Breanna Stewart free agency spotlights WNBA’s out-of-whack travel inequalities
Breanna Stewart is, by most reckonings, the best women’s basketball player in the world, and as she enters free agency in her prime at the age of 28, she has the potential to upend the WNBA. In more ways than one.
Stewart is leveraging the attention surrounding her decision and the question of whether she’ll be taking her talents to Brooklyn (the New York Liberty, who play home games at Barclays Center, are the likely front-runners among four finalists to sign her) to advocate for the league to scrap its low-budget travel policy and adopt the use of charter flights for its teams.
The charter-flight issue gets at the heart of the economic tensions in the WNBA’s growth from a fledgling league to a more mainstream, moneyed operation — and who’s footing the bill.
“I would love to be part of a deal that helps subsidize charter travel for the entire WNBA,” Stewart wrote Sunday on social media. “I would contribute my [name, image and likeness], 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?”
The tweet, which had 3.6 million views as of Wednesday afternoon, was promoted by fellow WNBA stars Chiney Ogwumike and Elena Delle Donne, as well as NBA All-Star point guard Ja Morant and Connecticut phenom Paige Bueckers.
“I’m glad they’re speaking out. … I want this generation of WNBA players to really fight for what’s good for our league,” former WNBA All-Star Chasity Melvin told The Post.
“It was very difficult [when I flew commercial], because one thing that is difficult is the training aspect and the physical aspect, you know, the swelling of your knees and your feet. … You can have the best trainers but you’re not gonna get all that swelling out and you’re not gonna be stretched properly to play in the game. We practiced for long hours and we flew commercial and had to get up at 4 a.m. for flights. … So you take a full day to travel where you could use it as practice time if you have charter flights.”
Only it’s not nearly so simple as taking up a collection and then fueling up the private jets. The rules about travel standards are part of the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players’ union, and WNBA team owners — many of whom have balked at the added cost — would have to vote to modify the current system in which teams exclusively fly commercial and charter flights are prohibited.
In an interview this week with Sportico, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the projected cost of chartering flights across the league is $25 million-30 million per year and the current airfare budget is only a “very small fraction” of that.
“I think it would have to be a collective of companies, because $25 or $30 million a year is a big number — but if a bunch of players got a bunch of companies who wanted to help fund this, we’d absolutely partner with the players and talk to them about how it would work,” Engelbert said.
“Honestly, when we start to talk about the numbers that are involved here, that scares people away. That’s why longer term, it [happens] ultimately either through the right valuation of our media rights or a collective of sponsors who really want to step up and make this happen.”
The buck-passing to players and their sponsors is at least in part due to a divide in the ownership ranks about making the investment in charter flights out of their own pockets. Liberty and Nets owners Joe Tsai and Clara Wu Tsai belong to a contingent of newer, deep-pocketed WNBA owners — said to include Las Vegas Aces owner Mark Davis and the Atlanta Dream group led by Larry Gottesdiener — willing to make seven-figure internal investments.
But for one team to fly private and another to continue to travel on commercial airlines is considered an unfair advantage. In 2021, the Tsais were discovered to have provided charter flights for the Liberty during the second half of the season, according to Sports Illustrated, and the team initially was threatened with “termination of the franchise” before ultimately agreeing to a league-record $500,000 fine — for treating the players too well.
(In related news, Clara Tsai led a Liberty contingent to Istanbul — not on United with a connection in Lisbon, we’re guessing — on Wednesday for a meeting with Stewart.)
Another wrinkle for the 2023 season involves All-Star Mercury center Brittney Griner, who plans to return to the WNBA after spending most of 2022 as a prisoner in Russia. ESPN recently reported there in an assumption that Griner will need to fly privately due to security concerns. And if one team flies private …
So the WNBA, now entering its 27th season, is experiencing the turbulence of a mid-sized pro league — similar to MLS or the G-League — trying to sync its ambitions and balance-sheet realities. As recently as 2018, a game was canceled after the Aces were forced to spend the night in an airport; last year, the league came up with the money for charters during the finals.
“At the end of the day, we’re not a G league,” Melvin said. “We’re the top tier women’s professional league. We have to find a way where we can get charter flights.”
Stewart is speaking up about the discomfort of commercial travel — but to reach new heights with charter flights, someone has to write the big check.