WNBA expands charter flights program to include 2023 playoffs, back-to-back games

FILE - Basketballs sit in a rack during practice for the WNBA All-Star basketball game in Chicago, Saturday, July 9, 2022. Even the handful of players selected in the upcoming WNBA draft will find it difficult to continue their pro careers. There are only potentially 144 WNBA roster spots available and most of those are filled with returning players. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)
The WNBA is making a stride toward improved travel for the league. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

The WNBA is expanding its charter program this season to include private travel for back-to-back games in the regular season and the entire playoffs, the league announced Monday.

Although 2022 saw an expansion to allow private travel for the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup Championship Game and all WNBA Finals games, charter flights were rarely approved otherwise. The league even prohibited teams from picking up the tab themselves in order to prevent a supposed unfair advantage.

The new flight additions are expected to cost around $4.5 million — a price the league will pay, according to The Associated Press.

Improved travel is not a new issue for the young league, but saw a revived push recently when Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner expressed her intention to return to the court shortly after her release from Russian prison. Reports quickly surfaced concerning Griner's anticipated need for private flights due to security concerns. Her travel plan will be "confidential," WNBA Commissioner Cathy Englebert told The Associated Press.

Now signed to the New York Liberty, Breanna Stewart spent the beginning of this year utilizing her platform as a top free agent to advocate for air travel and called for a deal that would subsidize charter travel for the WNBA with NIL money. She offered her own resources and received public commitments from the likes of Sue Bird and Ja Morant.

At the time, Engelbert told ESPN that such transport, for both a 40-game regular season and playoffs, would cost the league $25 million annually, a price tag she indicated was too steep for the league's current finances.

Even for the current additions, the cost is substantial, Engelbert told the Associated Press.

“It’s significant dollars,” she said. “Now that we have best of three and five in the semifinals and finals. ... You add it up it’s a lot of flights.”

Earlier this year, Engelbert told ESPN she felt the most viable path to fund improved travel would be a new media rights deal.

While a new deal has yet to unfold, Englebert indicated that efforts to expand chartered travel won't stop here.

“We continue the hard work of transforming the business of the league, and the ability to expand this program is a direct result of that,” she said. “Since joining the league a few years ago, a goal of mine has been to enhance the overall player experience and, in that regard, make incremental improvements where we are able to do so and when we believe the economic model would support it for the long-term. I’m pleased that we are able to broaden the program this year for the players. As the league continues to grow, we will look to do more in the future.”

The continued growth of the league appears imminent. As the WNBA announced Monday's news, a class of draft prospects gathered in New York — most of them having just played in an NCAA tournament that enjoyed a huge viewership boost.

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