In January, Clara Wu Tsai flew to Turkey on a trip that would change the balance of power in the WNBA
Wu Tsai, who owns the Liberty with her husband Joe Tsai, went there in the offseason to chase Briana Stewart, the most coveted free agent. Accompanied by the team’s coach and general manager, Wu Tsai pitched to Stewart midway through the Euroleague season with the Istanbul squad.
But Wu Tsai made a final push, leaving the rest of the team behind. She rented an 80-foot pleasure boat and took Stewart, his wife, Marta Sergei, and their one-year-old daughter, Ruby, on a cruise. Wu Tsai, gliding over the Bosphorus, involved two-time League Player of the Year Stewart with questions.
“It was just her curiosity that fascinated me,” Stewart told me in an interview earlier this month. “She wanted to know what I needed to do to be my best and what she needed as a player. She wanted to improve the league just like I did. I know you are.”
After many days cryptic tweetsStewart announced Feb. 1 that he will join Liberty’s roster, which also includes 2021 league MVP Jonkel Jones, to play alongside 2022 All-Star guard Sabrina Ionescu. Four-time All-Star guard Courtney Vandersloot joined the team the day after Stewart, forming a mega-team built to take on the defending champion Las Vegas Aces. This is a Super Squad in its own right, with the addition of two-time MVP Candace Parker this off-season. -season.
“It’s great that so many players move to different teams, because we play for the same team, we run a lot, and not only are we on this continuous course, but we’re going to shake things up. said Stewart. “It’s making headlines. But there’s something more. Free agency also puts pressure on owners to compete for us.”
Tsai’s multi-billion dollar wealth comes largely from Joe’s leadership role at Chinese tech giant Alibaba, and the players are attracting the attention of a group of team owners eager to invest in the WNBA’s free agency. We are at the forefront of the arms race.
In Atlanta, Dream’s Larry Gottesdiner, founder of the real estate private equity firm, he said he was going to spend $100 million to lead your team to success. Mark Davis, who also owns the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders, recently built a 64,000-square-foot training facility for the ace and signed coach Becky Hammon to a record-breaking $1 million-a-year contract last season. is. (On Tuesday, the WNBA suspended Hammon two games for speaking to All-Star forward Dearika Humby about her pregnancy. The league claimed the remarks violated its respectful workplace policy. The league also acquired a round draft pick to promise an unrecognized benefit to the Humvees during contract negotiations, which initially overturned the team’s 2025 suspension. )
The team was bottoming out in the final stages of James Dolan’s ownership when Tsai bought Liberty in 2019. The franchise reached the finals in three of the WNBA’s first four seasons, but was relegated from Madison Square Garden to the 2,300-seat Westchester County Center in 2017 and 2018.
After moving the team to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, which is owned by the Tsais and also plays the other team, the NBA’s Nets, the couple set out to provide the Liberty with the same amenities as the men’s team. His eight-person performance staff includes multiple trainers, sports psychologists and nutritionists. A private chef prepares meals before and after practices and games. Athletes recuperate in brand new thermotherapy tubs.
Like other teams in the WNBA, the Liberty fly commercials to away games for most of the season. They huddle in cramped seats and endure the same delays, transfers and cancellations that we do.
Tsai resented the limitations. So in 2021, he paid for the Liberty’s private jet and hid it from the league until the team was busted. The result was a $500,000 fine, the highest in league history. Probably not irrelevant. In 2021, the Liberty made the playoffs for the first time in five years and will repeat the feat in 2022.
Although the fines were high, Tsai was a vocal advocate that travel conditions must evolve. For now, the league has agreed to partial changes, allowing teams to use charter flights for a handful of games during the playoffs and regular season.
It became an important point of agreement for Wu Tsai and Stewart during their voyage conversation. The players’ union vice president, Stewart, is also one of the most vocal proponents of charter flights in the league, which she said was a factor influencing the free agency decision.
Over coffee at a Manhattan restaurant in early May, Wu Tsai, a self-proclaimed “hoophead” who grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, told Stewart he sensed a similar spirit. “It was clear that our interests were aligned,” said Wu Tsai about the Liberty withdrawal and the WNBA’s potential transformation.
When asked about his travel matchup with the league, Wu Tsai paused, took a deep breath, and carefully evaluated his comments. “I don’t think you can have the best product out there if you don’t take your health and wellness seriously,” she said, declining to elaborate.
It should be noted that Tsai has a complicated history. Few team owners in any sport have given so much to social justice, including providing $50 million to help economically distressed communities after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. not present. But Alibaba It has been criticized for violating human rights in China through business relationships with Chinese companies. And Tsai once called Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement a “separatist movement,” echoing the words of the Chinese government.
The world of sports is not without contradictions.
What can be said about Tsai is that support for them in the league’s form is widespread among players. The charter plane problem is perhaps the most prominent litmus test. Stewart, for example, will only play on a team that pushes this issue to the best of its ability throughout the season until it becomes a reality.
she is not alone.
“Sometimes two things are true at the same time,” Jones says. “If you look at this, what they’ve done with these charters is clearly an unfair advantage. Also, take a step back and say, ‘Oh, at least they’re making sure they care about their players.’ You can also think that I was confirming that it was done. Tsai sent a strong signal of how much this means to them. “
“They treat us like professionals.”