WNBA players say league needs charter flights now, and they’re right

WNBA players say league needs charter flights now, and they’re right

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WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert repeatedly has said that the cost to secure charter flights for all 12 teams for the entire season would put a financial strain on the league.

AP

PHOENIX — Imagine this scenario:

You are waiting in a line three loops wide to check your carry-on-sized luggage because you accidentally packed your beauty products exceeding the Transportation Security Administration’s 3.4-ounce limit. As you’re inching forward, wondering whether you’re going to make it through security in time to catch your flight, you notice Candace Parker and the Sky checking their luggage ahead of you.

Their baggage far exceeds the standard passenger’s for a domestic flight because they aren’t just packing toothbrushes and a few extra pairs of socks. Their luggage includes everything a pro sports team needs to be ready for game day, and they’re entrusting it to an airline company.

As they walk away from their 10-plus extra-large wheeled duffle bags being dropped onto the conveyor belt by an airline agent, you pause and think:

‘‘WNBA players are just like us.’’

That specific scenario might be fictional, but travel issues for WNBA teams are real. If you’ve missed the fact that the top women’s sports league in the country travels commercial, you’re living under a rock or haven’t run into Parker in the airport yet.

The WNBA’s travel issues take center stage every season. Multiple stories detailing horrendous travel experiences are relayed from the players to the public via social media. I’m not talking about minor inconveniences; I’m talking about the kind of disruptions that would make even the most avid flyer take a lengthy break from the friendly skies.

The Sky’s biggest travel hurdles this season have involved lengthy delays. One of them occurred in July, when they were traveling to New York City on a 6 a.m. flight for a game that night after playing a game the night before. By the time they arrived in the Big Apple, they had about four hours before they had to be at the Barclays Center to play. 

But the travel stories get worse.

This week, WNBA players’ union president Nneka Ogwumike penned a statement at 4 a.m. about the inadequacies of the league’s travel accommodations after two delays led to the Sparks having to sleep in the airport in the wake of a road game against the Mystics. After 40 minutes of physical exertion that requires rest and treatment, these pro athletes were laid out on the cold floor of an airport in Virginia.

‘‘It is time to permit teams to invest in charter flights between games, beginning with the entire 2022 playoffs and continuing with a common sense, full-season solution in 2023,’’ Ogwumike wrote.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert repeatedly has said that the cost to secure charter flights for all 12 teams for the entire season would put a financial strain on the league. Before the All-Star Game this season, Engelbert said the league would charter for every WNBA Finals game.

The league’s collective-bargaining agreement with the players, signed in 2020 and effective through the 2027 season, doesn’t include charter flights. It’s prohibited for any team to secure charters because they provide a competitive advantage, but there are owners in the league who are pushing back on this constraint.

Earlier this year, it was reported that Liberty owner Joe Tsai presented a plan to secure charter flights for all 12 WNBA teams after he was fined $500,000 for providing charters for his team in 2021. Engelbert and other league executives have denied a plan was presented.

Beyond the health and safety concerns of these athletes cramming their bodies into restrictive airline seats and missing out on proper rest and recovery to make commercial flights are the risks that remain surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Three Sky staff members contracted COVID-19 this season, including general manager/coach James Wade, and were forced to miss multiple games.

It’s not certain they contracted the virus while traveling, but it’s another health risk that needs to be added to the list every time teams travel.

Engelbert has hinted that charter flights might not be used until a new TV rights deal is negotiated. The WNBA’s current deal with ESPN runs through 2025, and the expectation is that a new deal will provide a source of financial growth that results in higher salaries and charter flights.

As Ogwumike said, however, players want charter flights now — and rightfully so.

But, in the meantime, if you find yourself at the airport waiting to check a bag or pass through security, don’t forget to look up. You just might catch a glimpse of Parker, Courtney Vandersloot or Kahleah Copper. It might not be fair, but until the WNBA invests in private flights for its players, the athletes are just like us. 

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