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The WNBA’s Looming Reckoning With Chartered Flights

Last Updated: July 1, 2023
Breanna Stewart says she wants to find a way to help subsidize charter flights for the WNBA. But why is it on the players to show leadership on the issue?

Remember the Great WNBA Charter Flight Controversy of 2022? The one that happened after the WNBA fined New York Liberty co-owners Joe and Clara Wu Tsai $500,000 — with potential for termination of the franchise — for chartering flights to away games during the second half of the WNBA season?

Well, the talk hasn’t stopped, nor should it.

If you’ll recall, all the Tsais did was provide accommodations for their players that the league was unwilling to do itself. Because this violated the CBA and could have given Liberty players a competitive advantage, the league had to come down hard on the franchise.

The Tsais’ thinking, however, was correct and boils down to this: If you invest in your players, then those players will be able to provide a better product.

On Sunday, four-time All-Star (and free agent) Breanna Stewart stated her intentions to lead a group that could potentially subsidize charter travel for all 12 WNBA teams.

Ja Morant is one of few NBA players who has chimed in with his support, but Stewart also heard from colleagues like Chiney Ogwumike and Kahleah Copper, retired superstar Sue Bird, future WNBA player Paige Bueckers, and more.

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said at the time of the Liberty incident that the league doesn’t have the financial means to accommodate charter flights for everyone, citing at least $30 million in costs for a full WNBA season.

Only, it does have the money.

That’s what the NBA’s Gordon Hayward will earn in 2023. Most will point to the $10 billion in revenue the NBA generated in 2022 versus the WNBA’s reported $60 million, but the NBA owns the WNBA. It’s quite literally their own entity — part of their own business. The $30 million figure would cut into 0.3% of the Association’s 2022 revenue.

Investing more into your business typically means a better product. As Stewart pointed out in her tweet, better travel conditions would lead to better player health and safety, which ultimately results in a better product. A better product would equal more growth and more revenue for the WNBA.

That’s not just talk, either. Here’s a very real example from last year when Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud tested positive for COVID-19 after a commercial flight.

Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon knows the disparities between the NBA and WNBA better than anyone, having coached in both leagues.

“There’s some things that I’ve seen, just coming over from the NBA side, that I’d like to see changed immediately,” Hammon said at the 2022 All-Star Game. “I think they gotta address the travel thing, first and foremost… I know we’re locked into the CBA we’re in right now, but we gotta get these girls from A to B in the most efficient way possible, because it directly affects the product on the floor that you’re selling to the public.”

Engelbert claims to have done her due diligence on the issue.

“We’ve asked all the major airlines,” Cathy Engelbert told ESPN. “We’ve asked charter companies. I’ve been working on this since the moment I came into the league. Without sponsors stepping up, it’s just not in the cards right now. If we could get it sponsored or funded in some way… I’m all ears. I’ve gotten lots of calls over the past year about this since we’ve been back in our 12 markets. Then when people price it out, you never hear from them again.”

Ramona Shelburne reported that “the issue of private air travel has come to the forefront of free agent conversations around the WNBA” — which goes way beyond added comfort, particularly for Brittney Griner, who might need to fly private for security and protection purposes.

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Current Travel Policy

The WNBA’s eight-year collective bargaining agreement from 2020 states: “all air travel provided by the Team (including, but not limited to, travel between games) will be, if available on the Team-chosen flights at the time of booking, premium economy (or similar enhanced coach fare).”

In other words, no flying your players coach to cut costs and no going the extra mile to fly them private. Either action would be a violation of the CBA.

Problems: Present and Future

So while the WNBA avoids that dreaded competitive advantage of an owner doing the bare minimum for their players, it instead deals with instances like this, where some of the best basketball players in the world sleep in public airport seating to wait out delays:

There’s a more specific problem that might rear its head this season.

ESPN reported that some around the league are assuming that Griner — who was wrongfully detained in Russia for nearly 10 months — will need to fly privately due to security concerns. Although it hasn’t been reported whether the star center has asked for special travel accommodations, the league would need to address these specific instances. If Griner flies privately, will her teammates on the Mercury fly privately with her? This would, again, raise flags regarding a competitive advantage in the league’s eyes.

There’s a ton to be excited about with the WNBA. Free agency is upon us, star players are on the move, cryptic emoji tweets got fans buzzing, and the All-Star Game is already slated for a Las Vegas crossover with NBA Summer League in July. It all sounds great, but this whole debate puts another ethical thorn in the sides of the WNBA and NBA.

It’s sad that it’s come to this when you consider the majority of men and women who own these teams are worth billions. If the WNBA doesn’t make enough to support it, why can’t this be a small investment — somewhere in the $2 million range — for each WNBA team owner? If the product is better, then team merchandise sells, more tickets sell, viewership increases, and all that leads into a bigger media rights deal.

The WNBA receives an estimated $25 million a year in a rights deal split between ESPN and CBS. Expect that number to increase, but only if the product continues to improve as well.

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About The Author
Anthony Puccio
Anthony Puccio
Anthony Puccio is a former Staff Writer at Boardroom. Puccio has 10 years of experience in journalism and content creation, previously working for SB Nation, The Associated Press, New York Daily News, SNY, and Front Office Sports. In 2016, he received New York University's CCTOP scholarship and earned a bachelor's degree in Communications from St. John's University. He can be spotted a mile away thanks to his plaid suits and thick New York accent. Don't believe us? Check his Twitter @APooch.