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LIBERTY RISING: Attendance, TV ratings, social media all soaring with stars

The Liberty are now headed into the post-season with a chance at their first WNBA championship. Fans have noticed. All week, we’ll be examining various aspects of the team’s meteoric rise.

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WNBA: JUN 18 Phoenix Mercury at New York Liberty Photo by Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Things are looking up — way up — for the New York Liberty.

Final numbers are in and the Liberty are soaring in overall fan appeal, in attendance, TV ratings. social media engagement and sponsorships and of course, winning basketball.

Attendance is up a whopping 46.8% over last season and an extraordinary 342.6% over 2021, per a tabulation from Across the Timeline which tracks WNBA numbers. And season ticket sales, the big prize for an organization seeking financial success, are up more than 200%, the Liberty recently told The Athletic.

After 8,306 fans showed up for the Liberty’s final regular season game Sunday, the New Yorkers finished with an average attendance of 7,776.75 per game, sixth in the league, basically tied for fifth with the Minnesota Lynx who finished with 7,776.95. The only teams ahead of the Liberty and Lynx where the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces at 9,551, the Phoenix Mercury at 9,197 and the Seattle Storm at 8,929.

That’s a big jump from 2022’s average of 5,327 and 2021’s average of 1,757 when the league and sports in general were still working their way through pandemic restrictions.

It should be no surprise considering the roster now features former MVPs Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones as well as star backcourt performers like Sabrina Ionescu and Courtney Vandersloot. Not to mention a coaching staff headed by Sandy Brondello whose Phoenix Mercury won it all in 2014.

With its superstar lineup, the Liberty also got on television a lot more this season, with YES Network broadcasting 21 games and the WNBA’s national TV partners, ESPN and Ion, picking up the biggest games.

The August 28 matchup between the Liberty and the Las Vegas Aces, the WNBA’s other superteam, at Barclays Center was the most-watched WNBA regular-season game on ESPN2 in five years, averaging 328,000 viewers, Best noted. And Ben Pickman of The Athletic writes Tuesday that through September 3, the Liberty’s national television ratings are up 58%, year-over-year, according to Nielsen Market Ratings — the second biggest ratings jump around the league.

Of course, it’s part of a trend across women’s sports, as Neil Best, Newsday’s media reporter, wrote Monday.

What once was a novelty act, or perhaps a mere do-gooding attempt at equity, has become big business itself.

Women are playing and people are watching, from college and pro basketball to international and pro soccer to college softball and far beyond.

While the Liberty may be catching the wave of women’s sports, the organization has built a superteam that finished 32-8 for the season and won the Commissioner’s Cup for the first time, raising the banner at Barclays Center on Sunday.

The Liberty organization has matched the team’s on-court success in its marketing efforts. They’ve engaged fans with specific efforts, hoping to capitalize on their new stars. For example, on Sunday, fans got to meet and hang out with the team post-game, something you don’t see on the men’s side of the NBA. Two weeks ago, they ran an MVP promotional campaign for Stewart by bringing a pizza truck to Barclays Center, offering free pizza, outside the arena...

Las Vegas Aces v New York Liberty Photo by Michelle Farsi/Getty Images

They’ve also engaged the Brooklyn community by promoting women’s empowerment initiatives as they did when they showcased Black women-owned businesses at the team’s announcement of its schedule in November.

“I think women’s initiatives and women’s empowerment and women’s equality is a major part of everything that we’d like to be a part of, so we identify specific partners in that area of focus,” Liberty CEO Keia Clarke told our Brian Fleurantin in March 2022.

Beyond the traditional measures of attendance and TV ratings, the Liberty has done well in other areas, like social media, sales of team gear and partnerships, as Pickman reports.

The Liberty say they’ve seen a 600% growth in overall engagement across their social media platforms, he writes. And he notes the team has more than doubled their retail e-commerce sales and picked up 10 additional partners this year.

“People have been waiting for this moment to get behind the Liberty again,” Stewart told The Athletic. “It’s refreshing and great to see.”

“We feel very strongly that for this league to be as great as it can be, this market has to be elite,” Liberty GM Jonathan Kolb, architect of the Liberty’s off-season, said. “And (Stewart) gets that and she pours in everything she can.”

It’s all huge win, of course, for Joe and Clara Wu Tsai, co-owners of the Liberty and Nets who have financed it all, made the big moves possible.

The Tsais rescued the Liberty from Jim Dolan and MSG back in 2019. Dolan, claiming financial losses, dispatched the Libs from Madison Square Garden to the tiny, 90-year-old Westchester County Center in 2018 and put the team up for sale. Attendance plummeted as did the on-court product. In fact, New York’s precipitous drop in attendance accounted for approximately half of the WNBA’s drop that season.

After not finding any suitors at the price he wanted, Dolan eventually sold the Liberty to the Tsais who reportedly got the team for little to no cash. They merely assumed some of the MSG debt and promised to share any profits the team made with MSG. Then, they moved the team to Brooklyn. Finally, when the league refused to move on creature comforts like charter flights, the Tsais did. It cost them a $500,000 fine, but players around the WNBA noticed.

Now, with the playoffs beginning Friday at Barclays Center vs. the Mystics, a lot of people are looking forward to a Finals match-up of the Liberty and Aces. It would assuredly be the big TV event of the WNBA’s season, already the league’s most viewed since 2008.

“Everybody waiting for this inevitable matchup between the Aces and the Liberty, it’s the exact same formula for men’s sports,” Ellie Duncan who has hosted the NCAA women’s basketball tournament for ESPN, told Newsday’s Best. “For a long time, people acted like we were trying to solve the Da Vinci Code instead of saying, ‘let’s go to the same well that makes men’s sports successful and do it the exact same way.’ And now we’re seeing that.”