While the price Joe Tsai paid for the Nets and Barclays Center has been reported at between $3.3 and $3.5 billion — the most ever for an NBA franchise and arena, there’s been no reporting on how much he paid James Dolan and MSG for the Liberty in January 2019. Terms of the sale were never revealed publicly.
At the time, Tsai was a minority owner —49 percent— of the Nets and held no interest in Barclays. He had an option to buy the rest of the Nets, then set for this year, but things accelerated and in September 2019, Tsai became “governor,” the principal owner, of the Nets and operator of Barclays Center, which is owned by the State of New York and leased.
So how much did Tsai pay for the Liberty, which is the premier franchise in the WNBA despite its tough times on the court? Jabari Young of CNBC in an article on the sale of the Atlanta Dream Friday, quoted “sports bankers” on the Liberty’s estimated price tag.
The price may or may not include the team’s debt, which was estimated to be in the tens of millions annually before the sale. Still, it looks like a bargain. Dolan had the team on the market for 19 months before Tsai entered the picture. The team’s value had also dropped.
Dolan had moved the team twice in the last decade, first to Newark’s Prudential Center for three seasons between 2011 and 2013 while the Garden was being renovated in the summers, then again to White Plains in 2018 after MSG went on a cost-cutting spree. The moves hurt not just the Liberty attendance, but overall WNBA attendance as well.
As Brian Lewis reported in August 2019, 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 Dolan moved the team to the 90-year-old Westchester County Center in White Plains. Attendance plummeted to one quarter that number for the two Westchester years.
The plummet was so precipitous, Lewis noted, that it actually accounted for approximately half of the WNBA’s drop in attendance two years ago.
Now, after last season in the Bradenton “wubble,” Tsai is finally moving the team into Barclays Center whenever the WNBA season starts up this summer. Tsai believes the Liberty, which has been revamped this summer, will be helped by the move to Brooklyn ... as will the bottom line at his arena which now has 25 guaranteed summer dates. In two games at Barclays in 2019, the Liberty drew 7,715 fans to a regular season game against the Seattle Storm and 4,155 for an exhibition game vs. China’s national team.
There’s plenty of evidence that women’s basketball —and women’s sports in general — is growing at an accelerated pace and Tsai has a commitment to women’s sports. His daughter, Alex, has been a member of Hong Kong’s national women’s lacrosse team. Clara Wu Tsai, Tsai’s wife, is co-governor on the Liberty and according to reports actively involved in the team’s operations.
Last July, Tsai said he’ll “put women’s professional basketball on the same footing as the men’s basketball team. 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.”