When the Tsais bought the Liberty in 2019, the team had bottomed out during the last stages of James Dolan’s ownership. The franchise had made the finals in three of the W.N.B.A.’s first four seasons but was pushed out of Madison Square Garden to the 2,300-seat Westchester County Center for 2017 and ’18.
After moving the team to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, which the Tsais own and where their other team — the N.B.A.’s Nets — also play, the couple set out to give the Liberty amenities equal to their male counterparts. There’s an eight-person performance staff — multiple trainers, a sports psychologist and a nutritionist. An in-house chef prepares meals before and after practices and games. Players recover in brand-new hot and cold therapy tubs.
Like every other team in the W.N.B.A., the Liberty fly commercial to away games for most of the season. They huddle in cramped seats and endure delays, transfers and cancellations like the rest of us.
Tsai bristled at the limitation. So in 2021, he paid for the Liberty to use private jets, then shielded that fact from the league until the team was caught. The result: a $500,000 fine, the biggest in league history. Perhaps not unrelated: In 2021, the Liberty made the playoffs for the first time in five years and then repeated that feat in 2022.
The fine was steep, but a point was made by the Tsais, loud and clear: Travel conditions must evolve. For now, the league has settled on a partial change, allowing teams to charter flights for the playoffs and a small number of games during the regular season.
It was a key point of agreement for Wu Tsai and Stewart during that nautical conversation. Stewart, a vice president of the players’ union, has also been one of the league’s most vocal proponents for chartered flights, a factor she said played into her free agency decision.
Over coffee at a Manhattan restaurant in early May, Wu Tsai — a self-described “hoop head” who grew up in Lawrence, Kan. — said she sees in Stewart a kindred spirit. “It was clear our interests were aligned on the potential” for lifting the Liberty and changing the W.N.B.A., Wu Tsai said.