Coming from the business world, Liberty owner Joe Tsai didn’t understand why his WNBA franchise didn’t have a CEO similar to the team’s NBA counterpart the Brooklyn Nets - which Tsai also owns.
For Tsai, it was about equality; so he did something about it.
Tsai promoted Keia Clarke to the position last week - making her the first CEO in team history. The WNBA veteran became the third Black woman to currently be in charge of a franchise in the league, joining Los Angeles Sparks president Danita Johnson and Washington’s Sheila Johnson. The Mystics president is also the managing partner of the team and doesn’t deal as much in the day-to-day activities as the other two women.
“For us, part of our mission to promote the WNBA and also the New York Liberty is to put women’s professional basketball on the same footing as the men’s basketball team,” Tsai said in a Zoom interview on Monday. “We own the Nets and also have the Liberty and it doesn’t make sense for us to treat them as one subsidiary of the other. They should be co-equals.”
‘Right person for the job’
Clarke is a 10-year veteran of the organisation and one of the few hold-overs from the team that was formerly owned by James Dolan. She has served in a variety of senior leadership positions in her franchise, including being the Chief Operating Officer for the past few years.
“I think it just happened naturally since she’s the right person for the job,” said Tsai, a 56-year-old Taiwanese-born Canadian billionaire businessman and philanthropist. “She’s already been running the business as the senior member of the executive team. The fact she’s female and Black it’s great. That wasn’t the first thing in picking a CEO for the New York Liberty. She’s there and happens to be a minority woman and that’s a great thing for us.”
Besides Washington, New York and Los Angeles, two other WNBA teams - Seattle and Indiana - have female presidents or CEOs. That translates to nearly half the league’s teams have females in charge.
The top three positions in the WNBA front office are held by women, which is one of the reasons the league consistently gets good report cards from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at Central Florida.
“The position that Keia Clarke has been named to is one of the most under-represented positions that we cover in the racial and gender report card,” said TIDES director Richard Lapchick. “The fact that the WNBA has three of the 12 positions held by Black women is unique in professional sport. In the 2019 report card, the latest we published, there were six women including three Black women holding the position.”
Clarke knows how important her role is and hopes to inspire others.
“I don’t know who coined the phrase, but if you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” Clarke said. “By all means there were very strong women, smart women and some Black women I saw in this industry and others that I think made aspiring to a senior role possible. I absolutely hope there are some women and even little girls who feel they can now be in this role because they have seen it done.”
Clarke added that for her personally, she is incredibly proud to show her two children, a son and daughter, that through hard work and dedication anything is possible. In her new role she’ll manage all business aspects of the Liberty organisation, including strategic planning and revenue.
Tsai sees a bright future for the Liberty with Clarke running the show. While the team is playing its games at a single site in Florida this season because of the coronavirus pandemic, Tsai envisions it doing well at Barclays Center in the future.
“Our goal is to have 6-8,000 people in the arena at a Liberty game when this COVID thing is over,” Tsai said. “My dream is to see 18,000 fans in Barclay Center to a Liberty game like they come to Brooklyn Nets games. We think Keia is the right person to get us there.”
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