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Joe Tsai explains why he elevated Keia Clarke to Liberty CEO: It’s about equality

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In an interview with Doug Feinberg of the AP, Joe Tsai explained why he elevated Keia Clarke, the Liberty’s long-time Chief Operating Officer —a title normally assigned to a company’s second in command, to Chief Executive Officer — more in keeping with Clarke’s duties. It was about equality.

“For us, part of our mission to promote the WNBA and also the New York Liberty is to put women’s professional basketball on the same footing as the men’s basketball team,” Tsai said in a Zoom interview Monday. “We own the Nets and also have the Liberty and it doesn’t make sense for us to treat them as one subsidiary of the other. They should be co-equals.”

In fact, word of the move broke last Thursday, the same day Sportico reported that Tsai has hired John Abbamondi as President of the Nets. Both Clarke and Abbamondi are alumni of the prestigious Team Marketing & Business Operations (TMBO) office at the NBA/WNBA offices.

Clarke is a 10-year veteran of the Liberty organization and one of the few hold-overs from an operation that Tsai and his wife, Clara Wu Tsai, purchased from James Dolan in January of 2019. She has served in a variety of senior leadership positions in her with the franchise, including being the Chief Operating Officer for the past few years.

“I think it just happened naturally since she’s the right person for the job,” Tsai told Feinberg, who covers the NBA for AP. “She’s already been running the business as the senior member of the executive team. The fact she’s female and Black it’s great. That wasn’t the first thing in picking a CEO for the New York Liberty. She’s there and happens to be a minority woman and that’s a great thing for us.”

Clarke now becomes the fifth female team president or CEO — and third Black female — in the 12-team WNBA. The top three positions in the WNBA front office are also held by women. For Clarke, the promotion was welcome news.

“I don’t know who coined the phrase, but if you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” Clarke said. “By all means there were very strong women, smart women and some Black women I saw in this industry and others that I think made aspiring to a senior role possible. I absolutely hope there are some women and even little girls who feel they can now be in this role because they have seen it done.”

Clarke, who not only worked for Dolan but with Liberty President Isiah Thomas, was instrumental in both transitioning the Liberty out of the Westchester County Center in White Plains and into Barclays Center and from MSG Network to YES Network. The Liberty debut on YES Wednesday from the “wubble” in Bradenton, Florida.

Tsai said that he’s hoping for bigger things from Clarke once the pandemic is over.

“Our goal is to have 6-8,000 people in the arena at a Liberty game when this COVID thing is over,” Tsai said. “My dream is to see 18,000 fans in Barclay Center to a Liberty game like they come to Brooklyn Nets games. We think Keia is the right person to get us there.”