Joe Tsai is the co-founder of the e-commerce juggernaut Alibaba and has a reported net worth approaching $9 billion. As sports-obsessed billionaires often do, Tsai decided to claim ownership over a professional sports franchise. In 2019 he purchased the Brooklyn Nets and their home stadium, the Barclays Center, for reportedly $3.3 billion. The move sent shockwaves throughout the NBA. In what was considered an afterthought, Tsai also purchased the WNBA franchise New York Liberty, who also play their home games at Barclays. Tsai’s purchase of the Liberty was overshadowed because it came in conjunction with spending big on Brooklyn’s NBA team.
As a league, the WNBA is often ridiculed for its moderate growth and questionable profitability. Occasionally, that criticism comes from within league circles. After Tsai purchased the Liberty from New York Knicks owner James Dolan, Dolan himself may have been behind media leaks that the Liberty hadn’t turned a profit in years. Purchasing a WNBA team in 2019 was considered by many to be a billionaire’s passion project. But Tsai refused to see it that way.
According to Sports Illustrated, Tsai saw growth potential in the league. As women’s sports in the country continues to rise, Tsai viewed the WNBA as no different. He was eager to bring his innovation, and more importantly his deep pockets, to women’s basketball. Conventional wisdom says that the WNBA would be on the edge of their seat waiting for someone like Tsai to take them to the next level. However, ownership around the league was hesitant and didn’t necessarily share his optimism.
The WNBA has been around for 25 years. Originally starting in 1997 with 8 teams, the league has grown to 12 franchises in the nation’s largest markets such as Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, Chicago, and Dallas. The league has featured digital growth through social media and broadcasting games through the subscription platform Tidal. But throughout the quarter-century of its existence, profit ceiling for a women’s basketball league has been questioned. Historically, ticket sales have remained stagnant, and the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help the cause.
Many of the league’s 12 owners are satisfied with their initial investment and conservative growth of the league. When someone like Tsai enters the ring and seeks to kick things into high gear, he begins to turn some heads. You don’t have to have a degree in Economics to realize that spending more money on the league requires the league to make more, a risk that several owners are unwilling to take.
One of the first issues Tsai noticed with the league involved travel. WNBA teams fly commercial to games and experience airline-induced headaches just like you and me. In 2018, numerous flight delays actually caused a game to be forfeited when the Las Vegas Aces couldn’t get to Washington to play the Mystics. Tsai felt the WNBA was above forcing players to hang out in airport terminals and dodge people waiting in line at an Auntie Anne’s to board their flights for games.
In September 2021, Tsai reportedly made a proposal to the league (which the league has denied took place) that would allow all WNBA teams to fly private to games. And for the owners worried about penny-pinching, the proposal included the first three years of flights comped. A no brainer decision for a league looking to take the next step and treat their players like professionals. But the WNBA Board of Governors shot down the proposal for fear the players would get used to private planes and it wouldn’t be sustainable – too risky.
The WNBA’s conservative decision on travel didn’t stop Tsai from treating his own players like their NBA equivalent. Tsai charted flights for the New York Liberty for the second half of the season, and even included a Labor Day weekend trip to Napa Valley for the team to bond over expensive bottles of wine. These decisions by Tsai expressed his loyalty and appreciation to the Liberty players and didn’t go unnoticed. His gracious gestures even got his wife, Wu Tsai, featured on viral Tik Toks posted by members of the Liberty on their Napa Valley trip.
The league eventually caught wind of the Liberty’s private flights and expensive escapades and put their foot down. In what was originally floated as a $1 million fine, Tsai and the Liberty were eventually docked $500,000 for violating the league’s collective bargaining agreement and providing unfair advantages to players. The WNBA feared that with the lifestyle Tsai was providing, every player would want to play for the Liberty. To combat their popularity, the league sent the Liberty back through airport security.
The WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement can be found here: https://wnbpa.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/WNBA-CBA-2014-2021Final.pdf
Deep within the 300-page pdf documenting how the league functions, you will stumble across Article IX Section 4 Player Related Expenses – Air Travel:
Under the current CBA, players aren’t even afforded the luxury of extra leg room in first class.
The decision by the league to fine Tsai symbolizes the current clash in the WNBA. Tsai believes the league is ready to explode, capitalizing off digital engagement and their partnership with the NBA. He’s willing to make that bet in the form of private planes and trips to Napa Valley. While others would like to remain in the traditional conservative pattern the league has operated in for years, not spending too much but not making too much either.
The New York Liberty seem to be operating in a different league all-together than the 11 other franchises. Will the rest of the WNBA catch up, or keep pulling them back?
Matt Netti is a 2021 graduate from Northeastern University School of Law. He currently works as an attorney fellow at the Office of the General Counsel for Northeastern University. You can follow him on twitter and instagram @MattNettiMN and find him on Linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/in/matthew-netti-ba5787a3/. You can find all his work at www.mattnetti.com
 Associated Press, Nets minority owner Joe Tsai buys WNBA’s Liberty (last visited Mar. 3, 2022) https://www.espn.com/wnba/story/_/id/25832607/brooklyn-nets-minority-owner-joseph-tsai-buys-wnba-new-york-liberty?device=featurephone.  Howard Megdal, How Airplanes Became the WNBA’s Biggest Scandal, Sports Illustrated (last visited Mar. 3, 2022) https://www.si.com/wnba/2022/03/01/charter-flights-violation-new-york-liberty-joe-tsai-daily-cover.  Salt Lake Tribune, Travel woes force cancellation of WNBA game between Aces and Mystics, (last visited Mar. 3, 2022) https://www.sltrib.com/sports/2018/08/04/travel-woes-force/comments/.  Alexa Philippou, Source: New York Liberty fined $500,000 for chartering flights, other violations, ESPN (last visited Mar. 3, 2022) https://www.espn.com/wnba/story/_/id/33401872/new-york-liberty-fined-500000-chartering-flights-other-violations.