In January, Clara Wu Tsai flew to Turkey on a journey that altered the steadiness of energy within the WNBA
Wu Tsai, who owns the Liberty along with her husband, Joe Tsai, went there to chase Breanna Stewart, the low season’s most coveted free agent. Accompanied by her group’s coach and common supervisor, Wu Tsai pitched Stewart in the midst of her Euroleague season with a group in Istanbul.
But Wu Tsai left the remainder of the group’s brass behind as she made the ultimate push. She rented an 80-foot tour boat and took Stewart, Stewart’s spouse, Marta Xargay, and the couple’s 1-year-old daughter, Ruby, for a cruise. Gliding via the Bosporus, Wu Tsai reeled in Stewart, the two-time league most respected participant, with questions.
“It was simply her curiosity that grabbed me,” Stewart instructed me throughout an interview this month. “She wished to know what I wanted, what we wanted as gamers, to carry out at our greatest. I might see she wished to enhance the league as a lot as I do.”
After days of cryptic tweets, Stewart introduced on Feb. 1 that she would be a part of a Liberty roster that had additionally added Jonquel Jones, the 2021 league MVP, to play alongside guard Sabrina Ionescu, a 2022 All-Star. The four-time All-Star guard Courtney Vandersloot inked with the group the day after Stewart, forming a megateam constructed to cope with the defending champion Las Vegas Aces — a supersquad in its personal proper that added two-time MVP Candace Parker this off. – season.
“Having a lot of gamers go to completely different groups is nice as a result of it is shaking issues up the place we’re not simply on this steady observe, working over and over, enjoying for a similar groups,” Stewart mentioned. “It’s creating a buzz. But there’s one thing extra. Free company additionally provides strain on the house owners to compete for us.”
The Tsais, whose multibillion greenback wealth comes primarily from Joe’s management function with the Chinese tech big Alibaba, sits on the forefront of the WNBA’s free-agent arms race, the place gamers benefit from the consideration of a group of group house owners keen to make investments.
In Atlanta, the Dream’s Larry Gottesdiener, founding father of a actual property personal fairness agency, mentioned he deliberate to spend $100 million to flip the group into a success. Mark Davis, who additionally owns the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders, not too long ago constructed a 64,000-square-foot coaching facility for the Aces and final season signed Coach Becky Hammon to a document contract price $1 million yearly. (On Tuesday, the WNBA suspended Hammon for 2 video games for feedback she made to All-Star ahead Dearica Hamby about her being pregnant, which the league mentioned violated its coverage on respect within the office. The league additionally rescinded the group’s 2025 for first- spherical draft decide for promising Hamby impermissible advantages throughout contract negotiations.)
When the Tsais purchased the Liberty in 2019, the group had bottomed out over the last levels of James Dolan’s possession. The franchise had made the finals in three of the WNBA’s first 4 seasons however was pushed out of Madison Square Garden to the two,300-seat Westchester County Center for 2017 and ’18.
After shifting the group to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, which the Tsais personal and the place their different group — the NBA’s Nets — additionally play, the couple set out to give the Liberty facilities equal to their male counterparts. There’s an eight-person efficiency employees — a number of trainers, a sports activities psychologist and a nutritionist. An in-house chef prepares meals earlier than and after practices and video games. Players recuperate in brand-new scorching and chilly remedy tubs.
Like each different group within the WNBA, the Liberty fly industrial to away video games for many of the season. They huddle in cramped seats and endure delays, transfers and cancellations like the remainder of us.
Tsai bristled on the limitation. So in 2021, he paid for the Liberty to use personal jets, then shielded that truth from the league till the group was caught. The consequence: a $500,000 superb, the most important in league historical past. Perhaps not unrelated: In 2021, the Liberty made the playoffs for the primary time in 5 years and then repeated that feat in 2022.
The superb was steep, however a level was made by the Tsais, loud and clear: Travel situations should evolve. For now, the league has settled on a partial change, permitting groups to constitution flights for the playoffs and a small variety of video games through the common season.
It was a key level of settlement for Wu Tsai and Stewart throughout that nautical dialog. Stewart, a vp of the gamers’ union, has additionally been one of many league’s most vocal proponents for chartered flights, a issue she mentioned performed into her free company choice.
Over espresso at a Manhattan restaurant in early May, Wu Tsai — a self-described “hoop head” who grew up in Lawrence, Kan. — mentioned she sees in Stewart a kindred spirit. “It was clear our pursuits have been aligned on the potential” for lifting the Liberty and altering the WNBA, Wu Tsai mentioned.
Asked concerning the journey contretemps with the league, Wu Tsai paused, took a breath, and measured her feedback fastidiously. “I do not assume you possibly can put your greatest product on the ground should you’re not likely targeted on well being and wellness,” she mentioned, declining to elaborate.
The Tsais, it should be famous, have a complicated historical past. Few group house owners in any sport have given as a lot help to social justice, together with $50 million to increase economically distressed communities following the homicide of George Floyd in 2020. But Alibaba has been criticized for enterprise ties with Chinese corporations mentioned to violate human rights in China. . And Tsai as soon as referred to as pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong a “separatist motion,” echoing language from Beijing.
The world of sports activities is hardly immune from contradiction.
What can be mentioned of the Tsais is that help for the way they’re advancing situations within the league is widespread amongst gamers. The constitution planes subject is maybe probably the most salient litmus check. Stewart, for one, would play just for a group that’s doing all it might to push on the difficulty till it turns into a actuality all season lengthy.
She isn’t alone.
“Two issues could be true directly,” Jones mentioned. “You can have a look at it and see what they did with these charters as positively an unfair benefit. And you can also step again and be like, ‘Wow, a minimum of they have been ensuring their gamers have been taken care of.’ The Tsais despatched a sign, a robust sign, of how a lot this implies to them.”
“They deal with us because the professionals we’re.”