The Madison Square Garden Company said Tuesday it planned to sell the Liberty, the professional women’s basketball team it has owned since the founding of the W.N.B.A. in 1997.
The Liberty are one of only three W.N.B.A. founding members still playing in their original city. It is unknown if a potential buyer would seek to move the team out of the New York area or if the Liberty will continue to play at Madison Square Garden, which also is owned by The Madison Square Garden Company.
“We thank M.S.G. for its 21 seasons supporting the growth of women’s basketball and appreciate its dedication to find a new ownership group to build on the team’s successes for many seasons to come,” the W.N.B.A. said in a statement.
M.S.G. also owns the Knicks and was part of the original W.N.B.A. strategy for every team to have co-ownership with an N.B.A. partner. In recent years, the ownership links between several N.B.A. and W.N.B.A. franchises have been severed, and a majority of the 12 W.N.B.A. teams are now independently owned. Last season’s finals pitted the Minnesota Lynx, affiliated with the N.B.A.’s Timberwolves, against the Los Angeles Sparks, who no longer have ownership ties to the Lakers.
The Liberty could become the second W.N.B.A. team this off-season to end its relationship with an N.B.A. partner. Last month, the San Antonio Stars, which had shared an owner with the Spurs, were bought by MGM Resorts International and relocated to Las Vegas.
“As the last original owner, I am proud of how far the league has come, and the role we have played in its growth,” James L. Dolan, the chairman and chief executive of The Madison Square Garden Company, said in a statement. “This was a difficult decision for us, which we made after carefully assessing the needs of our business. We are confident that new ownership can build on the foundation we established over these last 21 years, and steward this incredible franchise into an even more successful future.”
On Monday, the Garden announced the departure of chief executive David O’Connor, with Dolan taking his place on an interim basis. Last month, Coach Bill Laimbeer left the Liberty after five seasons to join the Las Vegas team. He was replaced with Katie Smith.
The sale of a marquee franchise by one of the country’s biggest sports operations could be seen as a concern to W.N.B.A., which even after 21 seasons has struggled to find stability and to establish itself in the crowded sports marketplace. But a new owner might be able to give the Liberty a higher profile than they had at M.S.G., which owns not only the Knicks but also the Rangers of the N.H.L.
In 2015, Dolan told “Real Sports” on HBO that the Liberty was a consistent money-loser and said he had nearly handed it back to the league: “It hasn’t made money. Its prospects of making money, at that time and even today, are still slim.”
Though the Liberty have made the W.N.B.A. Finals four times, they have never won a championship. Last season, the team had the best record in the Eastern Conference but lost in the second round of the playoffs.
Two years ago, Isiah Thomas, the former coach and president of the Knicks, became the Liberty president and attempted to buy an ownership stake in the team. But the W.N.B.A. halted the process amid concerns about a 2007 sexual discrimination case against Thomas.