As the WNBA and women’s basketball in general grow in stature, the areas in which the league’s business operations need to make sizable leaps become increasingly apparent.
Travel is among the biggest, as teams still fly commercial from game to game, with players having to pay for any upgrades they want for increased leg room and space. Recently, Joe Tsai paid for the New York Liberty to have charter flights to games, and was subsequently fined $500,000, leading to quite the uproar from players and fans wondering why teams were being punished for wanting to spend to create better conditions for their players.
Most recently, the Sparks spent a night in the airport after a game in D.C. after a flight was cancelled and there were not open hotel rooms, leading to further outcry over the travel situations players are often put in. The WNBA heard that and will be taking on the cost as a league to charter flights for teams that play on back-to-backs during the regular season, and throughout the playoffs in 2023. That is a positive step, but one that might not be replicable for the future, as this year there are only five back-to-backs on the schedule. The 2024 season will be much more condensed due to the Paris Olympics, with WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert telling the Associated Press that “next year, we can’t do all of them,” with regards to back-to-backs.
Englebert hopes a new media deal can eventually cover the cost of chartering flights, but the current cost for the full season would be $25 million, per the AP, which the league can’t cover. What is maybe most frustrating is the cost per team to charter flights for a full season would be $2 million, which for most any professional sports franchise would be a drop in the buckets and explains why owners like Tsai and Mark Davis, who came to the WNBA having already owned men’s sports teams, have pushed to pay for the charter flights themselves.
To charter for the whole season the estimated cost per franchise would be approximately $2 million. Air travel expenses currently for each team is about $150,000, according to two people familiar with the costs. The people spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly address the issue.
Finding a way to meet that cost, plus paying players more as top stars in college make more now in NIL than they would in a rookie salary in the WNBA, has to be a top priority for the league in coming years if they are to continue this growth. A lot of the onus falls on owners being willing to spend more in the short-term, recognizing how that will benefit their long-term investment. Some see that already, but it’s clear the league as a whole is not ready to make that leap.
For now, we’ll get a half measure in the form of playoff charters and a handful for back-to-backs this season. It’s a start, but one the league has to be able to build on for 2024, because taking a step back in terms of travel conditions would only look worse.