If Madison Square Garden sells the Liberty, where are they going to play?

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.


34 comments on “If Madison Square Garden sells the Liberty, where are they going to play?

  1. I have to imagine that a major reason for selling the Liberty is so that they’ll stop taking up arena dates in the summer. I would think that the gym at Columbia or St. John’s would be the move, assuming the team stays in business.

    • Columbia’s gym only holds 2500, and St. John’s is impossible to get to by public transit. NYC is sorely lacking in mid-size arenas.

      • Is 5000-7000 seats a reasonable estimate for the ‘higher end’ WNBA teams attendance?

        I know some teams play to much smaller crowds than that.

        Maybe Glendale or Cincinnati will step up and issue bonds to build the Liberty their own facility.

        • I’ve certainly been at Liberty games with 10k in attendance, but that’s the exception. A 6,000-seat arena would do nicely, if New York had one. (Other than St. John’s, which is in an impossible location.)

      • St. John’s impossible to get to by public transit? You take the E or F train to Union Turnpike, then the Q46 bus for a ride that lasts about 10 minutes.

        Anyway, there must be other colleges in New York City whose audtoriums have a seating capacity that is is adequate for the WNBA.

        • That’s close to two hours from my house in Brooklyn, door to door.

          And no, there aren’t. Columbia holds 2500, CCNY 2000. Plus most of those places have alcohol restrictions that would make them unworkable.

          • I’m not sure what that proves. To get from my home on the Brooklyn/Queens border in Woodhaven to Yankee Stadium (a venue with direct subway access) would take two hours. New York is a big city; no matter what location you choose, someone’s journey is going to be two hours.

            Anyway, according to this list…

            http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/nycdata/sports/nyliberty-attendance.html

            …the Liberty average close to 10,000 per game; so St. John’s would be too small. I bet the team’s next owners will just have to decide between renting at Newark or at Nassau. And, if it came to that, perhaps Newark would have the advantage on account of the good transit access there via PATH.

          • You can get to Yankee Stadium from Woodhaven in about an hour and 20 minutes, per Google Maps.

            I’d say for most New Yorkers, “take a train to the end of the line and then get on a bus” is going to be a non-starter. St. John’s would overwhelmingly draw from Eastern Queens and Long Island, at which point you might as well just have the team play in Nassau.

          • I’m very sorry to contradict Google Maps. But for seven years I worked at an office located on the Grand Concourse near the Stadium; and I can say from experience that it takes two hours to get up there.

            The point is that, for any given point in New York City, there is some New Yorker for whom the trip would be two hours. That’s just a function of the sheer size of the city — twice the size of Philadelphia; four times the size of Washington.

            Also, I am sure you are aware that Union Turnpike is not the end of the line for the E and F trains. Though you have a point that the idea of then taking a bus is going to be a turn-off to people — even though in practice this is very easy, with signs for the Q46 inside the subway station, and buses seemingly always waiting to depart as you emerge from the train. (Here again, I know this from experience.) So the accessibility of the St. John’s location is not similar to that of the Nassau Coliseum or some new arena at Belmont Park. Getting to St. John’s is comparable to getting to anywhere else in the City that is reasonably close to the subway.

            The problem with St. John’s is not that it’s too remote, but that it’s too small. I was surprised to learn that the Liberty’s average attendance is near 10,000, even if that is down from a peak of 15,000 back in the early 2000s. There is something to be said for inducing demand by playing in a smaller venue, as the Montreal Alouettes discovered when they moved from Olympic Stadium to the smaller McGill University stadium. But, if the Liberty can average 10,000, then they would be losing too much business by playing in a 6,000-seat arena. So it’s hard to come up with a better location in the area than Newark.

            Of course, new owners might be from some other city, and they might want to move the team there. Then the NBA would have to confront whether it would allow the WNBA to not have a New York team, which seems unlikely to me.

          • The Montreal analogy is not really comparable.

            Molson stadium on Mount Royal is considered a hip/chic location while the Olympic stadium in really not (it isn’t as hated as it once was, but it’s not as convenient for downtowners to get to). It really wasn’t just about the relative capacities of the stadium, is the point.

            Having said that, since the Als (using tax dollars mostly) expanded and renovated aging Molson stadium, I don’t believe they have ever sold it out (bad teams haven’t helped, obviously).

      • Hey, neither one is perfect. Newark could be the move, I suppose. Can’t see Long Island or Brooklyn happening.

  2. I think Pistons is a pretty great name for a Detroit team. But are you certain Shock was supposed to be a tie-in? Even among the original WNBA teams–which Detroit was not one of–they didn’t all tie to their NBA counterparts. Rockers had nothing to do with Cavaliers (and is actually a far better local name thanks to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), Liberty didn’t have any connection to Knicks and Sparks had noting to do with Lakers.

  3. I’m sure the NBA owners have spent a lot of money on subsidizing the WNBA, but a good part of it’s failure to catch on has to do with lame promotion (which I have to assume the NBA itself decides on funding levels for). If you treat a sports property like it doesn’t matter then fans will develop the same view.

    It’s a problem for all sports not seen as “major league”, but from what I’ve seen the WNBA has it worse than any sport other than (possibly) the Indycar racing series. I tried to tune in to watch last year’s WNBA final, only to find that the broadcaster/carrier in my area did not have working audio… for the entire championship decider…

    Remind me of the last time this happened to MLB or the NFL?

    The basketball quality is, generally speaking, not the problem (though, as with the NBA itself, some teams are more interesting to watch than others). It is poor production values that compromise the promotion of this league, much like lack of commitment and weak promotion eventually doomed NFL Europe or some other ‘development’ leagues.

    I have always believed that one of the main reasons the USFL was able to build a reasonable tv following in it’s short lifespan was that ABC treated it like it was a top tier property and had A-list announcers and the like covering the weekly feature and playoff games.

    I would watch triple A baseball on tv if it was covered properly. Yet I struggle to watch the international feed of the actual world series when Vasgersian screams his way through the play by play…

    • I absolutely agree about the USFL. I watched many Oakland Invaders games at the Coliseum and on tv. ABC took the league and their broadcasts seriously. It was the right league at the right time.

    • I don’t disagree with your assessment with respect to the USFL and how it was treated by ABC as a broadcast property, but ABC/ESPN lacks the type of on-air talent it’d need to adequately bill it as a top-tier property. No equivalents to Keith Jackson; just a bunch of Lynn Swanns.

      Perhaps if TNT were to broadcast the WNBA it could put its considerable on-air talents behind it and give it the kind of credibility that would come with top-tier sports broadcast property status.

  4. While I can’t imagine the WNBA leaving the NY metro, this does give me a good excuse to ask why there’s still no team in Oakland — particularly since the Warriors are moving across the bay but Oracle Arena is presumably sticking around (even assuming they redevelop the rest of the Coliseum site)…

    • General viability as a business? These NBA teams aren’t selling now because the WNBA is a growing cash cow. And there are numerous cost-savings an NBA owner would enjoy that an outside owner would not–everything from marketing to price breaks on combined ad buys–plus there’s a major PR benefit to them so they’d likely be sticking it out if the WNBA was anywhere close to breaking even.

    • I wouldn’t assume Oracle would be around at all through the 2020s. They already lag behind SAP Center in hosting non-professional sports events. Seems likely it’s the Izod Center in the Bay Area arena game, too expensive to operate without a primary tenant.

  5. What about Radio City Music Hall? They’ve played there before, albeit only on a temporary basis.

  6. So…. ok, thinking outside the box a little (as Michael did above)…

    Since the WNBA is a summer league and NY has pleasant summer weather (most of the time), could an outdoor temporary stadium work?

    Again, alcohol and merch sales might be more problematic… night games might have to be scheduled very carefully… and you would have the slightly odd possibility of a basketball game being rained out…. doubleheader anyone?

    • Not from NY, but I’ve seen every episode of Barney Miller, so I feel qualified. Anyway. What about the US Open stadiums in Queens. BB courts and Tennis courts similar sized. Although Detective Harris would never go to Queens.

  7. I wonder if the USTA NTC would want to host the Liberty in their new 14000 seat retractable roof stadium to be finished in 2018. The Liberty have played in Aurthur Ashe Stadium before. It’s pretty accessible by LIRR and the 7 train. The Australian Open site uses their venues for basketball as well. The main problem with that is the US Open runs for three weeks in August and September, but the facility is essentially empty other times.

    • That’s a great idea…easily accessible and all the parking in the world, even if the Mets are home next door. They would just have to have one long road trip per year.

  8. The Pistons could have been renamed the “Hemi’s”when they moved from Fort Wayne in 1957. http://www.sportsecyclopedia.com/nba/ftwayne/fwpistons.html

  9. …”but attendance was pretty bad (I picked up Stubhub seats ten rows from the court for one game for $3 apiece); …”

    Hmmmmm, this makes sense. They’d have to pay me triple $3 to get me to watch females playing basketball that close.

    They still play 6 on 6, don’t they?

  10. Well, Wikipedia tells me the Liberty are playing:

    “For 2018, home games are primarily played at Westchester County Center in White Plains, New York, with occasional games at Madison Square Garden.”

    What do people think of that venue? It’s page says it holds 5000

    • If I’m thinking of the same place, I was there once for a Westchester Golden Apples USBL game. It feels like a good-sized high school gym.

      The remarkable thing here — okay, the remarkable thing other than making the Liberty play in a far-flung suburb where none of their fans live — is that MSG is doing this even before waiting to sell the team. Are a few more concerts really worth that much?

      • And the Warriors execs have said they’d like to add a WNBA team after San Francisco’s Chase Center is built.
        I’m curious how concerts and women’s hoops will be received. A number of minor league teams have failed in SF proper ( hockey teams Bulls and Deltas, soccer team Deltas, lacrosse team Dragons — the women’s soccer teams CyberRays and FC Gold Pride flopped outside the City). Wonder if they’d chase the women out of their arena?