Sports

Liberty Fans and Pols Fume as MSG Exiles Team to Westchester

Season ticket holders are canceling, and Manhattan’s borough president threatens the arena’s lucrative tax break

by

Since the earliest days of the Women’s National Basketball Association, Sandee Cohen has faithfully stuck by the New York Liberty. A season ticket holder for two decades, she’s attended nearly 300 home games at Madison Square Garden, as well as traveled to road matchups in Minnesota, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles. When renovations at the Garden displaced the Liberty for three seasons, from 2011 through 2013, Cohen, a Greenwich Village resident, followed the team to New Jersey’s Prudential Center. When MSG boss James Dolan installed his longtime friend and alleged sexual harasser Isiah Thomas as team president, she joined her sectionmates in loudly booing Thomas. Still, her commitment to the Liberty — and what she calls the “accessible, affordable” experience of watching them live — never wavered.

But every fandom has its limits. For Cohen and many other Liberty diehards, that breaking point came last month, with the surprise announcement that the team is leaving the Garden. Beginning next season, the city’s only professional women’s sports team will play all but two of its home games at the Westchester County Center, a tiny gym in White Plains. The news, Cohen recalls, “felt worse than a slap in the face” and left her with no choice but to cancel her season tickets.

“They insulted me for the last time,” Cohen tells the Voice. “I understand how people felt when the Dodgers left Brooklyn. It’s the kind of thing that just goes right into you and carves something out of your heart.”

The betrayal stings on multiple levels. The Liberty’s new home only has a maximum capacity of 5,000, even though the team, which has had the best record in the WNBA’s Eastern Conference for three straight years, regularly drew crowds of 10,000 people to the Garden. It’s also a hassle to get to from the city — accessible only by Metro-North, by car, or by taking the subway to the north Bronx and transferring to Westchester’s Bee-Line Bus System — and at least an hour drive or ride away from most of New York City. And the timing of the announcement, which comes just three months after Dolan put the team up for sale, raises questions about management’s recently professed commitment to “long-term success in New York.” Indeed, the chances that Dolan finds a buyer interested in leasing space for the team at the Garden, or at least keeping them at a nearby arena in either Brooklyn or Newark, would now seem drastically lower.

Other Liberty fans echoed Cohen’s frustration with Dolan, who also owns the Knicks and Rangers, and serves as the chair of both the Madison Square Garden Company and MSG Networks. “We’ve been slighted by the MSG ownership for 22 years now,” says longtime season ticket holder Ava Brandon, pointing to a lack of new merchandise in the arena, as well as the fact that the MSG channel regularly broadcasts taped rodeo events in place of live games. Because of the Dolan regime’s disinterest in the team, she predicts, the “Liberty will either be out of the league, or out of New York, within a year.”

Recently, those driven to despair over the fate of the Liberty gained a new and (somewhat) powerful ally in Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. Last Thursday, Brewer sent a letter to Dolan accusing him of turning “ ‘the World’s Most Famous Arena’ into the world’s most famous stage for unfairly benching women athletes.” So angry is Brewer that she’s threatening to force Dolan to do the one thing that no MSG owner has done in nearly four decades: pay property taxes.

Referring to a state tax exemption that saves the arena — and costs taxpayers — $42 million each year, Brewer wrote, “I and many of my colleagues in the City Council and State Legislature have never been convinced that this abatement constitutes good policy. Shameful actions like this one, banishing a popular women’s professional sports team where its fan base cannot reach it, do not help your case.”

Brewer’s point is a good one, especially when you consider that the egregious tax loophole was never supposed to last this long in the first place. When Mayor Ed Koch proposed the legislation in 1982, he thought he was only authorizing a ten-year abatement. At the time, no one thought to check the agreement for an expiration date. Because of this oversight, Dolan, whose net worth is estimated at $1.5 billion, and his MSG predecessors have saved $455 million in city property taxes.

Of course, borough presidents don’t decide city tax policy; that would be the state legislature, which has previously ignored the City Council’s calls to revoke the tax credit — most recently in 2014, just before State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested on federal corruption charges, but a bit after Silver’s former chief of staff was hired as a lobbyist by Cablevision, which had Dolan as its CEO at the time. As for Governor Andrew Cuomo, he claims not to have “heard any argument that’s convincing” for eliminating the tax credit. (Meanwhile, his most trusted advisor, newly convicted fraudster Joe Percoco, took a cushy job as senior vice president of the MSG Company back in 2016. Albany, man.)

For now, the odds of Dolan facing penalties for evicting the Liberty are about as high as the city choosing to evict Dolan from atop Penn Station when the arena’s special zoning permit expires in 2023 — which is to say, not altogether impossible, though not very likely. As Brandon puts it, “Their greed takes precedence, and once again we’re the ones who pay the price.”

Most Popular