The Liberty had seemingly done everything right.
They moved into a new home last year at Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn. 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 as all the pieces fell into place for the Liberty, one of the WNBA’s original eight teams in 1997, there has been one glaring exception: winning.
“Lately I’ve been feeling like maybe this is where we’re supposed to be right now,” said Francois Monroc, 41, a fan who watched the Liberty beat the Chicago Sky, 83-80, on Saturday in a rare strong showing . “There is a lot of ambition for players in New York, and people living in New York want their teams to succeed. It’s hard to accept failure. New Yorkers are very impatient, waiting and waiting is tough.”
The Liberty are 10-17 this year. The team started the season 1-7 before turning it around in June, only to lose momentum this month after the All-Star break.
The win on Saturday night against the Sky (21-7), the defending champions and the top team in the league, broke a five-game losing streak and served as a balm on a rocky season.
A spate of injuries has left the Liberty with a poor record, just when a winning season could have helped the franchise get a better foothold in the hypercompetitive New York market.
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-mates at Barclays Center, haven’t won one since their days in the American Basketball Association.
“We are trying to get a ring,” said Janice Battle, 74, who has stuck by the team despite its ups and downs. “That’s been a little disappointing. But it’s exciting to belong to a team, a professional women’s team, right here in Brooklyn.”
Battle has been following the team since that first season and has traveled with the team as it played in five locations over the years, from Madison Square Garden to White Plains, NY, and now to Barclays Center, which the team has called home since 2021 .
“Every year it’s hard, but you know, you’re a fan,” Battle said with a slight shrug. “There’s the Yankee fans. There’s the Met fans. There’s the Giants fans. So I’m a Liberty fan. I love them.”
Still, enthusiastic supporters or not, with just nine games left in the regular season, their chances of a postseason are waning.
Much of that pressure rests on the shoulders of Sabrina Ionescu, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft. Ionescu played only three games in the 2020 season at a so-called bubble in Florida before suffering a season-ending ankle injury.
As Ionescu began to recover, more injuries plagued the team. Jocelyn Willoughby tore an Achilles’ tendon before the 2021 season and Natasha Howard missed 15 games because of a knee injury; all three came back this season, only for the team to lose Betnijah Laney, who was named to her first All-Star team last season, to a knee injury this season.
The Liberty have had some flashes of success. Ionescu set a franchise record for points in a game against the Las Vegas Aces earlier this month, finishing with 31 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists for her third triple-double of her career. On Saturday, Howard secured her sixth double-double for the season with 16 points and 10 rebounds.
Fans had hoped that a new coach could more consistently make something of the team’s core group of Ionescu; Howard; DiDi Richards, a second-year guard; Stefanie Dolson, a veteran center; Michaela Onyenwere, the 2021 WNBA rookie of the year; and the reserve center Han Xu. Marine Johannes, a guard added midseason, has also become a rotation player.
The Liberty hired Sandy Brondello, the former head coach of the Phoenix Mercury, to try to jump-start the 2022 season. That hasn’t always been the case.
“I think that the players’ ability is one thing, but the coach’s ability to get the best out of their players in a consistent manner is probably more important,” said Dara Ottley-Brown, 59. “That’s the challenge here.”
The team still has attendance problems. Attendance averages around 5,100 fans per game this season, leaving the Liberty ranked eighth out of the 12 teams. Saturday night’s game had 6,926 on hand; a July 14 game against the Las Vegas Aces, one of the best teams in the league, drew 9,896, a record for the season so far. Barclays Center has a 17,732-seat capacity, but the upper tier seats are often roped off for Liberty games.
“It’s a combination of being on a roller coaster with the team, but also just watching and figuring out how women’s basketball can have more traction,” said Martha Stark, 62, who went to high school at Brooklyn Tech just a few blocks from the arena and has been a season-ticket holder since 1997.
Elaine Kim, 47, has been coming to Liberty games with her 12-year-old twins since they were little, and said it’s been fun to watch the team — and the mascots — evolve. Ellie the Elephant was introduced as the team’s new one in 2021.
But Kim said she believed the league and its teams still needed more investment to make a bigger splash. Low salary caps, irregular access to games on television and few 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 the men’s sports get,” she said. “We’re proving that there’s a lot of interest, that it’s economically viable.”
No doubt, there is some excitement around the team despite its record, but ultimately New York demands winners, no matter the sport.
“I know the record isn’t necessarily exactly what we would want it to be,” said Alex Don, 26. “But from last year to this year, you can definitely start to see the improvement and see where we could maybe be two or three years down the line.”
Don and his group of friends, including Paul Garlick, find satisfaction in watching the team evolve “as opposed to hopping on the bandwagon when they’re good,” Garlick said.
On Saturday, the Liberty and the Sky went point for point until the bitter end, with a key 2-point jumper from Ionescu in the final seconds and a block by Onyenwere on Candace Parker sealing the game and snapping the Sky’s six-game winning streak .
Howard said the win was an opportunity to correct the team’s course.
“We found ourselves in this game right here,” she said. “That’s one thing we’ve definitely talked about — we need to learn how to win games. That’s a start right there.”
They face Chicago again on Friday.