In January, Clara Wu Tsai flew to Turkey on a trip that altered the balance of power in the W.N.B.A.
Wu Tsai, who owns the Liberty with her husband, Joe Tsai, went there to chase Breanna Stewart, the off-season’s most coveted free agent. Accompanied by her team’s coach and general manager, Wu Tsai pitched Stewart in the middle of her Euroleague season with a team in Istanbul.
But Wu Tsai left the rest of the team’s brass behind as she made the final push. She rented an 80-foot tour boat and took Stewart, Stewart’s wife, Marta Xargay, and the couple’s 1-year-old daughter, Ruby, for a cruise. Gliding through the Bosporus, Wu Tsai reeled in Stewart, the two-time league most valuable player, with questions.
“It was just her curiosity that grabbed me,” Stewart told me during an interview this month. “She wanted to know what I needed, what we needed as players, to perform at our best. I could see she wanted to improve the league as much as I do.”
After days of cryptic tweets, Stewart announced on Feb. 1 that she would join a Liberty roster that had also added Jonquel Jones, the 2021 league M.V.P., to play alongside guard Sabrina Ionescu, a 2022 All-Star. The four-time All-Star guard Courtney Vandersloot inked with the team the day after Stewart, forming a megateam built to contend with the defending champion Las Vegas Aces — a supersquad in its own right that added the two-time M.V.P. Candace Parker this off-season.
“Having a lot of players go to different teams is great because it’s shaking things up where we’re not just in this continuous track, running over and over, playing for the same teams,” Stewart said. “It’s creating a buzz. But there’s something more. Free agency also adds pressure on the owners to compete for us.”
The Tsais, whose multibillion dollar wealth comes primarily from Joe’s leadership role with the Chinese tech giant Alibaba, sit at the forefront of the W.N.B.A.’s free-agent arms race, where players enjoy the attention of a group of team owners eager to invest.
In Atlanta, the Dream’s Larry Gottesdiener, founder of a real estate private equity firm, said he planned to spend $100 million to turn the team into a success. Mark Davis, who also owns the N.F.L.’s Las Vegas Raiders, recently built a 64,000-square-foot training facility for the Aces and last season signed Coach Becky Hammon to a record contract worth $1 million annually. (On Tuesday, the W.N.B.A. suspended Hammon for two games for comments she made to the All-Star forward Dearica Hamby about her pregnancy, which the league said violated its policy on respect in the workplace. The league also rescinded the team’s 2025 for first-round draft pick for promising Hamby impermissible benefits during contract negotiations.)
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.
Asked about the travel contretemps with the league, Wu Tsai paused, drew a breath, and measured her comments carefully. “I don’t think you can put your best product on the floor if you’re not really focused on health and wellness,” she said, declining to elaborate.
The Tsais, it must be noted, have a complex history. Few team owners in any sport have given as much support to social justice, including $50 million to boost economically distressed communities following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. But Alibaba has been criticized for business ties with Chinese companies said to violate human rights in China. And Tsai once called pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong a “separatist movement,” echoing language from Beijing.
The world of sports is hardly immune from contradiction.
What can also be said of the Tsais is that support for how they are advancing conditions in the league is widespread among players. The charter planes issue is perhaps the most salient litmus test. Stewart, for one, would play only for a team that is doing all it can to push on the issue until it becomes a reality all season long.
She is not alone.
“Two things can be true at once,” Jones said. “You can look at it and see what they did with those charters as definitely an unfair advantage. And you also can step back and be like, ‘Wow, at least they were making sure their players were taken care of.’ The Tsais sent a signal, a strong signal, of how much this means to them.”
“They treat us as the professionals we are.”