Renee Montgomery on Being First Retired WNBA Player to Be Owner, Exec: It's 'a Responsibility'

"You're almost the test, the experiment or the blueprint. For me, I take it as a responsibility because I want to make sure that it goes really, really well," Renee Montgomery tells PEOPLE

Renee Montgomery
Photo: Bee Trofort-Wilson

Renee Montgomery is looking forward to a time when more athletes will be able to take leadership roles after dedicating years to the sport they love.

In February, Montgomery, 34, became the first former player to be both a co-owner and executive of a WNBA team. In addition, she is among the few openly gay women of color in the front office of a professional sports team in the U.S.

After two championships with the Minnesota Lynx, Montgomery — who also spent two seasons on the Atlanta Dream — opted out of playing in June 2020 in order to focus on social justice activism.

That year, WNBA players, both on and off the court, took on a significant role in Rev. Raphael Warnock's victory in the Georgia runoff elections over former Senator Kelly Loeffler, whom Montgomery would eventually buy out of the Dream ownership group.

"For me, it's exciting because it's hard for me to turn off the player mindset. Even though I'm an executive and a vice president, I'm always going to be a hooper at heart," Montgomery tells PEOPLE about her role with the Dream.

Montgomery was honored in the 2021 TIME 100 Next list with Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms calling her "an inspirational leader" and "part of a new generation embodying the conscience of our communities."

Speaking with PEOPLE about her transition from player to executive, Montgomery also shares her thoughts on where she hopes to see the WNBA in the near future.

Renee Montgomery
Renee Montgomery. Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty

"It's so different," Montgomery says about front office work. "On the executive side, we love sports. When you're an athlete, we love sports and so you get excited for the sports side of everything. But when you're on the executive side, you have to do the business part of sports."

The star continues, "That's been interesting because I love seeing how things work, peeling back and seeing what makes things go, who decides what, what better ways can things be done, bringing an athlete's perspective to the front office. As athletes, we're always like, 'Why doesn't this happen this way?' Now, I'm taking that logic that we know as athletes and trying to apply it as an executive."

And being the first to do so is a responsibility that Montgomery takes very seriously.

"It's super humbling because when you're the first, that means people are going to look to see, well, 'How did that go? Well, she's the first.' You're almost the test, the experiment or the blueprint," she says. "For me, I take it as a responsibility because I want to make sure that it goes really, really well so that people can understand that, yeah, this should be a progression for athletes."

Montgomery also says athletes are the best candidates to be agents of change in sports and business.

"You've studied the game. You've learned the game. You love the game and the organization. The next step of progression should be: you go to the front office, you go to be an executive or you take one of those leadership roles. I don't know why it's not happening," she says.

"I do hope that we start to see more WNBA players become WNBA owners and the same on the men's side. Really any sport where an athlete gives their blood, sweat, and tears — and their heart," she notes. "Who better to run a program or an organization than those people?"

The league she helps lead celebrated its 25th anniversary this past season. As Montgomery predicts, there's more progress to come and work to be done.

"It's exciting when I see that the WNBA numbers are up all across the board, in the playoffs, the Finals, and the regular season," she says of viewership and fan interactions. "Then I start to see how star-studded our games are. Celebrities are the who's who. The same thing you would see at an NBA Finals game, you're now seeing at a WNBA Finals game."

Montgomery notes that seeing Reverend Jesse Jackson, Chance the Rapper and Scottie Pippen attend this year's Chicago Sky playoff game is just one prime example of celebrity support. (Likewise, Phoenix Suns stars Chris Paul and Devin Booker were front and center at the Mercury home game during the Finals.)

"Any player wants to play in front of the stars. You want to be dapping up the stars, talking noise and having that Spike Lee moment. Everybody thinks of that and wants to have that. I love that the WNBA is now getting to that moment," Montgomery says.

"People are starting to recognize that the product is good. You just have to watch it," she explains. " It just needs exposure. ... The time is now. That's what's most exciting for me when it comes to the WNBA. Even being on the executive side, it's just exciting all around."

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