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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The Liberty are giving New Yorkers something to cheer for

The W.N.B.A. finals began Sunday. Win or lose, the Liberty have become the rare success story in the bleak landscape of New York City’s sports teams.

By Claire Fahy

Barclays Center was buzzing. A mix of die-hard New York Liberty fans and recent converts donned sea foam green shirts and jerseys, milling around the concourse with anxious excitement. The Liberty, a newly minted WNBA powerhouse, were about to face the Connecticut Sun in a must-win playoff matchup.

The game, on Sept. 26, would be the last semifinal game they would play at home in New York, where the Liberty have what could be considered a secret weapon: their fans. Gabriella Lilienthal and Miller Hartsoe, both 30 and season ticket holders, were confident the Liberty would make a comeback.

“The energy is truly electric,” Lilienthal said. “I truly feel like they actually improve as the crowd gets more and more hyped.”

The crowd was certainly hyped as the Liberty beat Connecticut in Game 2 of a series they went on to win, 3-1. On Sunday, the Liberty made their first appearance in the finals since 2002, falling in Game 1 to the reigning champion, the Las Vegas Aces, 99-82.

Game 2 is Wednesday at the Michelob ULTRA Arena in Paradise, Nevada (9 p.m. EST, ESPN).

Ticket sales for the finals have outpaced last year’s numbers by 30%, making it the bestselling finals series in league history, according to StubHub. Game 3, set to take place in Brooklyn, has outsold every WNBA game ever.

Win or lose, the Liberty have become the singular bright spot in the bleak landscape of New York City’s sports teams. Other than the New York City Football Club winning the Major League Soccer championship in 2021, the last time a New York team went to a championship was in 2011, when the Giants won the Super Bowl.

The Liberty’s success this year has attracted fans from all over the city. They have packed the stands at Barclays in the team’s signature sea foam green, borrowed from the Statue of Liberty herself. The team sold out 11 games this season on its way to a franchise-best 32-8 record.

“New York is so proud of them; it’s awesome,” Hartsoe said.

From the start of the season, the players made it clear that their objective was to win a championship, something the team had never done before. Fans responded to that challenge.

“It’s been amazing,” said Sabrina Ionescu, the team’s star point guard who was the No. 1 draft pick in 2020. “We haven’t been shy about what our goals have been, and New York has showed up every single game and cheered us on and held us to that standard.”

The Liberty, whose starting lineup comprises some of the biggest names in the sport, used a series of blockbuster trades heading into this season to build what is considered one of the WNBA’s first “superteams.”

Breanna Stewart, a No. 1 pick who became the first Liberty player to be named MVP; Courtney Vandersloot, one of the best point guards in the league; and Jonquel Jones, an All-Star center, joined Ionescu and Betnijah Laney, who won the 2021 Most Improved Player Award, in Brooklyn.

That’s when August Chazen, 9, got hooked. He is a huge New York sports fan who is particularly into the New York Rangers. But when he heard that Breanna Stewart was coming to his hometown, he knew he had to start following the Liberty.

“They have a good team,” he said earnestly, bouncing with anticipation. “I hope they do well.”

The Liberty was one of the original franchises of the WNBA when the league was created in 1997 and played in Madison Square Garden to crowds of 15,000 fans, according to attendance-tracking website Across the Timeline.

“To this day, I see some people who were 5 or 6 years old when I was playing, and they’re still supporting,” said Teresa Weatherspoon, a member of that 1997 team and the Basketball Hall of Fame. “We always wanted to be a family-based atmosphere, and that’s what it’s like right now.”

The Liberty moved to Westchester, New York, in 2018, a season in which it won only seven games, but returned to the city in 2020. Now, the team shares a home with the Brooklyn Nets.

Weatherspoon referred to the New York Knicks, the team she shared an arena with, as the Liberty’s “brothers,” saying they showed up to games and helped drive interest in the team. She said the Nets have played the same role.

“That’s big, when you get the NBA side in, watching you play,” she said. “They recognize our gift.”

Tiara Alexander, 32, grew up in Manhattan and has been a Liberty fan since the team’s founding.

“I’ve got more faith in my Liberty than the Knicks,” Alexander said with a laugh.

Barclays is a different arena on Liberty game days than it is when the Nets are in town. There are free activities, such as a photo booths and a face-painting station, that set the tone early, getting fans ready for a raucous evening.

An additional draw is the comparatively lower price of Liberty tickets — the cheapest seat for the finals currently costs around $65, while the cheapest ticket to the Nets’ opening night matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers is currently $153.

The relative affordability has led to a broader following, according to Susan Cahn, a history professor at the University at Buffalo who is an expert in women’s sports history.

“It’s a more diverse fan base than a lot of professional sports,” she said. “More families, more different ages, more sexualities. It’s kids, and it’s old people.”

Attending a WNBA game is a chance for even casual fans to put their money where their mouth is, so to speak, and show up for women in the same ways they would show up for men, Cahn said.

“I think there’s a definite feminist following of the WNBA,” she said. “People feel good about supporting the league.”

Interest in the WNBA more broadly has been growing steadily over the last few years, riding a wave of increased attention paid to women’s sports.

New free-agency rules and new teams such as the Aces, which moved to Las Vegas in 2017, have made the WNBA more competitive and allowed for the emergence of the “superteam” era.

“Some of the sexism and bias around women’s sports is declining, though certainly not all of it,” Cahn said. “But I think there’s been some progress in terms of cultural, not just acceptance, but appreciation.”

But really, what it comes down to is simple: The games are fun.

Children and adults alike wave rally flags, smack thunder sticks together and dance along to pulsing music as the Liberty’s mascot, Ellie the Elephant, twerks and shimmies around the court.

Emcees boisterously demand that fans “get louder,” requests they are all too happy to oblige.

“It’s hard not to notice, right? It’s an incredible energy,” said Clara Wu Tsai, who co-owns the Liberty and the Nets. “You definitely get that feeling of goose bumps. You can actually feel the roar of the crowd.”

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