctly angelic, harmonious model of sports. (Seattle Storm owner Ginny Gilder said in an interview in October that she'd become a WNBA fan after being "really fed up with Major League Baseball and steroids," the subtext being that scandal and unpleasantness do not happen here.) But baked into the cheers for "unselfish play" and "family friendly environment" are strange ideas about the inherent good natures of women and their institutions, ideas which were never true at all.

Applaud Engelbert and the league office for supporting player campaigns for social justice all season, but ask why the support stopped short of pressuring Loeffler to sell her stake in the Dream. Was it for some tangle of legal reasons? Or is it because the Atlanta Dream are a much harder sell than Donald Sterling's Los Angeles Clippers, and the loss of an investor like Loeffler is hard to stomach on the balance sheet? The problem with disguising a for-profit business as a movement is that at some point, the goals of the two conflict, and true priorities rise to the top. “We are not going to force her to sell her ownership,” Engelbert said in a CNN interview in mid-July. The choice was damning, but certainly revealing.

WNBA players made clear once that they will not be pawns in a political campaign. In their protests of Loeffler, they drew clear distinctions between labor and capital in the WNBA, distinctions capital would surely like to stay hidden. The next question is whether players will lend their well-earned progressive credentials to a league that's showing, through its inaction, that its commitment to social justice may not be much more than empty marketing copy. The WNBA, it says, stands for "the power of women." The Loeffler saga raises the question: Which women? And power used to what ends?

It's the increasingly wobbly, expansive language of women's empowerment that led Kathy Betty to meet Loeffler in a billionaire's box at the Georgia Dome and see in her “the WNBA ethos.” If she is publicly at odds with the ethos's namesake organization right now, Loeffler probably still believes she—confident, tenacious go-getter Kelly Loeffler—embodies it. Pour one out for the conservatives who thought women too frail or untalented to play sports. They've been replaced in the women's basketball culture wars by new, more formidable opponents: ghoulish hoophead businesswomen empowered to believe that making money and chasing self-interest are the work of the feminist cause.

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