The Liberty had apparently done everything right.
They moved into a new home at Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn last year. The star power of a top draft pick and a roster with depth to match promised a strong season this year. There was a new coach. Even a new-look mascot.
But even when all the pieces fell together for the Liberty, one of the WNBA’s original eight teams in 1997, there was one glaring exception: wins.
“Lately I’ve been feeling like maybe we should be right here,” said Francois Monroc, 41, a fan who watched the Liberty beat the Chicago Sky, 83-80, in a rarely strong performance on Saturday. “There is a lot of ambition for players in New York and the people who live in New York want their teams to be successful. It’s hard to accept failure. New Yorkers are very impatient, waiting and waiting is hard.”
The Liberty are 10-17 this year. The team started the season 1-7 before flipping in June, only to lose momentum this month after the All-Star hiatus.
The win on Saturday night against Sky (21-7), the defending champions and top team in the league, broke a five-game losing streak and was balm for a bumpy season.
A string of injuries has left the Liberty with a poor record, just when a successful season could have helped the franchise better position itself in the fiercely competitive New York market.
The New Yorkers could use a winner. The last team in the four major sports to win a championship was the Giants, who won the Super Bowl after the 2011 season. The Liberty haven’t won a championship, and the Nets, their arena peers at Barclays Center, haven’t won one since their days in the American Basketball Association.
“We’re trying to get a ring,” said Janice Battle, 74, who has remained loyal to the team despite its ups and downs. “That was a bit disappointing. But it’s exciting to be part of a team here in Brooklyn, a women’s professional team.”
Battle has followed the team since that inaugural season and has traveled with the team while playing five venues over the years, from Madison Square Garden to White Plains, NY and now to the Barclays Center, which has been the team’s home since 2021 names .
“It’s hard every year, but you’re a fan,” Battle said with a slight shrug. “There are the Yankee fans. There are the Met fans. There are the Giants fans. So I’m a Liberty fan. I love her.”
Still, adoring fans or not, with just nine games left in the regular season, their chances of a postseason are dwindling.
Much of that pressure rests on the shoulders of 2020 draft pick Sabrina Ionescu. Ionescu played just three games in a so-called bubble in Florida during the 2020 season before suffering a season-ending ankle injury.
As Ionescu began to recover, more injuries plagued the team. Jocelyn Willoughby tore an Achilles tendon ahead of the 2021 season and Natasha Howard missed 15 games with a knee injury; All three came back this season, only for the team to lose Betnijah Laney, who was named to their first-ever All-Star team last season, this season to a knee injury.
The Liberty had some success stories. Ionescu set a franchise record for points in a game against the Las Vegas Aces earlier this month, finishing her third career triple-double with 31 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. Howard recorded her sixth double-double of the season on Saturday with 16 points and 10 rebounds.
Fans had hoped that a new coach could make something of Ionescu’s core group more consistently; Howard; DiDi Richards, a sophomore; Stefanie Dolson, a veterans center; Michaela Onyenwere, the 2021 WNBA Rookie of the Year; and the Han Xu reserve center. Marine Johannes, a guard who was added mid-season, has also become a rotation player.
The Liberty hired former Phoenix Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello to try and kickstart the 2022 season. That was not always so.
“I think player ability is one thing, but the manager’s ability to consistently get the best out of their players is probably more important,” said Dara Ottley-Brown, 59. “That’s the challenge here.”
The team still has attendance issues. The average attendance per game this season is around 5,100 fans, putting Liberty in eighth place out of the 12 teams. Saturday night’s game had 6,926 in hand; a July 14 game against the Las Vegas Aces, one of the best teams in the league, tied for 9,896, a season-to-date record. The Barclays Center has a seating capacity of 17,732, but upper tier seats are often cordoned off for Liberty games.
“It’s a combination of a roller coaster ride with the team, but also just watching and figuring out how women’s basketball can have more traction,” said Martha Stark, 62, who walked to high school just a few blocks from Brooklyn Tech arena and is since 1997 season ticket holder.
Elaine Kim, 47, has been coming to the Liberty Games since she was a child with her twins, 12, and said it’s been fun watching the team – and the mascots – develop. Ellie the Elephant was introduced as a new addition to the team in 2021.
But Kim said she believes the league and its teams still need more investment to make a bigger leap. Low salary caps, infrequent access to televised games, and low marketing dollars compared to their male counterparts have long dogged the WNBA, despite a growing fan base.
“The WNBA needs the kind of investment that men’s sport gets,” she said. “We’re proving that there’s a lot of interest, that it’s economical.”
Undoubtedly, despite their record, there is some excitement surrounding the team, but ultimately, New York demands winners in any sport.
“I know the record isn’t necessarily exactly what we want,” said Alex Don, 26. “But from last year to this year you can definitely see the improvement and see where maybe two or three of us could be years later.”
Don and his group of friends, including Paul Garlick, find it satisfying to watch the team progress “instead of jumping on the bandwagon when they’re good,” Garlick said.
On Saturday, Liberty and the Sky went point by point to the bitter end, with an important 2-point jumper from Ionescu in the final seconds and a block from Onyenwere on Candace Parker that sealed the game and Sky’s winning streak in six playing finished .
Howard said the win was an opportunity to correct the team’s course.
“We found ourselves right here in this game,” she said. “That’s one thing we’ve definitely talked about – we need to learn how to win games. That is a beginning.”
They meet Chicago again on Friday.