Brand Strategy

The New York Liberty’s chief brand officer isn’t playing around

When Shana Stephenson came on board, the Liberty were going through a rough patch. Now their first championship is within reach, and even their mascot is famous.
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Shana Stephenson

8 min read

This story is the ninth in a series on women leaders in sports and sports marketing. Read the rest of the profiles here and keep reading Marketing Brew for more profiles to come.

The New York Liberty had quite a year in 2023, but it hasn’t always been rainbows and sunshine and Hot Ones for the Brooklyn-based WNBA team.

Chief Brand Officer Shana Stephenson knows it all too well. When she first started as a consultant with the Liberty in 2018, the team was at the bottom of the league, playing in a small arena 40 minutes north of Manhattan after years of playing at Madison Square Garden. Stephenson had her work cut out for her.

“It was really a very discouraging time,” she told Marketing Brew. “It was a time in which you didn’t know what the future was going to hold, if there would be a team in the next season, if a [new] ownership group bought the team, if they would relocate…There was just all of this uncertainty, but I knew that when I was brought on as a consultant, my job was to try to get as many fans as I could out to Westchester County Center to give this franchise hope and an opportunity to survive.”

The team’s fortunes have since changed dramatically: In 2023, regular season attendance at Liberty home games increased by 45% compared to 2022, and this season is looking even brighter for the league as it welcomes rookies like Kamilla Cardoso and Caitlin Clark fresh off a record-breaking NCAA tournament. At the team’s home opener this weekend against Clark and the Indiana Fever, the Liberty reportedly saw more than $2 million in ticket revenue, a new league record.

The Liberty started off their season with a three-game winning streak last week, and as play continues to heat up, Stephenson said she’s focused on keeping the brand fresh and appealing to a “younger, cooler, more diverse, culturally relevant fan base” while maintaining its relationship with its “core fans, who have been riding with us since the earliest days.”

Getting off the bench

Stephenson doesn’t describe herself as a natural-born athlete, and said that when she played basketball as a middle schooler, she was actually pretty “mid” on the court. But she’s been a longtime fan of sports—especially New York teams like the Knicks, Jets, and Yankees—although it didn’t translate to thinking about it as a potential career (something she has in common with some of her peers).

The WNBA played its first season in 1997, when Stephenson was an undergrad studying psychology and business at Spelman College. Even though she was in Atlanta, the New York native started rooting for her hometown team, she said. In those years, the Liberty made it to the finals several times, with 2002 marking their last appearance for more than two decades.

It was around the same time that Stephenson was hitting a wall of her own. After going back to school in 2006 to get a masters in sports business from NYU, Stephenson ended up in the marketing department at ESPN, where she says she soon felt stuck.

“After three years, I felt like I hit a ceiling,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot of opportunity for growth. I felt that I wasn’t being utilized in the best way, and I wanted to contribute more. I wanted to have more impact, and the opportunities just weren’t there.”

She quit to work for herself, and ultimately became a sought-after voice in sports media, speaking on TV about topics like domestic violence in the NFL and athlete protests against police brutality.

“Being a Black woman in the sports media space, there weren’t a lot of people that looked like me,” Stephenson said. “People saw me as someone who looked at sports through a different lens, a nontraditional lens.”

No sleep till Brooklyn

It took some time for Stephenson to really find her stride. She recalled a round of interviews for a job with a men’s professional sports team during which she says she was repeatedly asked if she’d be comfortable traveling with the team and spending time in the locker room.

“I didn’t feel like it was relevant to the skill set or relevant to the interview at all,” she said. “I ultimately didn’t get the job, and I felt like that was one of the main reasons why.”

For a while, Stephenson says she didn’t think she’d ever work a full-time job again, instead focusing on consulting and other pursuits, like freelancing for espnW. Then Liberty CEO Keia Clarke made her an offer.

“A lot of my work has been so rooted in advocacy for WNBA players and women athletes…and I’m from New York,” she said. “To have the opportunity to check off all of those boxes, in my home market, for a team that I rooted for since they were founded, was just a dream opportunity for me.”

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The Liberty have also been through it. In 2018, they were relocated to a 4,400-seat venue in White Plains, New York, where the Knicks’ G League team the Westchester Knicks play. At the time, the capacity for basketball games was closer to 2,000 seats. The move resulted in the loss of 70% of the Liberty’s season ticket members, according to Stephenson.

A new ownership group bought the Liberty in 2019 and soon announced that the team would have a different home arena beginning in 2020: the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. That announcement breathed new life into the team, Stephenson said, as did the Liberty’s selection of 3-point phenom Sabrina Ionescu with the first pick of the 2020 draft. The leadup to the move and subsequent rebranding of the team was “probably the most fun I’ve ever had in terms of really important work,” Clarke said.

“We were literally just sitting in a room, holed up in Westchester, making these really huge decisions about this team,” Clarke told us. “We didn’t invent the New York Liberty. We weren’t the originators of the name, the likeness, the colors, etc., but we had this really unique position to shape it and mold it into what our next 25 or 50 [years] are going to be.”

Covid delayed some of that rollout, as the Liberty and the rest of the league spent the trying 2020 season playing in the “wubble”—the WNBA bubble—in Florida, and didn’t end up moving to Brooklyn until the following year. That’s when Stephenson said the vision for a rebrand finally came to fruition.

The new New York Liberty

As one of the original WNBA franchises, Stephenson said the goal was not to “strip all of the tradition and history” from the Liberty, but to expand the team’s fan base beyond its original supporters.

“In order for us to grow, we would have to immerse ourselves in cultures beyond basketball,” Stephenson said.

That meant doing things like tapping Grammy-nominated rapper Rapsody to create a theme song, and teaming up with a nail tech who created custom nail designs to promote the team’s 2022 schedule release. This year, two-time MVP Breanna Stewart announced the schedule by way of a crossover with Hot Ones. Artists, influencers, and entertainers like Jason Sudeikis have also been integral in helping build the team’s profile outside of the basketball sphere, Stephenson said.

And who can forget Ellie, the Liberty’s twerking elephant mascot and brainchild of Stephenson and Clarke? The Liberty’s mascot used to be a dog named Maddie, after Madison Square Garden, but with the relocation and rebrand, the team was looking for something new, Stephenson said. They considered pigeons and rats to keep up the New York tie-in, she said, but those ideas were quickly abandoned.

It was ultimately Clarke who came up with the concept of an elephant, according to Stephenson, who admitted she was initially against the idea. But when Clarke explained elephants’ connection to New York—P.T. Barnum marched 21 of them across the Brooklyn Bridge in 1884 to prove it was sturdy—“I immediately loved it,” Stephenson said. Ellie got her name from Ellis Island (home to the Statue of Liberty), her look from a local artist and costume maker, and her sparkling personality from the mysterious, tight-lipped entertainer who portrays her.

All that work has culminated in the Liberty’s growth both on and off the court. The team made it to the finals last year, where it helped set a new league gate attendance record in Game 3, and it recently signed a distribution deal with Fox5 New York. The team even created a waiting list “in response to unprecedented demand” for premium seat tickets this year. When the Liberty left White Plains in 2019, it had one sponsor, Stephenson said. Now, it has more than 30.

Looking ahead, Stephenson said she’s looking to increase average ticket sales per game, boost TV ratings, sell more merch, and sign more sponsors.

“We just want, across the board, to see all of those key metrics and KPIs continue to grow,” she said. “Something that I can’t control is winning our first championship, but if I had to rank [my goals] in order of priority, that would be No. 1.”

Correction 5/23/24: This story has been updated to correct the name of the rapper who created the Liberty’s theme song.

Update 5/23/24: This story has been updated to include additional venue capacity numbers.

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