When the New York Liberty was founded in 1997 as one of eight inaugural teams in the WNBA, the team played its games in Madison Square Garden (MSG), possibly the most famous basketball venue in the world. In 2018, however, the Liberty only played a whopping two games in MSG. Instead, the Liberty hosted opposing teams at the Westchester County Center (WCC) in White Plains, N.Y.
Two seasons ago, the Liberty were owned by Madison Square Garden, Inc. and its controversial Executive Chairman and CEO James Dolan, also the owners of the New York Knicks. At this time, Dolan announced his desire to sell the team, and a year later moved the Liberty to the WCC, where the operating costs for a game are 20 times less than at MSG. (StarTribune, “A year later, the New York Liberty still for sale,” 11.16.2018). This move makes sense at first, as the Liberty were plagued with low attendance during their stint at MSG, until you look both at the cause of the problem and the consequences of the solution.
First, the cause of the problem: MSG was losing money due to of low attendance. But what causes low attendance? It’s definitely not that women’s games are less exciting than their male counterparts. Anyone who has watched a WNBA game in person would be hard-pressed to admit that the level of game-play or the general energy of the match is anything but thrilling, and it definitely does not fall below the quality of the Knicks (who are currently the WORST team in the NBA—yikes—but still sell out MSG most games). So then, I guess, we have to fall back on good old-fashioned sexism. And sexism in the WNBA has long been an obvious problem.
I am often reminded of this when I dare to look at the comments of pictures that the WNBA posts on Instagram, which never fail to overflow with exceptionally creative responses like “go make me a sandwich.” We as a society, and as a Vassar community, should be livid at these blatant expressions of bigotry. And the WNBA should be, as well. It should not tolerate these messages on its social media, and should block these hateful commenters. Their failure to do so signals a larger problem, which is also the cause of the move to the WCC: The WNBA fails to support its own players.
Many know about the discrepancy between WNBA and NBA wages. The 2018 first overall draft pick for the WNBA, A’ja Wilson, was paid $52,564 for her rookie season. Meanwhile, Deandre Ayton, the first overall pick the same year in the NBA, made $6.8 million. The WNBA set the 2018 salary cap at $110,000, while the NBA capped teams at $101,869 million for the 2018–19 season (Grandstand Central, “Yes, the WNBA Wage Gap is a Real Thing,” 07.13.2018). The WNBA also pays its players only 20 percent of revenue, while the NBA pays its players 50 percent. The WNBA owes these women more (literally and morally), and by refusing to pay them, they signal to the world that WNBA is not worth watching.
The WNBA also loses essential talent by failing to pay, as many athletes play overseas in the off-season, where they are paid significantly more. In 2015, Diana Taurasi, seven-time All Star and 2009 league MVP, sat out the WNBA season because the team she played for in Russia paid her more to not play than the WNBA would pay her to play. And on April 14, Breanna Stewart, the 2018 MVP, ruptured her Achilles tendon while playing in the EuroLeague, which will cause her to miss the 2019 WNBA season. I repeat—the WNBA owes these women more.
ESPN will be showing a total 16 WNBA games this season (and only two of those on actual ESPN, three on ABC and the remaining on ESPN2). Not a single one of those games will showcase the Liberty. The WNBA did sign a new TV deal with CBS that will showcase 40 games, which is a step forward, but not nearly enough. It is hard to imagine interest in the team growing with few new eyes having the opportunity to see the games.
The point I’m trying to make is that, as we know, sexism is not just pathetic trolls on the internet. It is a systemic undervaluation of women and woman athletes, propagated by lack of advertisements, lack of airtime and lack of supportive structures surrounding the WNBA. These women deserve better. A severe undervaluation of the Liberty caused the move to the WCC, and the consequence of the move is the creation of a self-fulfilling prophecy that only serves to confirm the doubts of people who hate women’s sports: that they are unpopular and not worth watching.
I had the opportunity to go to a Liberty game this summer. They were playing against my home team, the Phoenix Mercury, and for the Mercury, I made the trek up to the WCC. The first problem: I was staying in the Bronx and it took me over an HOUR to get there. The second problem: When I finally did, I was shocked to see that the stadium itself felt like a high school gym.
The average attendance of the Liberty in 2017 was approximately 10,000 people per game, making them the fourth most attended team in the league. But the WCC was only configured to seat 2,319 people, approximately four times fewer than what the Liberty were seating in the 2017 season (StarTribune). The move inherently undermines the fan base and the team. As a result, the Liberty now have the lowest attendance in the league. In the 2018 season, the Liberty had a 7–27 record, the worst in franchise history. It would be ridiculous to ignore the impact the move to the WCC had on the team. The WCC is home to the Westchester Knicks, the minor league NBA affiliate of the New York Knicks. But the Liberty are not a minor league team, and they should not be treated like one.
It’s hard to not see the move to the WCC as a direct sabotage of the Liberty, in a time when the owners did in fact have the means to support the team (Dolan’s net worth is $1.5 billion). Thankfully, the team was sold to Joe Tsai earlier this year, a 49 percent owner of the Brooklyn Nets (WNBA, “WNBA Announces Sale of Liberty to Joe Tsai,” 01.23.19). While the Liberty are confirmed to continue playing at the WCC in the 2019 season, there is hope of a new home at Barclays Center (home of the Nets) in its future.
The Liberty have been grossly disrespected by the move to the WCC, which seems to be both a representation and symptom of a larger problem in society and in the WNBA. If the WNBA does not support these women, how can they expect the public to?
What we truly need is a cultural change. We need people to stop disparaging and start respecting women’s sports. But while it may be difficult to change the culture, we can all do our part. We owe it to these women to show them that New York has not given up on them. As the Vassar community, we know the importance of showing up. But most importantly, I assure you, the excitement and energy of women’s basketball is intoxicating.
So, if you will be in New York City this summer, I urge you to show your support for the Liberty. Try to make the trip to Westchester and experience the game for yourself, or if you happen to find yourself somewhere else this summer, attend a local WNBA game—go find your new home team!