Location matters. Where you are can influence who can reach you, what you can access, and so many other tangible benefits. For the New York Liberty, location had been an issue that had set their franchise backwards.
Following the 2017 season, the Liberty had to move. After spending 20 years in the tri-state area with games played at Madison Square Garden or Prudential Center during MSG renovations, Liberty ownership —aka James Dolan— shuttled the team off to White Plains, and the Westchester County Center. The move drastically reduced their reach and they went from a state-of-the-art arena in MSG to the more distant, much older and much much smaller Westchester County Center. It was portrayed as a cost-cutting move.
While the Center was accommodating and did their best to make the Liberty feel like home, it just wasn't suitable for professional basketball. The 90-year-old arena was limited to 2,300 seats on game day and a max of 4,500. More importantly, the in-game and post-game conditions for players and coaches made it difficult to function.
When Joe Tsai bought the team in January 2019, the team was in flux. There were questions as to what the roster would look like, who would be working in upper management, their place in a shifting landscape across the league, and most significantly where they'd be located. All those questions made for a disappointing outlook, but Tsai’s purchase held out the possibility of a fascinating future.
Throughout the year, Tsai was mum on where the Liberty would be playing next. He spoke about the need to move, and Barclays Center certainly looked like an ideal location, but as he said in May, he didn’t want to be just a tenant. His biggest and most urgent job, he said, was finding his team a home.
“We need to find a solution when it comes to playing venue, a place where the fans can get excited about,” Tsai had told The Post’s Brian Lewis in the summer. “As an owner I see that as my most important responsibility, how to bring more fans into the arena to watch the team.”
His best player also liked the idea of Brooklyn.
“I think them moving us to Brooklyn and practicing and having us live in Brooklyn, that’s definitely a hope factor that change will come,” Tina Charles told Newsday. “But it’s just a matter of when.”
The mystery was solved earlier this month when the team announced that they'll be moving to Brooklyn starting in 2020.
The move will get the Liberty back home in New York in front of the majority of their fans as well as access to better training facilities and off court opportunities for the players. Moreover, Tsai’s move has to give fans confidence that he’ll be ready to move aggressively on other aspects of rejuvenating the franchise.
All well and good, but it’s part of a bigger issue for the W.
In the days since the announcement, I thought a lot about the predicament the Los Angeles Sparks faced in the playoffs. The Sparks had the third best record in the league and led the W in attendance as they played their home games at the Staples Center. Unfortunately for the Sparks, the league couldn't accommodate them as the Emmys were being held across the street from the Staples Center on the same night as their elimination game against the Connecticut Sun.
Instead of thinking of the players' needs, the league had the Sparks play in a 4,000-seat arena down the road where their players hadn’t played during the regular season. As it so happens, the Sparks got blown out and the loss set off a chaotic offseason for the team. Prior to the loss, Derek Fisher spoke about the experience with Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times:
I hope that people aren’t ignoring what’s best for the players and what’s best for the growth of the league. Whether that’s a team earning home court and not being able to play at home or a fan buying season tickets to see the Sparks at Staples Center and having to drive to Long Beach to see their team play a home playoff game. That’s unfair, not to just to the team but for the fans. After this season hopefully we won’t have to worry about this again.”
We spend a lot of time talking about attendance in the WNBA and how the league can continue to build its fanbase, increase its revenues, pay its players better, etc.
One thing I think we don't mention enough is the instability in where teams play. It's hard enough to compete on a high level in the ways players do. Having no idea where you’ll play your home games — and knowing in the back of your mind you may have to play critical games in arenas you haven't set foot in all year — only makes the job more difficult. As we saw with the Washington Mystics, having a place you can call your own makes sense.
For the Liberty, the permanent move to Brooklyn should relieve some stress players may have faced playing in Westchester. Knowing that you have a stable, first class home environment and fans that can make it to games to support you is a great feeling and will make the games more fun for players and fans. Many of the players already live in Brooklyn, having figured with Tsai about to buy the Nets, a move to the borough had to be in the cards.
The move also shows that the league is making an attempt to invest in its players. For too long, the league has shorted players on salary, not given them suitable travel accommodations, fallen short in marketing its stars, etc. Getting the league back in the largest media market in the United States is going to give players a better opportunity for the WNBA to grow the game and do right by the players. Combined with Tsai’s international reach, the move should lead to greater prosperity for the league and players at home and abroad.
As important as the Liberty move back inside the city limits will be, it’s just one part of resolving league’s issues.
As the league and players negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement this fall, they'll do so knowing that they have a greater opportunity to expand the game now that they're back in New York City. Having one of the original teams back home and in a top flight arena will improve the game experience for everyone involved. Now it's up to the league to improve in other areas so players can have the experience they deserve.