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Wu Tsai: WNBA, New York Liberty success is about appreciation of performance regardless of gender.

The Liberty didn’t make their lofty goal this season of winning it all, but in the process, they’ve brought women’s basketball back to New York in a big way.

New York Liberty Press Conference Photo by Mike Lawrence/NBAE via Getty Images

In a wide-ranging online discussion with Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post Monday, Clara Wu Tsai extolls the progress the WNBA and the New York Liberty have achieved, saying the appreciation of basketball and sports in general is less defined by gender, more by performance.

“I think that our audience really reflects the way that society has changed. People respect women in a different way than they did before, and I think that they can really appreciate these women just as elite basketball players. I think that they really appreciate performance, you know, regardless of gender,” said Tsai.

“But I would also have to say, Sally, that I think one of the main reasons that the audience growth has taken off is just the skill and the athleticism of these players is really at a level that it’s never been before in the league. The women can really score from any angle. They can shoot deep threes,” added Wu Tsai. “It’s just really exciting and competitive and very entertaining.”

Wu Tsai also said that her WNBA players have the same goals and drive as her NBA players, calling them “dogs.” It, too, has led to bigger crowds, greater interest among fans and prospective fans.

“Besides the fact that they’re really skilled, so many players now have this feistiness, or sort of this drive to like—to do everything they can for their team on the court, just because, you know, they can’t lose. And I think this is referred to a lot as, you know, the dog mentality, and it’s really great to have on your team.”

Wu Tsai and husband Joe took over the Liberty in January 2019 when after years of disrepair under James Dolan and CEO Isiah Thomas the franchise had become a shell of its former greatness as one of the league’s foundation franchises. The Tsais, who reportedly acquired the team by assuming its debt and agreeing to share future projects, moved the team from the 90-year-old Westchester Center to Barclays and immediately began what turned into a five-year plan to win it all. They came close this past season, losing to the Las Vegas Aces after beating the Aces in the mid-season WNBA Cup championship.

“We built a state-of-the-art locker room in Barclays Center. We started to invest in performance staff, invested in player wellness, nutrition, player care,” Tsai told Jenkins. “And, essentially, our goal was to be a free agent destination and create an environment where top players would want to come.”

They accomplished that goal, drafting Sabrina Ionescu in 2020, then filling out a star-driven roster with the additions of Betnijah Laney, Courtney Vandersloot, Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart, the latter two former league MVPs. Wu Tsai was personally involved with all their recruitments.

Wu Tsai, a native of Kansas with degrees from Stanford and Harvard, said she and Joe saw the potential of women’s sports — in the nation’s largest market.

“We believed in the potential of professional women’s basketball in New York City, and we really felt that it was, you know, underdeveloped at the time that we bought it,: she told the Post. “But New York is a sports town, and it is a basketball town. So, we really believed that we could build a team in New York that could win championships, attract a passionate fan base, and also help increase the overall visibility of the league.”

...And make money.

“When you look at the economics of the WNBA, almost along all dimensions, from team revenues to player salaries, the economics are one-one hundredth that of the NBA. So, if the WNBA grew to just 10% of the size of the NBA, that would still be a 10x return on investment. So, I think there’s a lot of upside potential, and I think investors are seeing that too.”

Wu Tsai ran off a litany of successes at Barclays Center.

“Our instincts really did play out because, you know, this year we had 13 sellouts, two building sellouts, and we also had the highest gate receipts ever in WNBA history in three of the finals,” she said. “We had fans coming out to games, you know, in a city where, of course, there are always so many things to do.”

Wu Tsai also gave Jenkins an inside look at how her and Joe’s foundation is investing in women’s performance in general with a philanthropic investment of $220 million in the Human Performance Lab at Stanford University, part of which is looking at women’s fitness and how to “reverse engineer” fitness.

“You may know that so much of research in science and medicine is really based on men and male cohorts, especially in sports performance. But you know, females and female athletes have really never been funded as a cohort, and we thought it was important to do that, especially because there are some instances—for example, you know, female study—suffer ACL tears at two times the rate of (male athletes),” she noted. “So, the Female Athlete Program studies, you know, why this is, and really tries to figure out how we can figure out how we can help develop therapies and get preventive techniques to women earlier.”

Wu Tsai also talked about how some in basketball want to make women’s basketball more like men’s, something she described as “incredibly disrespectful,” specifically in response to Charles Barkley’s comment that the basket in women’s basketball be lowered to increase the number of dunks in the WNBA.

“That’s just not the way the women’s game is played,” she told Jenkins. “The women’s game is not an above the rim game, and it’s still entertaining and competitive without dunks. So, women have been playing—you know, they’ve been competing and winning at the highest levels without dunking, and so I think it’s just incredibly disrespectful to suggest that they should change, you know, just for the benefit of, you know, making it more like the men’s game.”

In that regard, Wu Tsai and Joe have started to succeed, making their WNBA team as successful as their NBA team, despite road blocks and bias, noting of course there is still, as she told Jenkins, “some unfinished business.”