Liberty's end: how a great New York team was banished to the suburbs

Anya Alvarez
The Guardian

The New York Liberty are one of the WNBA’s most popular teams. So why have they been kicked out of Madison Square Garden?

<span class="element-image__caption">The New York Liberty, led by All-Star center <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/wnba/players/4613/" data-ylk="slk:Tina Charles">Tina Charles</a>, will play home games at the Westchester County Center, a far cry from the glare of Madison Square Garden.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Mingo Nesmith/AP</span>
The New York Liberty, led by All-Star center Tina Charles, will play home games at the Westchester County Center, a far cry from the glare of Madison Square Garden. Photograph: Mingo Nesmith/AP

When the New York Liberty play their home opener on Friday night, they will take the court at the Westchester County Center in White Plains, New York. A far cry from their familiar home court of Madison Square Garden, one of the most famous sports venues in the United States.

The Liberty, one of the WNBA’s charter franchises that first played at MSG in 1997, is historically one of the most popular teams in the league. Some of basketball’s most decorated players have dotted their roster down the years, including Swin Cash (now the team’s director of franchise development for the Liberty), seven-time All-Star Cappie Pondexter who has played in seven WNBA All Star games, Hall of Famer Rebecca Lobo, and Becky Hammon, who is now an assistant coach with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs and who recently became the first woman to interview for a head coaching position with an NBA team.

So why the move? First, the team’s owner, the Madison Square Garden Company helmed by James Dolan, wanted to sell the Liberty (the sale process is still ongoing and the current owners continue to operate the team.) But it was soon revealed the team, whose home schedule takes place almost entirely during the summer months when the Garden is unoccupied by the Knicks or Rangers, would have to kick it to the suburbs – a move that prompted Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer to threaten the loss of MSG’s property tax abatement, which saves the company $50m annually.

What’s clear is the Liberty’s owners don’t have interest in fully promoting the team. By moving them 30 miles outside of Manhattan to an arena that only holds 5,000 spectators shows a lack of commitment to growing a team that has already experienced steady growth.

The move simply doesn’t make sense. The Liberty averaged about 10,000 people for home games last year and ranked fourth in the league in attendance. According to sports economist David Berri, the math simply doesn’t add up.

“In 2017 the Liberty, led by All-Star Tina Charles, attracted 9,899 fans per game at Madison Square Garden. The Westchester County Center, though, only seats 5,000 fans. So, if the Liberty played in Westchester last season there would have been 83,107 fewer fans at Liberty games in 2017,” Berri told Forbes.

The Liberty aren’t the only WNBA team that will be downsizing their home venue in 2018. The Washington Mystics, who play out of the Capitol One Arena in the nation’s capital, are moving to a venue that only hosts 4,200 fans despite drawing an average of 7,711 fans per game last year.

“Had the Mystics played at this new arena in 2017 they would have seen 60,712 fewer fans (overall),” Berri said.

Berri is was dismayed at the decision for the team to move away from its core fanbase. “I think such a move sends the wrong message,” he said in a conversation with the Guardian. “People tend to focus on attendance as the mark of the league’s health. Deliberately making it lower sends a signal the league is struggling (when it is not).”

In fact, the WNBA overall has seen a steady uptick of attendance as well as viewership.

In 2017, the WNBA saw its largest turnout to games since 2011, averaging over 7,500 spectators per game. In addition, during the playoffs the WNBA had an plus-8% increase in viewership on ESPN and ESPN2.

Even the telecast for the WNBA draft which aired on ESPN2 and ESPNU had a 25% increase in viewership from the year before.

With all of these positive metrics, why move a popular team to the suburbs? Why not look at ways to invest more into the fanbase that already attends games, and in a city that has a population of 8.5m people? Why make it more difficult for existing fans to attend games?

Laureen Irat, who runs BeyondtheW, a media company dedicated to all WNBA news, said of the move: “There is so much history that the Liberty have made at MSG as being one of the inaugural teams in the league, and part of a handful that are left. I also think the timing of it what was what made it a bit confusing.”

According to Irat, the timing of the move did not make sense. “The team has been to the playoffs in the four seasons. Their franchise player, Tina Charles, was a runner up for MVP and their team has the current Sixth Woman of the Year, Sugar Rodgers. To me personally, given these circumstances, it seems like they had already made their decision before the season ended.”

However, Irat feels hopeful that the current level of talent on the team will withstand the move. “This group of women are talented, focused, and tenacious enough to play at a high level in any setting and under any circumstance. The goal is to get a championship, and they’ll do whatever it takes to achieve that,” Irat said.

Perhaps the best thing that can happen for the Liberty though is to find owners who will value them. And hopefully the team will find itself playing again at Madison Square Garden at a venue worthy of the talent on the team, and a venue worthy for their fans.

What to Read Next