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The day after word broke that Atlanta businessman J. Ronald Terwilliger would own and operate the yet-to-be-named team, the formalities were taken care of at a news conference Wednesday in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park.
"My hope is by the sixth year we’ll be in the championship game," said Terwilliger, chairman and CEO of a national real estate company with 23 offices throughout the country. He said he hopes to have a winning team by the third season and a playoff team by the fourth.
WNBA president Donna Orender, who made the official announcement, said the league just completed its 11th season and "how we did it without Atlanta I don’t know."
Atlanta will join the Eastern Conference with Chicago, Connecticut, Detroit, Indiana, New York and Washington.
Terwilliger said he is convinced the team will draw well at Philips Arena, the downtown facility that also serves as home to the NBA Atlanta Hawks and NHL Atlanta Thrashers.
Atlanta will be the league’s 14th team and second new franchise since 2002.
"There is no reason for us to have low expectations," Terwilliger said. "I really want the community to be involved" in naming the team, which includes deciding whether it will be named for Atlanta or Georgia.
The WNBA started with eight teams in 1997 and expanded to 16 in 2002, but three franchises folded by the start of the 2004 season: Cleveland, Miami and Portland. Also, the Utah Starzz moved to San Antonio in 2003 and became the Silver Stars.
Chicago began play in 2006, but Charlotte folded last winter.
In addition to the expansion franchise, Orender said next season ESPN will pay rights for the first time to televise a women’s league in the U.S.
Under the WNBA’s original rules, teams had to be affiliated with their city’s NBA team. In October 2002, the league decided to open franchises to outside investors. The Mohegan Indian Tribe was the first private investor, buying the defunct Orlando franchise the next January and renaming it the Connecticut Sun.
Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston are also not affiliated with NBA teams.
Terwilliger said not having to be affiliated with an NBA team was one of the main reasons he pursued a franchise. That means, Terwilliger said, he won’t have to "be distracted by going off and selling Hawks tickets."
He did make a pitch for selling WNBA tickets, saying the league would "have a SWAT team here to make sure we get off to a great start."