On a Thursday morning earlier this month, barely 12 hours after the Rangers fell behind the Penguins three games to one in their playoff series, Madison Square Garden was packed with more than 15,000 fans, cheering, dancing, and raucously clapping sea-green thundersticks. It was the first home exhibition game of the season for the New York Liberty, the city’s long-standing WNBA team, and the first at the Garden since a $1 billion stadium renovation forced the franchise into New Jersey exile at the beginning of the 2011 season. The 11 a.m. start gave school groups the chance to spend part of the day watching basketball, screaming out “DEFENSE!”, and gasping at every loose ball, even as the Liberty fell to the Connecticut Sun 60–44.
“Every team has school day games,” said Sun head coach Anne Donovan, who coached the Liberty during their final pre-renovation season, during a postgame press conference, “but not every team has school day games like that.”
The turnout indeed felt exceptional for a preseason match-up, especially in a league that averaged an all-time low of 7,457 fans per game in 2012. But while diehard Liberty fans are certainly relieved to have their team back from Newark’s Prudential Center, one wonders if a glass ceiling still remains firmly fixed to the stadium’s rafters.
“[The WNBA] is never going to have the attraction that the NBA or even probably men’s college basketball has,” says former Detroit Pistons “Bad Boy” Bill Laimbeer, who took over as Liberty head coach and general manager in 2012. “It has a finite number of fans, and our goal is to maximize that pool.” Still, he says, “if we’re winners and have one of the best teams in the league, I think you’re going to see a very large following for the New York Liberty.”
Launched in the wake of the much-publicized gold medal run by the U.S. women’s team at the 1996 Summer Olympics, the WNBA saw its first game broadcast nationally on NBC. Since then, however, excitement surrounding pro women’s basketball has steadily waned. Attendance at Liberty games fell off during the Newark sojourn, but the team believes that the move back to the Garden, coupled with the star power of newly acquired former league MVP Tina Charles, will help return the Liberty to prominence both on and off the court.
“Playing in Newark for the last three years wore the players down,” says Laimbeer. (With the Liberty’s practice facility remaining in Tarrytown, games in Newark entailed almost as long a trip as away games.) “Newark did a nice job housing us, but overall, after three years it got trying, not only for the players, but for the fan base.”
Even in the spring and summer months it can be difficult to compete with the NBA playoffs and Major League Baseball. But with tickets price starting at $15 — shockingly low compared to the rapid inflation Knicks fans have endured — the Liberty are trying to market themselves less as a professional sports team, and more as an affordable activity for families in the tristate area.
Kym Hampton, the team’s inaugural star center, now works as the franchise’s community relations and field marketing specialist, helping the organization find creative ways of getting New Yorkers out to games. “The biggest thing we can push is that the prices are so reasonable,” she says. “And you get to interact [with the team] in ways you might not be able to in any other sport.”
The women’s game tends to be slightly less idol-obsessed than the men’s, focusing more on team dynamic and x’s and o’s than awe-inspiring individual athleticism. But that didn’t stop the Liberty from acquiring Charles in a blockbuster trade with the Sun aimed at bringing some much needed offensive firepower. Born and raised in Jamaica, Queens, Charles was widely assumed to have forced the trade in order to return to her native New York and a larger market.
“It was a big factor, you know; not everybody can say they play at the Garden,” says Charles. “I don’t think a lot of these girls understand how much the Garden means to New York City. For me, growing up here, it’s everything.”
The Liberty have also had to battle the stereotype that female athletes don’t play hard, that the game isn’t physical enough, that only women can be fans of women’s professional sports. Some 40 years after Title IX greatly expanded women’s athletic programs in this country, the idea persists that female competition is inherently uninteresting to watch, even at its highest levels.
“The interesting thing is if you ask female players about it, they’ll tell you that they know because they don’t have the size and strength of men they play differently,” says Alex Chambers, a women’s basketball enthusiast and the author of 13 Games: One Man’s Journey with the WNBA. “Does that difference make it worse? No. But unfortunately I think a lot of men see it as, ‘Well, if it’s different then it can’t be good.’ And they judge them without even going to a game.”
Last year, #WNBA2K14 began trending on Twitter. The hashtag is used to mock the WNBA by envisioning a women’s version of the popular men’s basketball video game. Users joke about being able to buy weaves for their female players, have them take Midol, compete in layup contests, and leave games early in order to cook dinner.
“Is there gonna be a maternity mode?” one person tweeted. “Twerk competitions instead of dunk contests,” wrote another.
“Of course there’s a bias out there against professional women’s sports. That definitely hasn’t disappeared,” says Essence Carson, one of the Liberty’s leading scorers since her arrival in 2008 after leading Rutgers to the NCAA championship game the previous year. “What we can do is show that there’s no difference in the game of basketball other than the fact that everyone isn’t flying above the rim.”
Being a fan of a smaller league such as the WNBA is not without its advantages, though. This year, as a Christmas present to herself, Bronx resident Debra Hamilton was able to purchase Liberty season tickets for the first time in her life. Though she had a partial plan last year, Hamilton found it difficult to make it to games in Newark after working long hours at her job in the city. Now, back at the Garden after three long years of upheaval, things just felt right.
“This should be the year we make the playoffs,” she said during halftime of the Liberty-Sun game, donning a vintage Tamika Whitmore jersey. “They’re back at home and, well, you hear the crowd out there, don’t you?”