MSG evicts Liberty, local official threatens to respond by pulling arena’s tax break

Back when Madison Square Garden announced it was putting the New York Liberty up for sale last fall, I wondered where the team would play once offloaded, noting that Brooklyn’s Barclays Center is pretty booked up with concerts, and Newark’s Prudential Center was pretty much an attendance disaster when the Liberty played there during MSG renovations a few years back. But even I didn’t count on MSG giving the Liberty the boot as soon as this season — while it still owns the team — and relegating games to a tiny community gym in suburban Westchester County:

For the upcoming season, the team will be downgraded to the Westchester Community Center, a dinky, 5,000 seat arena in White Plains, New York. The New York Liberty often had 10,000 attendees during their 2017 season home games.

The Liberty will actually play two home games at the Garden this year, but both will start at 11 am, presumably so that the arena can be cleared out in time to hold yet another Billy Joel concert or whatever in the evening. The rest will be in White Plains, in a space where I have been once in my lifetime as a New Yorker, for a White Plains Golden Apples USBL game in the 1980s of which I have precisely two memories: seeing Spud Webb pass to Manute Bol, which was extremely similar to watching someone hand things up to a man on a ladder; and the daunting challenge of getting a Metro-North commuter train to White Plains, then walking to the arena, and that was when I still lived in Manhattan, where the trains at least leave from.

Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer, who also lives in Manhattan, is nonetheless hopping mad about New York City’s only pro women’s sports team (no, Sky Blue F.C. doesn’t count as in New York City, and roller derby doesn’t count as a pro sport) getting exiled to the ‘burbs. Brewer is mad enough, in fact, that she’s threatening to hit MSG where it hurts, by repealing their eternal tax exemption on the Garden that is now saving them (and costing the city) $42 million a year:

“I and many of my colleagues in the City Council and State Legislature have never been convinced that this abatement constitutes good policy,” Brewer wrote.

“Shameful actions like this one, banishing a popular women’s professional sports team where its fan base cannot reach it, do not help your case.”

That’s a fine enough point, but, uh, Gale, you’re not actually on the city council or in the state legislature. And it’s actually the latter of those that has jurisdiction over the tax break, which was extended in 1982 in exchange for the Knicks and Rangers promising not to move for at least ten years, and which never expired because then-mayor Ed Koch forgot to have someone write in an expiration date.

A more viable threat by city officials, if Brewer wants to go that route, would be responding to MSG evicting the Liberty by in turn evicting MSG: The World’s Most Famous Arena only has the right to sit atop the entombed remnants of Penn Station thanks to a special zoning permit from the city, and that is set to expire in 2023. I’ve been skeptical that the city would give an entire arena and three (now two) pro sports teams the heave-ho, even in order to build a new Penn Station entrance, but maybe angry WNBA fans will be the catalyst? Okay, probably not, but at least it’d be a more realistic thing for Brewer to grandstand on.


16 comments on “MSG evicts Liberty, local official threatens to respond by pulling arena’s tax break

  1. Wouldn’t Nassau Coliseum be a more viable option with its reduced seating capacity?

    Then again, the WNBA must be bleeding money, so White Plains must be very cheap.

    • Nassau is run by the Barclays Center people, so that would be giving money to the enemy.

      No idea why they didn’t go back to Newark, which would at least be marginally better than this. Or why they did this before selling the team — seems to be killing the franchise market value before the sale. Though it’s always possible they’re trying to kill local fandom so they can sell to another city without provoking as much outrage.

      • Just spitballing, Neil, and you’d probably know better…but this being the same building where the D/G/Whatever-League Knicks team plays, would they already have an arrangement here that allows them to add dates more easily than those other buildings?

      • I think the reason MSG hasn’t sold the team yet is because the current enterprise value on a sale would like be less than $0, meaning that the purchase price would be less than the amount of debt on the team.

      • Newark might have been too expensive. Based on the reduced attendance when they were there last, Prudential could make more with a few concerts or even save money being dark.

        Rutgers Athletic Center or St John’s campus might have been options.

        • Good point, Steve. Especially like the St. John’s idea. Access to subways for people who would travel that way, still in the city, probably better facilities than Westchester. Snobby Long Islander here, but RAC is as out of the way as Westchester for anyone from the area.

  2. Neil, the NYDN describes the tax abatement as being “up for renewal” in a few years.

    Is that accurate?
    If so, is that the reason there was no formal expiry date (because it has to be renewed every decade or whatever) included in the original agreement?

    If nothing else (consider the source), the linked article is worth reading just to see the picture of Dolan these days… never thought anything could make Mark Davis look like leadership material…

    • … nevermind, your Voice article explains it in more detail… and is very good even though it doesn’t feature pictures of Dolan trying to impersonate a down-on-his-luck George Lucas…

      • Yeah, the tax abatement is forever, the special zoning permit is up for renewal.

        Also, if you really want to be terrified by James Dolan, try this on for size:

        www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gpW2T3gIbY

        • I would but…. invisible link ink and all.

          IIRC, you said/suggested some time ago that the real reason for the MSG investment in the Garden wasn’t so much to generate more money (IE: they almost certainly won’t make their investment back over 10 years), or to improve the patron experience (insert Dolan Management joke here). Rather, it was to improve Dolan’s negotiating position should the city cancel or refuse to renew their special zoning/existence permit?

          Is the city/taxpayer on the hook for any of the cost for the teams to move if they do refuse to renew in 2023?

          I’m sure that Dolan would probably sue claiming his “$1bn” investment etc. Does the agreement actually specify any liability on the part of the city whenever the teams are given the bum’s rush?

          • Okay, I think I succeeded in getting the link to show up. No need to thank me, as will become clear once you’ve watched it.

            I don’t remember saying anything about improving their negotiating position on the special permit. And there’s no penalty for canceling the permit, because they’re not canceling it, just not renewing it — it’s like a lease that’s expiring.

            The main leverage Dolan would have would be to cry that the Knicks and Rangers were being forced to move. If New York elected officials had any sense, they’d say, “Sure, we’ll let you stay if you start paying taxes, or else rent,” but keep in mind that this is a jurisdiction that accidentally handed out a permanent tax exemption in 1982 and hasn’t been able to figure out how to take it back, so we’re not talking especially bright lights here.

  3. Side note: the New York Empire of World Team Tennis, who play their home matches at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow Park, count as women’s pro sports in New York City. Each WTT match contains sets of women’s singles and women’s doubles, as well as sets of men’s singles, men’s doubles, and mixed doubles.

  4. What’s so “daunting” about getting a train to White Plains?
    Grand Central is easy to find, trains to WP run once an hour then
    you get to enjoy the scenery of the Bronx River Reservation on
    the way. Half mile walk to WCC and you’re in.
    Reverse the process back to the island.
    Going to Westchester isn’t so hard to do, even for a Manhattanite
    or Woody Allen.

    • It takes close to an hour just for the train to get to White Plains, and that’s not counting travel time to/from Grand Central. For me (living in Brooklyn, working in lower Manhattan), it would take about an hour and 15 minutes to get from my office to a game in White Plains, and then probably two full hours getting back home afterwards. That’s not something I’m going to do on a regular basis. (And I’m a former Liberty season ticket holder.)