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When the WNBA's collective bargaining agreement was negotiated in 2019, the sides decided to address the travel problem as if they were parents with multiple children.
If one can't have it, neither can anyone else. That means teams are at the mercy of commercial flights and walking through crowded airports — while there's a still a pandemic going on, mind you.
New York Liberty owner Joseph Tsai is attempting to remedy that as travel logistics make headlines again and potentially impact a riveting semifinal series between the Chicago Sky and Connecticut Sun. But that won't be the last time this postseason a quick turnaround on commercial airline will prove problematic.
Tsai working to fix charter problem
Tsai officially purchased the Liberty in January 2019 and later that year turned his 49% stake in the Brooklyn Nets into sole ownership. He and his wife, Clara Wu Tsai, governor of the Liberty, have been active in the WNBA since then. And in July, after New York's own travel nightmare detailed by Jazmine Jones' social media, he addressed this issue on Twitter.
"Enough is enough. I'm going to solve this transportation problem for good @WNBA @nyliberty," he wrote.
"Getting your team to an away game and back comfortably, safely and on time is a business necessity. It's the right thing every owner should do," he added.
Tsai updated that stance late Friday and said he is working on a plan to get a charter sponsor for the league.
League says you can’t fly charter because different owners have different financial circumstances. I’m working with Commissioner Englebert to find a charter sponsor. Conversations with airline CEOs going well. They get the idea of equity for women athletes.
— Joe Tsai (@joetsai1999) October 2, 2021
He wrote on Twitter:
"League says you can't fly charter because different owners have different financial circumstances. I'm working with Commissioner Cathy Engelbert to find a charter sponsor. Conversations with airline CEOs going well. They get the idea of equity for women athletes."
A charter sponsor would likely comp travel, or work out a better deal, in exchange for visibility and sponsorship plugs.
The league's stance has been one of competitive advantage: not every ownership team can pay for charter flights, so no one is allowed to use charter flights. That also applies to the All-Star game. Las Vegas Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer said the team budgeted money to fly All-Stars first-class to Vegas in 2019, but the league said he couldn't do it. WNBA Chief Operating Officer Christy Hedgpeth told the Associated Press there were aspects of the Aces plans for hosting that "we determined might create an unfair advantage for the team moving forward." The All-Stars did fly first class to the game in Vegas this season, per the new CBA.
Travel problems in WNBA
Travel logistics have been a problem in the league for a long time. And every year it comes to the forefront in the playoffs.
This time around the Sky and Sun sounded off after the Sun tied the series on Thursday night. The game ended around 10 p.m. ET and Sky players needed to be back for flights that began at 3:30 a.m.
Yes, plural flights. The Sky traveled back to Chicago on three different planes from two different airports for the Game 3 on Sunday afternoon (1 p.m. ET on ESPN). The Sun were also separated onto three different flights. Part of this is within the CBA as it stipulates air travel be premium economy or similar "if available" since it has more leg room for players who are commonly 6-feet or taller.
But while it takes on more urgency in the postseason, when teams want to be at their best to play the best competition, this has been a regular season concern for just as long. Multiple teams experienced travel problems that included lengthy delays at airports and late arrivals to game cities. In the biggest headline of the issue, the Aces were forced to find food at Walmart during an arduous travel experience got them into Connecticut late.
Well, the Aces could be flying to Connecticut again soon. A repeat is unacceptable.
WNBA Finals create a logistical problem
The bigger issue will be logistics between the semifinals and WNBA Finals.
If either semifinal series goes to a Game 5 that game is scheduled for Friday evening with TV slots at 8 p.m and 10 p.m. ET. The turnaround for Game 1 of the Finals, scheduled for that Sunday at 3 p.m. on ABC, is 41-43 hours from final buzzer.
That time period has to include media obligations, warm-down routines and a cross-country flight. (If Chicago gets through, that flight will be shorter, but still lengthy.)
It's either Vegas or Phoenix flying to Connecticut, or Chicago flying to Vegas or Phoenix.
Even if it doesn't go five games, and both finish up in four, there is a time and travel concern. The Games 4 will play Wednesday at 8 and 10 p.m. ET. If they finish early, the WNBA said it will move the Finals up with Game 1 to be played that Friday. It's a 48-hour turnaround.
Depending on how it plays out, that 48-hour turnaround with a cross-country commercial flight involved could rear its ugly head again.
WNBA set precedent for charter playoff issue
Engelbert faced this exact issue in her first playoffs as commissioner. The WNBA arranged and covered costs for chartered flights for the Sparks and Aces to travel across the country to Connecticut and Washington, D.C. respectively. That was what Sky head coach James Wade reference after Game 2 on Thursday night, questioning why the league wasn't doing the same in this case.
And therein lies the problem. Arranging a charter was the right thing to do for competitive sake. And it set the precedent to do it again in the fairness of future playoff teams. But we haven't seen that announcement. And it's another example of how the league won't help itself grow the game properly.
Yes, charter flights are expensive. That's the price of doing business.