The WNBA is pushing to change its travel arrangements

WNBA players have to fly commercial, while other sports leagues and its male counterpart are able to charter flights.

The WNBA is pushing to change its travel arrangements

WNBA revenues totaled a reported $60 million last season, and viewership was at its highest point in 14 years. But teams still travel like families on a strict budget.

"Travel is always a pain point," said Terri Carmichael Jackson, executive director of the WNBA Players Association. "Unfortunately, I'm in this role seven years, and I have seen it for seven years."

While their male counterparts in the NBA travel in style aboard private charter jets, WNBA players have to fly commercial — dealing with everything from middle seats to long delays and cancellations.

"For years, the requirement was that WNBA players travel coach class, kind of period, end of sentence," Jackson said.

New York Liberty owner Joe Tsai flew his team charter five times in 2021. That violation of league rules earned the Liberty a $500,000-dollar fine.

"There's a first time for everything," said Nneka Ogwumike, forward for the Los Angeles Sparks. "This is the first time in my 11 years I've had to sleep in the airport."

After a big win by LA in Washington last season, to keep their playoff hopes alive, the Sparks tried to fly home but couldn't. About half the team wound up sleeping in the airport.

"What happened was our flight got delayed from 10 pm to 1, and at 1, they canceled our flight," said Chiney Ogwumike, forward for the LA Sparks. "We got rebooked for first thing in the morning. Hard to book hotels last minute."

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In 2018, the Las Vegas Aces wound up stuck in two airports trying to fly from Nevada to Washington. After a 26-hour travel nightmare, the team landed just hours before tipoff and were asked to play. They didn't and had to forfeit.

Another issue with WNBA travel is security, especially surrounding Phoenix Mercury's Brittney Griner's return after she missed last season due to being held in Russia. While she hasn't officially requested charter flights, the league could face an ongoing problem if she can't.

When it comes to cost, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert recently told ESPN that charter travel would cost the league $25 million a year.

"We don't have to slay the dragon on this one," Jackson said. "We don't have to look to solve it in one fell swoop. Now is the time. We can do this. We can phase this in. We've seen it done — MLS. And their players association negotiated something very much like what I'm describing."

Major League Soccer has allowed teams to go from four charters per year to eight, and starting in 2024, it will expand to 16. In the post-season, teams must use charters for all matches.

"Phased in, reasonable approach did not disrupt the financial model of their league, and it wouldn't do it for us," Jackson said.

Then there's the NBA, which retains 50% ownership of the WNBA. NBA players have taken note of the horrors of WNBA travel.

"I'm with them no matter how much it costs, per se," said Kyrie Irving, guard for the Dallas Mavericks. "I think collectively we all come together and make something very doable happen, and we just want our ladies to have peace of mind while they're playing."

"Our player leadership at the WNBA along with the player leadership at the NBPA, they've been talking over the last few months," Jackson said. "And I am hopeful, I'm very hopeful, that coming out of their CBA negotiations, we will see something that helps us address this pain point in a meaningful way."

The current labor deal between the NBA and its players expires after next season, but there's an opt-out option this June. If the WNBA can take that first step in getting charter travel off the ground, then the WNBA and its players will be able to make the league really take flight.

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