Today’s guest columnists are the New York Liberty’s governor, Clara Wu Tsai, and team CEO Keia Clarke. This column is part of Sportico’s five-day series taking a look inside Joe Tsai’s and BSE Global’s sports ventures.
Anniversaries are often a time of reflection, both a remembrance and celebration of just how far we have come. For the New York Liberty, an original WNBA team, this look back at 25 years evokes even more emotion. In this commemorative year, the culmination of the postponed 2020 Olympics, the final stretch of the second-straight WNBA regular season affected by COVID-19, and the responsibility to honor those who paved the way in the early days of the league have all created a time of reflection and gratitude.
During the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, our country witnessed greatness on U.S. soil, when the Women’s National Basketball Team dominated the world and went undefeated to win gold. They trained for 10 months in preparation for the moment, but these women, pioneers in their own right, became the catalyst for establishing much more, a league to call their own.
Before the Atlanta Games, young girls in the United States didn’t have a professional basketball league to aspire to. There had been several failed leagues before the WNBA, but its formation represented a fresh start, an intentional venture to show what was possible when you invest in the greatest women basketball players in the world. In the beginning, it was NBA governors who stepped up and spotlighted women in a way that we had not seen before in team sports.
The measure of success in women’s sports has often been gauged solely by the expectation and desire for positive financial return. In recent times, however, it has become glaringly evident that the strongest business leaders understand the cause and effect of a quality workforce, a positive culture, a commitment to social justice, and the importance of achieving equality.
Good business is about people. And in the case of professional sports, the people are also the product. The WNBA as a league, with New York at the forefront, has been a walking protest since its inception. In a league that is 80% Black, and includes many queer and proud players, the WNBA is a movement within itself.
Equity was the blueprint when the Liberty was acquired in January 2019 by the Tsai family. In a short time, and despite the effects of COVID-19, the team has witnessed several franchise-shifting improvements. First, a new home at Barclays Center in the heart of Brooklyn, an arena the team shares with the Brooklyn Nets. Then, a state-of-the-art locker room compound built by a group of female contractors, architects and designers. The front office staff more than doubled, with dedicated business leads within each vertical, and additional support through shared services with the Nets. For us, these short-term, tangible efforts made for long-term intangible gains.
The Fan Project, an extensive study by Sports Innovation Lab, further supports the good that comes from investing in women’s sports. Notably, fans of women’s sports are loyal to brands who invest in this space at much higher rates than general sports fans, and reward those sponsors with immediate engagement and spend.
This research also found that societal topics drive conversation and, more importantly, increase viewership. This has been the case in New York and the WNBA alike, with average viewership up 68% following the 2020 “Bubble Season,” which was dedicated to raising awareness for the #SayHerName Campaign and fighting for justice for Breonna Taylor.
The best part of celebrating 25 years is witnessing, game in and game out, fans who want to represent their community. The league’s iconic Orange Hoodie and the growing retail support, as the Liberty quickly rose to No. 1 in WNBA merchandise sales following the selection of the team’s 2020 first overall draft pick, Sabrina Ionescu, are both indicators that fans want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
On the court, WNBA players are competing at a higher, more skilled level than ever before. The basketball has evolved with higher scoring, pace and overall entertainment value. The elite talent and revived dominance that began during those 1996 Olympics continues today in watching the WNBA—the best women athletes in the world.
In New York, it is still early in the process, but we are seeing the dividends of that cause-and-effect relationship between investing and positive outcomes. In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, Liberty media coverage increased more than 24% year-over-year. The official move to Brooklyn in 2021 also presented new opportunities for partner investment and alignment. Brands in new categories, such as Empire BlueCross BlueShield, HelloFresh, Talkspace, LVMH and Withings, rose to the occasion, strengthening the case for increased funding.
The time to invest in women’s sports was yesterday. Betting on women is no longer enough. It’s time to raise the stakes and commit equitable resources that result in better economics and conditions.
To survive and thrive for another 25 years, corporate investment must be greater, national media coverage must be broader, and overall fan support must continue to grow. Simply put, the future success of the WNBA is a responsibility that we all share.
Who’s got next?
Liberty governor Clara Wu Tsai is a businesswoman, investor and philanthropist. Through the Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation, she pursues philanthropic investments that advance knowledge, innovation, creativity in the arts and social justice.
As CEO of the Liberty, Keia Clarke leads and manages all business aspects of the organization, including strategic planning, revenue, P&L and operations. Clarke works closely with stakeholders on key elements of team business, including growing the fan base, maximizing sales and fan engagement, and improving business performance.
Inside BSE Global: A Sportico Series
- Monday: How Joe Tsai and His ‘Rag Tag Team’ Are Building a Sports Empire
- Tuesday: Sports Industry Must Bridge Gap to Tap Talents of Military Vets
- Wednesday: New York Liberty’s First 25 Years Light the Way for Women’s Sports
- Thursday: Nets Extending Long Rebound With Focus on Youth and Tech
- Friday: Wayne Gretzky: Why I’m Investing in Lacrosse