WNBA commissioner: Charter flights for all teams would 'jeopardize' league finances

With the news breaking on Tuesday that the New York Liberty had been fined $500,000 for arranging charter flights last season, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert has once again been asked a lot of questions about one of the league's biggest issues: team travel. More specifically, the possibility of having charter flights for all teams.

She answered that question and a whole lot more in an interview with ESPN, saying that paying for charter flights for all teams is an expense they simply can't absorb.

"It would be more than $20 million a year to fund charter flights for an entire WNBA season," Engelbert said Thursday in an interview with ESPN. "So this is something that we're not going to jeopardize the financial health of the league and be irresponsible about. If we can get it funded by sponsors and supporters, great, but that's not where we are. We do not have that."

Sports Illustrated originally reported Liberty owner Joe Tsai and his wife, Clara Wu, personally paid for team charter flights over the second half of last season. Charter flights have been used by teams before, but typically for playoff games with time zone changes and tight turnarounds.

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert answers questions about a postponed game between the Seattle Storm and the Minnesota Lynx after Game 1 of a WNBA basketball semifinal round playoff game between the Connecticut Sun and the Las Vegas Aces, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said that paying for charter flights for all teams would 'jeopardize' the league's finances. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Cathy Engelbert: Charter flights violated the CBA

Engelbert told ESPN the league had to discipline the Liberty because their "unauthorized" use of charter flights violated the landmark collective bargaining agreement passed two years ago. Tsai paying for charter flights for the Liberty gave them a theoretical competitive advantage, since other teams didn't have access to the same perk and not all teams reportedly can afford to charter flights for their players.

"The CBA is the cornerstone of the league," Engelbert said. "And absolutely, we will never apologize for enforcing the CBA that was negotiated with the players and the players' association, and that's what we did here. That's the ultimate equalizer: that the league — which is neutral — will come in and make sure teams are following the rules, and all the owners want that as well."

Engelbert said she has tried to find funding for league-wide charter flights. But the price tag is so large that it scares off possible sponsors.

"We've asked all the major airlines. We've asked charter companies. I've been working on this since the moment I came into the league. But 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, and they see it's $20 million-plus, you never hear from them again."

The WNBA recently raised $75 million from new investors as well as NBA and WNBA team owners, Engelbert told ESPN. It's tempting to use that money for charter flights, but Engelbert said she and the WNBA owners are using the money to push forward their main goal: grow the league in every way possible.

"We're growing viewership; a lot of things are going well," Engelbert said. "But we can't jeopardize the momentum here. We have to make sure that we're setting this league up to thrive for many years."