Atlanta welcomes WNBA team

ATLANTA - It was more like a pep rally than an official announcement on Wednesday that Atlanta was being awarded a WNBA expansion team for the 2008 basketball season.

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 in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park amid cheers from more than 50 third, fourth and fifth grade girls from nearby Centennial Place Elementary School - sometimes getting a little coaxing from the podium to elicit louder responses.

'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.'

She said next season the cable network ESPN will pay rights for the first time to televise a women's league in the U.S.

She called the league 'the best affordable family entertainment.'

Terwilliger said he is convinced the team will draw well. It will play its game in Philips Arena, the downtown facility that also serves as home to the NBA Atlanta Hawks and NHL Atlanta Thrashers.

'There is no reason for us to have low expectations,' he said. 'I really want the community to be involved' in naming the team. He said the first decision would be whether to name the team Atlanta or Georgia.

Atlanta will be the league's 14th team and second new franchise since 2002.

The league 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.

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 now not affiliated with NBA teams.

Terwilliger said not having to be affiliated with an NBA teams was one of the main reasons he pursued a franchise. That means, he 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.'

Mayor Shirley Franklin waved a form for season tickets and urged those at the event to get a form and order tickets.

Atlanta will be in the Eastern Conference with Chicago, Connecticut, Detroit, Indiana, New York and Washington. The Western Conference consists of Houston, Los Angeles, Minnesota, defending champion Phoenix, Sacramento, San Antonio and Seattle.