The owners of the New York Liberty, one of the WNBA’s three remaining original franchises still in the same city they started off in, are putting the team up for sale. That’s of interest if you’re a WNBA fan — I’m actually a former Liberty season ticket holder, so I qualify as one of the few and the proud even if I haven’t been to see a game in the last couple of years — but also for readers of this site in general, because of what it says about the arena industry.
In brief: The Liberty are owned by James Dolan’s Madison Square Garden Co., which also owns the Knicks, the Rangers, and its namesake arena. The team, and the WNBA in general, was launched in 1997 for a bunch of overlapping reasons: to take advantage of excitement over the 1996 U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team, to fill dates in the otherwise-slow summer months (which is why the league plays outside of the traditional wintertime schedule for basketball), to make the NBA look women-friendly and provide a more affordable product to rope in fans priced out or alienated by the men’s game, and to beat down an attempt by the independent American Basketball League to horn in on the NBA’s pro hoops monopoly. The ABL was gone within a year and a half, and the Olympians were soon forgotten, but the WNBA has burbled on for another two decades, with modest attendance and revenues but remarkable longevity for a startup league, in no small thanks to the NBA’s financial backing.
That’s starting to change, though: While originally all the WNBA teams were fully owned offshoots of NBA siblings — down to teams getting sister names, like the Sacramento Monarchs to complement the Kings and the execrably named Detroit Shock to go alongside the equally-terribly-named-if-you-think-about-it Pistons — that’s starting to change, with more and more teams independently owned and operated. And the Liberty would be the biggest independent team of all once cut loose from MSG, which clearly has decided that it would rather get out of the women’s basketball game and stick to its core business of crappy men’s teams and lots and lots of concerts.
The big question for a future Liberty owner, meanwhile, is: Where are they going to play? Renting out MSG is a possibility, of course, but unless there’s some sweetheart lease deal baked into the sale agreement, it would likely be prohibitively expensive, since you’d be bidding against all those concerts. The Barclays Center in Brooklyn is another option that might come slightly cheaper, but again it’s pretty busy with concerts, even in the summer. (One problem with a basketball schedule is that it seriously restricts your flexibility for hosting concerts, which are typically booked long after a team’s home games are set in stone.) When MSG was getting renovated in the summers a few seasons back the Liberty played in Newark’s Prudential Center, but attendance was pretty bad (I picked up Stubhub seats ten rows from the court for one game for $3 apiece); Nassau Coliseum desperately needs something to fill dates, but it’s way out on Long Island.
I suppose a new Liberty owner could try to demand a new arena of their own, but that’s not going to go far when your fan base is the size of a WNBA team’s. Maybe this could all be part of the plan to build a new arena for the Islanders out by Belmont Park, something that Dolan is a part-investor in, so … I dunno, we’re deep into the tea leaves here. It’s an interesting moment, though, one that could end up revealing a lot about not only the future of women’s pro sports, but how arena managers are thinking about the relative value of sports vs. other events. I’ll have more on this soon, I hope.