Joe Tsai Is Big in Business. Now He’s Taking on Women’s Basketball.

Joe Tsai Is Big in Business. Now He’s Taking on Women’s Basketball.


The Liberty will begin their season against the Indiana Fever at Westchester County Center on Friday, but the new owner, Joe Tsai, does not plan to have the team’s sojourn north of New York City continue much longer.

“I would say that the Liberty playing in Westchester County, in an arena that has a capacity of less than 3,000, is not ideal,” he said in an interview at an upscale hotel recently, shortly after arriving in Manhattan on a long flight from China. Bloomberg estimates that Tsai, one of the founders of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, is worth almost $11 billion.

Tsai, who completed the purchase of the Liberty from the Madison Square Garden Company earlier this year, was in town to watch his new team take on the Chinese national team in an exhibition at Barclays Center. In April’s W.N.B.A. draft, the Liberty selected Han Xu, a 6-foot-9 19-year-old who has been compared to Yao Ming, in the second round.

Could Han and her Liberty teammates have a new home at Barclays Center next season?

“It’s one of the possibilities,” Tsai said, adding that the team was looking for a site fans would be excited about, and that they could easily get to.

Tsai has owned the Liberty for only a few months, but he has already developed a sporting philosophy that Jonathan Kobl, the Liberty’s general manager, will be sure to appreciate.

“Leaving the professionals to do what they do best,” is how Tsai described his management style. “I am well-versed in business. I have had 20 years at Alibaba; before that, I was in the investment business. But I can’t tell you whether this player is the better player to sign.”

Tsai steps into women’s basketball at a fraught time. The W.N.B.A. just named Deloitte’s Cathy Engelbert as its new commissioner, after Lisa Borders resigned as president in October. The league’s players, who have been increasingly vocal about what they consider low pay and poor working conditions, have exercised their option to terminate the collective bargaining agreement after the season.

None of this seems to worry Tsai. Instead, he is focused on building the fan base for the Liberty and the W.N.B.A. as a whole. If that happens, he believes, things like television rights and sponsorships will suddenly be more valuable, and many of the league’s problems will solve themselves.

“Once those things have value,” Tsai said, “there are economics to spread around with the players, team, staff, owners. But without a critical mass fan base, it is very difficult to make all of the other economics work.”

The Liberty are Tsai’s second New York-based basketball team. He also owns 49 percent of the Nets, and has the option to take full control of the team in about 18 months.

“Under the terms of the transaction, fully public, I have the option to buy the remaining 51 percent by early 2021,” he said, declining to comment further, or to comment on reports that he is looking to purchase the team and Barclays Center sooner than 2021. “I have that right, and that’s basically it. That’s what I want to say.”

Tsai also owns the San Diego Seals, an indoor lacrosse team.

He fell in love with lacrosse, which he played at Yale, and football while a student in the late 1970s and early 1980s at the Lawrenceville School, a boarding school in Lawrence, N.J. As a 165-pound teenager, Tsai played as a blocking back in a single-wing formation on offense, and as an inside linebacker in a thoroughly outdated 5-2 defense.

“I am like Jack Lambert!” he said while laughing.

He did not fall for basketball until later, when as a student at Yale Law School he would play pickup at Payne Whitney Gym. One of his frequent opponents, whom Tsai described as a gym rat with a good outside shot, was Brett M. Kavanaugh, a future Supreme Court justice. Kavanaugh played for the Yale junior varsity team before attending Yale Law School.

Both of Tsai’s sons, one in middle school and one in high school, play basketball. His wife, Clara Wu Tsai, grew up in Kansas and is a Kansas Jayhawks fan. Tsai said he frequently watched Nets games on N.B.A. League Pass while traveling.

Alibaba, where Tsai is an executive vice chairman, is still his full-time job, and so for now, his basketball activities mostly eat into his sleeping time. But in deciding to invest in the Liberty and the Nets, Tsai, 55, said he was looking for what to do with the “next phase” of his life.

Last September, Jack Ma, Alibaba’s founder and chairman, announced that he would retire later in 2019. Tsai is not ready to announce any such plans, but that does not mean he is not considering the future.

“Today, I still have day-to-day responsibility,” Tsai said, “but over time, I suspect that I will delegate those day-to-day responsibilities to people in the company.”

When that happens, he will have more time to focus on the Nets, one of the league’s best young teams, and the Liberty, a marquee W.N.B.A. franchise that has struggled lately. Either way, he will have the best seat in the house.

“I really enjoy myself because there is the joy of going to the games, just being part of all of the festivities,” he said. “Fortunately, the owner gets to sit on the floor.”



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