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Joe Tsai on Liberty attendance woes: Give it time

NetsDaily sat down with Joe Tsai Friday for 90 minutes Friday and talked about a variety of Nets-related issues. This is the third of several stories out of that interview.

Indiana Pacers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

By most measures, the New York Liberty had a good season at Barclays Center, their first since Joe and Clara Wu Tsai, the team’s co-governors, bought the team in 2019. They made the playoffs for the first time since 2017 and their young players took big steps. Michaela Onyenwere was the WNBA Rookie of the Year and Sabrina Ionescu’s jersey is the top seller among league jerseys. Liberty gear is the top seller as well, per Fanatics.

New York does have one problem: their attendance at The Clays. The Liberty averaged a little more than 1,800 fans a home game. They ranked ninth in a 12-team league There are a lot of reasons why the Liberty are attracting only about a sixth of what they were seeing at Madison Square Garden before James Dolan moved the Liberty to Westchester in 2018.

It’s something the Tsais recognize but as Joe Tsai told NetsDaily Friday, give it time. There were a lot of factors holding the Libs back and he’s optimistic about his team in general and their attendance.

“Yeah, I think the Liberty has lost some fans because they moved all over the place, right, Last stop was in Westchester and that was 2,000 fans,” said Tsai of the 90-year-old White Plains facility’s capacity.

Indeed, the Liberty have been a bit of a vagabond, playing in FIVE different venues over the last decade. They played three seasons at Prudential Center in 2011, 2012, and 2013 while MSG was being renovated before returning to the Garden for the 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 seasons. In 2018 and 2019, they were in Westchester, 2020 in the WNBA’s “wubble” in Bradenton, Florida, before finally putting down roots in Brooklyn last season.

Of course, there were other issues, like COVID.

“I think last season was a little bit unusual because It was right after COVID. I think people are still a little bit hesitant to come out,” he noted. He also argued that both his teams are suffering from not having everyone back at work ... and nearby.

Next season — and long term — Tsai is optimistic about both his team prospects and attendance, providing some projected numbers, no doubt helped by marketing.

“Certainly, I hope that in the following season — this will start next May — we should have multiple numbers of what we were getting — I think we were slightly over 2,000 in Barclays Center, and Barclays Center looks not very good with 2,000 fans. (It was less than 2,000.)

“I think we should at least fill the lower bowl with a view of getting — I feel like we should get 6,000 to 8,000. I hope we can get to that level and we can build on that, and hopefully have like 12,000 at some point. Maybe not next season, but in the future.”

That latter number would exceed what the Liberty were getting in their full season at the Garden in 2017, and would help the WNBA which depends on having a big team with big attendance in the league’s biggest market.

The Liberty finished in the top four in WNBA attendance in all 18 seasons they played at the Garden, averaging 9,888 in 2017, the season before the move to 90-year-old Westchester County Center. Attendance plummeted to roughly one quarter that number in the two Westchester years, 2,822 in 2018 and 2,362 in 2019. That’s still nearly thousand more than what they garnered this past season.

Indeed, the league’s rise was hurt by the move to Westchester. The drop in attendance caused by Dolan’s cost-cutting decision to move the Liberty to Westchester accounted for approximately half of the whole league’s drop in attendance in 2018.

For the WNBA to maintain its rise, New York and the Tsais have to lead the way.