Last season, during the 2021 WNBA Finals, the league announced that it would pay for charter flights for the Sky and Mercury when both teams had to travel from Phoenix to Chicago between Games 2 and 3. Such perks are rare in cost, but the league recently made exceptions in the playoffs under new commissioner Cathy Engelbert.
But while the league has sometimes been willing to foot the bill in certain circumstances, owners aren’t allowed to do the same for their teams during the season. Under the current CBA, charter flights are prohibited in order to maintain a competitive balance; some owners may be willing and able to pay them, but others may not.
Please check the subscribe box to confirm that you wish to subscribe.
Thank you for your registration!
Keep an eye on your inbox.
An error occurred while processing your subscription.
Last season, the New York Liberty, run by new owners Joe and Clara Tsai, decided to push those limits by still paying for charter flights, according to Sports Illustratedby Howard Megdal. After they were caught, a furious league office offered massive penalties, including a $1 million fine, a substantial loss of draft picks, and possibly even “termination of the franchise.”
In the end, after the Liberty acquiesced and did not charter a flight for their first-round playoff game, they were a fine of $500,000 — still the biggest fine in league history — and would face no further penalties. Per Megdal, Engelbert told the WNBA Board of Governors on a call in November that she had “made a deal” with the Tsais.
In a previous WNBA Board of Governors call in September, the Liberty reportedly proposed that charter flights be the norm for all teams and claimed to have a way to get cost compensation for three years. The plan was not passed because it lacked majority support, according to Megdal.
In a statement provided to CBS Sports, a WNBA spokesperson disputed this aspect of the report: “At no time was there a proposal from New York Liberty for the WNBA Board of Governors to consider offer three years of charter flights to WNBA teams. It was agreed that the Liberty would explore charter flight opportunities and present it to the board. To date, this has not happened.
In total, the Liberty paid for charter flights for five road games in the second half of the season, as well as a trip to Napa Valley over Labor Day weekend for a bonding experience. team – an advantage that also violated the ABC. The team ended up losing all five of those road games in the second half of the season, so it’s hard to say the best trip gave them a huge advantage. Still, it was a deliberate violation of current rules, and it’s no surprise the league was hit hard.
The biggest question going forward will be how this affects the league’s approach to issues such as traveler accommodation and the growing disparity between ownership groups. Should wealthier and more invested owners be allowed to use their resources to improve conditions for their players? Can old-school owners unwilling or unable to meet rising expectations continue to hold back the rest of the league? How does expansion, which seems increasingly likely in the next few years, play into all of this?
In February, the WNBA announced raising $75 million from investors to help address some of these issues. “It’s really important that the players know it’s an investment in them, even if it’s in the league and not in a specific team or just specific players,” Engelbert said. “It’s to help increase our revenue streams and produce long-term sustainable growth.”
But even with a substantial increase in funding, it’s clear the league faces serious existential questions as it plans for the next five, 10, 25 years.