ATLANTA — With lights flashing and music pumping, Atlanta Dream announcer Chris Marks, better known as CM, got to work.
He introduced each team’s starting five, putting a different spin on every player’s name. When he called out Cheyenne Parker, he said, “Hey, Miss Parker.” He announced Erica Wheeler with a nod to her social media handles, calling her “E Wheezy.” And Naz Hillmon’s alma mater is pronounced just as longtime Michigan football announcer Bob Ufer said it: “MEEEEEEEChigan.”
CM’s introductions were in front of a raucous crowd at the Gateway Center, the Dream’s home in College Park, Georgia. His work on the microphone is all part of the team’s efforts to nearly double attendance in just one year and make WNBA games among the hottest tickets in town.
From the aroma of catfish and hush puppies wafting in the air to the music of Waka Flocka Flame playing at halftime of last Wednesday’s 91-81 win over the Indiana Fever, everything in the arena just screams “Atlanta.” This wasn’t an accident. Dan Goldberger, the Dream’s senior director of fan experience, said that the team strived to make it that way.
“It's been a team effort really trying to create a vibe, a special Atlanta-driven vibe, that our fans would relate to. We found talent that really spoke to our audience,” said Goldberger, referring to CM, in-arena host Bria Janelle and the team’s DJs. “And, you know, we want it to be a fun night. This is entertainment. It's events for people, and I want to make sure that when they spend their money that they're having fun.”
CM, who started with the Dream three seasons ago, said one of the reasons the games have become so well-attended is that everyone in the building works toward the team’s mission.
“That's what Southern hospitality is all about, and that's what being true to Atlanta is,” he said. “And just being inside the Dream and doing it for the Dream, that's what you do it for. You do it to stay true to who you are as a unit, whether it's team-wise, whether it's the people outside of the scene that makes the arena go around, whether it's the arena staff, or whether it's somebody like me just trying to push the energy up to how it's supposed to be.
“It's just establishing that culture and just being true to a real hospitality feel. That's what you get."
Part of why the vibe of Dream games is so authentic is that the staff of the team features people from Atlanta.
“We hired people that are from the city and that live here and understand,” Goldberg said. “We're not flying people in. We want people who live here. We want people who understand, day-to-day, what it's like to live in this city. We just really leaned into it a little bit, and, I don't know, there's no magic sauce. Just kind of really wanting to be that and preaching it to our team and I think the fans have started to pick up on that.”
For halftime entertainment, the Dream sometimes have local groups perform, such as the step show during last Friday’s 88-86 victory over the Los Angeles Sparks. At some special games, there are musical performances. Travis Porter will play at the team’s final regular season home game this Friday, and Waka’s appearance came about thanks to social media.
“We sat down in a room with a full staff. Everybody. Men, women, white, Black, didn't matter,” Goldberger said. “We asked, ‘What would be cool? What would we want to hear?’ And his name came up. He's from Atlanta. He's from the South side. He's, obviously, been a big name in the music industry. And so I DM-ed his management team on Instagram, and they got back to me.
“It's just amazing. What a world. It used to be so hard to figure out how to reach him, but I just DM-ed his management team. They emailed me back. They hit me back, and all of a sudden we're talking and we got him here.”
With this raucous and fun environment, the Dream are now trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2018. If they can qualify for the postseason, they’ll hope to advance to a three-game series, where they can have another thrilling home game at the Gateway Center.