clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

It’s official: Joe Tsai agrees to buy Liberty. Is he next big thing in NBA?

New, comments
Bloomberg via Getty Images

The WNBA and New York Liberty announced Wednesday morning that Joe Tsai, the Nets minority owner, has officially purchased the Liberty from the Madison Square Garden Company, which has owned the team for more than two decades.

“It is an honor and a privilege to join the Liberty and WNBA families,” said Tsai who holds both Canadian and Taiwanese citizenship. “As one of New York’s proudest franchises, the Liberty has played a vital role in New York City over the past 22 years.

“The Liberty and WNBA exemplify what it means to compete at the highest level, serve as role models in the local community, and bring greater opportunities to female athletes. Our goal is to continue this important work and help bring the WNBA into its next phase of growth.”

The team will play at the Westchester County Center this season, with one game to be played at Barclays Center.

The news is significant in a lot of ways. The minority owner of the Nets —and majority owner in waiting— is seen as a savior for the Liberty, Madison Square Garden’s afterthought, and someone who wants a bigger presence in the New York sports scene.

But the move sets up Tsai up as a major player in the NBA as well. Not only will he soon own an NBA franchise, a WNBA franchise and yes, a G League franchise and an esports franchise in the league’s biggest market, he’s already serving as a key adviser Commissioner Adam Silver and the vast Asian market.

Last October, the 55-year-old billionaire joined the board of directors of NBA China ... at Silver’s request, an indication of how the commissioner —and the league— see Tsai.

“We’re looking forward to working closely with him to continue to build our business in China, particularly our media and e-commerce business, in which he has tremendous expertise,” said Silver announcing the move during a press conference in Shanghai.

Even before joining NBA China, Silver praised Tsai’s involvement during NBA board of governors’ meetings. He’s listed as the Nets’ “alternate governor.” As principal owner, Mikhail Prokhorov remains the Nets’ “governor.”

“Joe Tsai has already contributed significantly since becoming an NBA team governor,” Silver told the Post, “offering strategic advice and insight to assist the league’s operations in China.”

As of now, Tsai owns 49 percent of the Nets. He will gain control of the team in 2021, although Prokhorov is expected to retain a significant minority position, perhaps 20 percent.

At the time of the sale in April, Silver told Brian Lewis how excited he and the league are about Tsai owning the Nets.

“Joe Tsai, co-founder of Alibaba ... the fact is that he’s someone who’s living in China but very familiar with the Brooklyn Nets brand. He’ll be the co-owner for several years, not controlling owner, [but] it speaks specifically to the interest in the Brooklyn Nets in China, and to the greater interest in the league.”

One of Tsai’s first forays on behalf of his new team was helping Nets President Brett Yormark set up a marketing tour of Chinese cities in May, the month after he bought his stake. Yormark said he wound up meeting 21 CEO’s on the trip.

Tsai has in the last couple of years become an ambassador for big-time American basketball in China, college as well as pro’s. Through Alibaba, he has sponsored two PAC-12 China Games, the most recent a contest between his alma mater, Yale, and California. Two years ago, he played a crucial role —at least as important as President Trump’s— in freeing LiAngelo Ball and two UCLA teammates after they were charged with shoplifting in Hangzhou where Alibaba is headquartered.

Last August, along with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Spencer Dinwiddie, he participated in Jeremy Lin’s charity game in Shenzhen. Quietly, he’s been showing up at Nets games and not just at Barclays. He’s been front and center the last two years in Oakland for the Nets-Warriors contest. (He has yet to see them win against the Warriors but few of us have.)

Tsai is known to think that the Brooklyn brand is a big deal and that with some on-court success, he can make the Nets more popular. “The Brooklyn Nets are young and trending. We play an exciting brand of basketball,” he said just last week when the NBA announced the Nets and Lakers will play two preseason games in Shanghai and Shenzhen next October.

Tsai’s connections in China are what could make him a really big deal in the league. As co-founder and executive vice-chairman of e-commerce giant Alibaba, Tsai knows the market as well, if not better, than anyone. He’s also been pushing new technologies like artificial intelligence at Alibaba — technologies that will work for his NBA properties as well.

There will be plenty of opportunities to expand basketball — women’s as well as men’s — in China. More than 300 million Chinese already play the game, but leaves a billion who don’t. The NBA, already hugely popular, will be marketing TV and online rights in Asia at some point, a potential bonanza for the league. And it should be noted that in buying the Nets, Tsai is also buying 1/30th of the NBA.

As for basketball operations, Tsai has for the most part left those decisions to Prokhorov who as principal owner is the ultimate decision-maker, and Sean Marks, who traded Lin, Tsai’s favorite player.

So far, Marks says, the partnership has worked. His owners are showing patience.

“They’ve been amazing, shown patience and buy-in in terms to what we’re trying to build and what we’re going about,” Marks told Adrian Wojnarowski back in October. “It’s great having everybody on the same page.”.”

Tsai is outspoken ... on a number of issues ... what you might expect from someone who has two degrees from Yale and who helped build one of the world’s e-commerce giants in less than 20 years.

At the end of last year, as executive vice-chairman of Alibaba, Tsai left no doubt where he thinks responsibility lies for the decline in US-China trade relations.

“We’re not in a trade war now, we’re in a geopolitical cold war started by the U.S.,” Tsai said at a conference.

Last weekend, as the owner of the National Lacrosse League team in San Diego, he criticized the Philadelphia arena announcer who had made derogatory references to a top player’s Native American heritage.

The next day, the announcer apologized. It’s evidence he will likely be active across the board.

And yes, he’s started to comment ever so subtly on the Nets. Three weeks ago, when Kenny Atkinson got tossed from the Pacers game, then apologized, Tsai took to Twitter.

Expect more as time goes on.

As for the Liberty deal, details remain shrouded. It’s unlikely the price tag will be a big number since James Dolan has claimed the team has lost $100 million in the course of its 20-year history and MSG has been trying to sell the team for 14 months. The purchase was approved by both the NBA and WNBA Board of Governors.

Beyond the price tag, there’s uncertainty about where the team will play long term. It moved to the Westchester County Center last year, a big step down from the Garden. Could the team play in one of Prokhorov’s two venues: Barclays Center or Nassau Coliseum. Also, It is not yet clear whether Tsai will seek to rebrand the Liberty. That decision, of course, will depend on where they’ll play.

So, expect a plan, one that will be broadly based and no doubt have an international component and synergy with the Nets. Tsai has already spent a billion dollars on his NBA dream. He’s not stopping.