As a player in the WNBA, Renee Montgomery didn't think much about who operated the league's 12 teams.
"I wasn't thinking about ownership, I was only thinking about championships," Montgomery, the fourth overall pick in the 2009 draft, told USA TODAY Sports.
But when a unique opportunity arrived in early 2021, Montgomery, a two-time WNBA champion with the Minnesota Lynx, decided it was time to think about the next chapter.
Following public outcry that forced former owner and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler to sell the Atlanta Dream — Loeffler had made derogatory comments about the Black Lives Matter movement, a cause long supported by WNBA players — Montgomery partnered with two others to purchase the Dream (she is also the team's vice president). To buy in, she first had to retire as a player.
"Giving up my basketball career was so tough, but to me it felt so worth it," Montgomery said.
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'WHERE THE HECK ARE THE WOMEN?': Why women's sports could see financial boon in future TV deals
The move from court to front office made Montgomery the first, and so far only, former player with an ownership stake in the WNBA. But in professional sports, she's far from an outlier.
For decades, ownership in professional sports teams usually went to someone who checked three boxes: rich, white, male. That's starting to shift across the country as current and former female athletes invest in the next generation of women's sports, buying into teams and leagues, playing as crucial a role off the field or court as they did on it.
There’s Montgomery in Atlanta and Naomi Osaka in North Carolina (Osaka, a tennis player, is part-owner of the North Carolina Courage, an NWSL team). Former WNBA All-Star Swin Cash, now vice president of basketball operations and team development for the NBA's New Orleans Pelicans, chipped in last season when the WNBA raised $75 million in capital.
Soon-to-be retired Sue Bird, arguably the best point guard in the history of women’s basketball, announced last week that she had joined the investor group of NWSL's NJ/NY Gotham FC (Bird is a New York native). The founding investors of Angel City FC, the NWSL's Los Angeles club, is a who's-who of female athletic talent, with 18 former or current female athletes including Olympians Julie Foudy, Shawn Johnson East, Candace Parker, Lindsey Vonn and Serena Williams.
After years of imploring companies and businesses to bet on women's sports, some of the greatest to ever compete are taking their own advice.
"At this point it's more than just a trend," said Olga Harvey, the chief strategy and impact officer at the Women's Sports Foundation. "It's a movement."
Athletes' kids are even getting involved: 4-year-old Olympia Ohanian Jr., the daughter of Williams and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, and 3-year-old Kaavia Wade, the daughter of three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade and actress Gabrielle Union — better known as her Instagram alter ego "Shady Baby" — also have shares in Angel City, making them the youngest owners in sports. (Owing to a packed toddler schedule, Olympia Ohanian was unavailable for comment.)
According to Montgomery, this is just the beginning.
"I do think you're going to see a lot more player-to-owner pathways, I think it's going to be more normal soon," Montgomery said, explaining that in an era of the "empowered athlete speaking their voice," ownership is an obvious next step. Montgomery, along with NFL standouts Marshawn Lynch, Todd Gurley and Marcus Peters, is also part owner of the FCF Beasts, a professional indoor football team.
"There's no better indicator of the fact that this is really a new day for women's sports than to see former pros investing their own hard-earned capital back into the game," NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman told USA TODAY Sports. "In my conversations with former athletes, their motivation is centered around the belief that the time is now. They can ensure they're doing their part to make a difference for the next generation of girls, who we all know can have a more equitable world."
Shortly after social media exploded in reaction to blatant disparities between the setup for the 2021 NCAA men's and women’s basketball tournaments, a national conversation started about investment in women’s sports and their market value. A 2021 report, commissioned by the NCAA, revealed what many female athletes and coaches had been arguing for years: women's sports can be a moneymaker and a worthwhile investment, if given an opportunity.
Sports insiders and experts who spoke to USA TODAY Sports say this movement is the result of a convergence of forces.
First, while the COVID-19 pandemic hampered immediate expansion for both the WNBA and NWSL, women's sports came back before professional men's sports (the NWSL was first). As a result, they got prime-time TV slots. Viewership went up significantly. The following seasons, networks decided women's sports in prime time should be the norm.
Berman said no fans in the stands of any sporting event allowed "a natural reset" of the narrative that women's sports struggle with attendance. Now that fans are back everywhere, and often filling arenas and stadiums for women's teams specifically, "it's really changed the way people believe in the power of women's sports as a business."
Newer and younger consumers are "very digitally savvy," said Harvey at the WSF, and female athletes in particular have leaned into this, building followings on social media that translate to more fans. Big-name brands and stars buying into women’s sports — one of Angel City’s founders is Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman — turn heads, too.
More money is undoubtedly part of the equation. As female athletes sign bigger contracts and cash in on significant endorsements, they have more spare change to play with.
“This is a fairly new phenomenon because opportunities for women to have that ownership profile have been constrained historically," said Cheryl Cooky, a women’s and gender studies professor at Purdue University whose research focuses on media coverage of women's sports. "With women grabbing the reins and taking this on themselves, it will likely be much more impactful and effective in growing women's sports."
The trick, said Cooky, will be making sure women's sports aren't forever confined to a marginalized space. Attracting the average sports fan, not just the niche women's sports junkie, will be key to continued growth. Male athletes investing in women's sports – former NFL quarterback Eli Manning is, like Bird, investing in Gotham – also supports the theory that women's sports are a viable product.
"In the last data report I saw, men are still 60% of our fans," Berman said. "I think that surprises most people, to know men are following women's sports. Our ecosystem is mostly men."
Male athletes putting their dollars toward women's sports "it's just from the perspective of them wanting to do the right thing," she said, but because "these male athletes are also businesspeople" and they see a viable product where they can get a return on investment.
According to owners, the growth and staying power of professional women's sports – the WNBA is in its 26th season – has played a role in the female -athletes-to-owners trend, too.
Saskia Webber was the backup keeper on the U.S. Women’s National Team that won the 1999 World Cup, kicking off a women's soccer craze in the United States. Now 51 years old and one of Angel City's part-owners, Webber said the decision to get involved monetarily didn't take much convincing.
"When captain Julie Foudy calls, you answer the phone," Webber said, laughing. Foudy, a standout on the ’99 team, was the one who rounded up a bunch of USWNT alums and persuaded them to buy in, literally, with Angel City.
"For us as ’99ers, our goal has always been to lift up the future of women's soccer, and (investing) is just the next evolution of that," Webber said. "To put our names, love, passion and financial commitment behind Angel City and the NWSL, it's a no-brainer."
Harvey said Angel City, which has 99 co-owners, has provided a different blueprint for ownership.
"They created a buzz because it was primarily female owners but also because they have this new model where you don't have to be a multimillionaire to own a team," Harvey explained. "It's not an all-or-nothing game now."
Montgomery echoed that sentiment, pointing out that often ownership becomes a family affair as shares are passed down from generation to generation. Breaking in as an outsider can be tough. But she expects to see it much more, partially because athletes, like any employee, want to work for someone "who's working for them, who loves the brand and believes in it."
Does that mean Montgomery is working to persuade some other retired WNBA players to join in her owners meetings?
Not quite, she said. But she is thinking about her next investment.
"I love being part of sports organizations, so if the NWSL comes to Atlanta, I definitely want to holler at them," Montgomery said. "I actually played soccer in high school, so that wouldn't even be a stretch."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Female athletes making impact on ownership in professional sports