Liberty's move to Nets' Barclays Center will provide a boost for entire WNBA

Cassandra Negley
May 9, 2019; New York City, NY, USA; The China National Team warms up before a preseason WNBA game against the New York Liberty at Barclays Center.  Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
The New York Liberty are officially making the Barclays Center home in 2020. (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)

The New York Liberty made their move to Brooklyn official on Thursday in what will be a massive positive impact on the league as a whole.

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The Liberty, one of the W’s eight original franchises, have been preparing for this moment for the past year. They were shuffled out to the city suburbs in 2018 by previous ownership in a move that forced the league’s attendance to plummet. Joseph Tsai bought the team and when he took on over full ownership of the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center it almost guaranteed the team’s new home.

David Levy, CEO of the Nets and Barclays Center and president of J Tsai Sports, said in a statement relocating the team was a commitment to its “long-term success in New York” and provides it with “tremendous opportunity.”

"With many of our fans based in the five boroughs, moving to Barclays Center will make the Liberty more centrally located, allowing us to bring back the original fan base and attract new supporters. The venue change, along with the first pick in the 2020 WNBA draft, has positioned the team for an exciting future."

The move is big not only for Liberty fans, but for fans of basketball in general. WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said it was a “key to driving the league to the next level.” The first-year leader couldn’t be more correct. It will immediately boost attendance back up after a record low in 2018 and create more NBA-WNBA connections.

Liberty, league attendance will shoot back up

The Liberty saw a 71.5 percent decline in average attendance from 2017 to 2018, per Sports Business Daily, out of necessity and it skewed the league’s numbers as a whole. The Liberty averaged 9,889 fans in 2017, nearly filling its set capacity at MSG and staying consistent with previous levels. James Dolan pushed them out to the Westchester County Center 30 miles away in White Plains that offseason when he announced the team was up for sale. The team spent most of its franchise history at MSG.

In Westchester, a small New York City suburb, the capacity was a league-worst 2,319 and the arena was not set up for basketball, let alone professional level games in the country’s most populous city. They went from 168,107 total fans to 38,067 and it wasn’t only because the team was losing. Lifelong fans suddenly had a difficult commute to see the Liberty and on week nights that makes it even more difficult to rationalize attending over watching TV. The arena was rarely sold out.

League-wide the 2017 attendance number was the largest in six years and the 2018 numbers were a record low. It dropped due to the Liberty’s attendance being cut to a third of what it was — the team averaged 2,823 in ’18 and 2,239 in ’19 — and teams such as the Washington Mystics moving into smaller homes.

Barclays will open the lower bowl for a capacity of 8,000 that can expand if needed. One regular season game against the Seattle Storm was held at Barclays in 2019 and drew 7,715 fans. It’s easy to imagine if reigning MVP Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird were playing, the number would be higher. Stewart is a Syracuse, New York, native — though it is 4-5 hours away — and starred up the coast at UConn.

Many teams are cutting capacity as they seek personal venues that create a more raucous atmosphere while preventing any issues with scheduling around other teams and concerts, especially in the postseason. But none have done so as drastically as that move. The Mystics had an attendance drop from 6,133 at Capital One Arena to 4,456 at the new Entertainment & Sports Arena but sold out most games and provided a quality atmosphere that the Liberty’s Westchester digs couldn’t.

Liberty will benefit from location, Nets

In May Tsai told the Associated Press it was his job to grow the fan base as a “foundation of everything” and that included hopefully bringing the team to Brooklyn. When he became the sole owner of the Nets and Barclays, it seemed destined the Liberty would jump even though they did look at other venues. The team already relocated players housing and practice facilities to Brooklyn ahead of the 2019 schedule.

Liberty COO Keia Clarke told The Athletic’s Erica Ayala:

“We’re really, really excited about planting roots in Brooklyn and finally landing on a home. Overall, I think the Brooklyn community and being back in the boroughs is great for our business. from a marketing standpoint, from attracting partners, and obviously for for bringing Liberty basketball back to more of our fans.”

Clarke told ESPN the Liberty and Nets will share assets and the staff will have offices at the Nets’ training facility. It’s a move that makes sense seeing as they’re now under the same ownership. We saw how that has worked in Washington, where the title-winning Mystics and NBA’s Wizards are doing the same. That relationship is a two-way one.

An added benefit for the WNBA as it continues to fight to be seen is top-tier NBA players such as Bradley Beal and John Wall talking about their counterparts when and how it matters most. The Nets are among the most talked about NBA teams heading into the regular season after landing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

The Liberty are setting themselves up to win by placing a professional basketball team in a professional setting that will allow them to shine, sell themselves and, as a result, hopefully put up a winning record again. They’re 17-57 over the past two years and let go of head coach Katie Smith earlier this week, but things are looking better ahead of 2020.

The Liberty won the first pick of the draft and can take Oregon star point guard Sabrina Ionescu. The move to Brooklyn is pivotal in that regard since Ionescu is already a national name and her presence will do more in Barclays than in Westchester for both the Liberty and the league. Putting any top pick in a professional setting, rather than one falling apart, puts the entire WNBA in a position to succeed. It will also be a marketing boost for a league that struggles at it and will have to figure out a plan for it in the Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations.

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