The current collective bargaining between the WNBA and the WNBA Players Association does not allow the league's teams to charter flights on a regular basis. Teams cannot pay for that type of travel themselves because of competitive balance rules, which is what led to the WNBA fining New York Liberty a league-record $500,000 after owners Joe and Clara Wu Tsai provided their team with charter flights during the 2021 season.
The WNBA has started introducing some charter travel recently, however, as for the first time ever, the league agreed to do charter flights for last year's Finals. The topic of travel has become a hot topic of late, because players are hoping to see a change to the rule ahead of the 2023 season.
The conversation has been centered around two of the league's biggest stars.
The safety concerns surrounding Brittney Griner
WNBA star Brittney Griner is back to the United States following a 10-month detainment in Russia after she was originally sentenced to nine years in prison for drug charges. Griner is a free agent, although she already said intends to go back to the Phoenix Mercury
Her eventual WNBA return raises some concerns about her safety in commercial flights. For instance, iIf Griner were allowed to fly privately this upcoming season, the main question that would need to be answered is whether it would be just her or the entire Mercury roster. If it's the entire team, that would give Phoenix an advantage over others in the league, according to competitive balance rules.
"We are very cognizant of BG's unique situation," WNBA Commissioner WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told The Associated Press recently. "We've been planning and we've been thinking it through with security experts, BG's side, our side. We'll find the right time to comment on it when she signs with a team."
Breanna Stewart uses free agency to boost the conversation
Players understand how costly flying charter would be, but two-time WNBA champion Breanna Stewart -- who is joining the New York Liberty -- doesn't want to let the price tag stop her from trying to make it happen.
"I would love to be part of a deal that helps subsidize charter travel for the entire WNBA," she wrote on Twitter on Jan. 22. "I would contribute my NIL, posts + production hrs to ensure we all travel in a way that prioritizes player health + safety, which ultimately results in a better product. Who's with me?"
I would love to be part of a deal that helps subsidize charter travel for the entire WNBA.— Breanna Stewart (@breannastewart) January 22, 2023
I would contribute my NIL, posts + production hrs to ensure we all travel in a way that prioritizes player health + safety, which ultimately results in a better product.
Who’s with me?
Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant did not hesitate to show his support for Stewie and the WNBA.
"Count me in," he said in response to Stewart's post.
Brooklyn Nets' star Kyrie Irving also said he wanted to help the cause, telling reporters "We gotta get something done, and I'm with them no matter how much it costs per se. I think we could all collectively come together and make something very doable happen."
“We gotta get something done, and I’m with them no matter how much it costs per se. I think we could all collectively come together and make something very doable happen.”— Anthony Puccio (@APOOCH) January 26, 2023
- @KyrieIrving on WNBA chartered flight issues pic.twitter.com/GBGpRT7M13
Even UConn star Paige Bueckers raised her hand to help. College women's basketball teams are allowed to do charter flights because of the Title IX legislation, which requires universities to give equal opportunities to their men's and women's athletic programs.
Coming up with a long term solution will take some work and money, but four-time WNBA champion Sue Bird said in a recent interview with USA Today that she is feeling positive about the situation.
"All in all, I think the best part about it is people are talking about it... that right there, in my experience, is how the change starts and hopefully it's the beginning of us getting those charter flights," Bird said.
Why sponsors can play such a big role
Going back to Engelbert, she has already said she would like charter flights to be possible for everyone, but the main issue is money. In an interview with ESPN last year, Engelbert explained that the cost of this type of travel would "jeopardize the financial health" of the WNBA. She estimated it would be more than $20 million a year to fund charter flights for an entire WNBA season.
Engelbert said this was something she has been working on since she came to the league and that the WNBA has already asked all major airlines and also charter companies for assistance. But ultimately, it's not something the league can do without sponsors stepping up.
"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," she told ESPN. "Then when people price it out, and they see it's $20 million-plus, you never hear from them again."
Those calls have become even more difficult now, as that estimated number is up to $25 million per year due to multiple factors -- including the new 40-game WNBA schedule this season and fuel costs. Engelbert recently told the Associated Press that the league would need a commitment to it in perpetuity.
"That's 250-300 million dollars. Look at the gate and media deal and sponsorship dollars. We're not close to being able to afford $250 million over the next decade," she said.