Why chartered flights could be a game-changer for WNBA players

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Since the WNBA launched in 1997, teams have primarily traveled on commercial airlines due to financial reasons. And all travel parameters were part of the collective bargaining agreements between the league and players' union. But in recent years, the call for charter flights has grown more insistent.

Players have cited health and safety concerns, explaining that commercial travel adds to fatigue, which impacts performance. Plus, the growing popularity of WNBA players has made their security in public places a more urgent issue.

The WNBA began using charters for all playoff games in 2023. But on Tuesday, the league -- without going into specifics -- confirmed even bigger travel changes are coming.

"We intend to fund a full-time charter for this season," WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said. "We're going to as soon as we can get it up and running. Maybe it's a couple weeks, maybe it's a month ... We are really excited for the prospects here."

Engelbert said it's projected to cost around $25 million per year for the next two seasons, according to The Associated Press. But other details -- including the funding for charters and what happens to the commercial tickets already purchased for teams' travel -- haven't been announced. Switching to charters is a landmark move for the players' working experience, one of Engelbert's priorities.

The growth of the college season, which had record television viewership numbers, and the WNBA appears to have accelerated interest and investment in women's basketball.

"We've been on a wave," Minnesota Lynx and U.S. Olympic team coach Cheryl Reeve said Tuesday on a media call. "But this is like a bit more of a tsunami. If you think the status quo is going to work, you're going to miss out on opportunities to capitalize. Having more of a forward-thinking mindset, being innovative -- that time is now."

ESPN's Kevin Pelton, Alexa Philippou and Michael Voepel look at what the move means for the WNBA season and for the players and the collective bargaining agreement going forward.

WNBA players have been clamoring for full-time charters for some time. Why is the league doing this now?

Philippou: As recently as last month at the WNBA draft, Engelbert said, "We have to be in the right financial position" for chartering and "we're not going to jeopardize the financial viability of this league ... we'll do it at the appropriate time." She has repeatedly said the WNBA has to be able to fund it long-term, not just find a solution for a year or two.

With the explosion of interest in women's basketball when it comes to television viewership, fan popularity and commercial buy-in -- plus more than likely a lucrative upcoming media rights deal for which the league has been in negotiations -- the WNBA must feel confident in its financial situation moving forward to secure chartering before the current CBA is even up.

Pelton: The increased attention on women's basketball also means more scrutiny on the league's decisions, and charter travel is overwhelmingly popular among fans. That might have helped tip this issue over the line. Certain franchises, led by the Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty, were adamant about their desire to travel using charters. We've been moving toward increased use of charter flights for a while, so it was a matter of when and not if this would happen.

Voepel: Because of NIL, top players are building portfolios and brands in college. Companies are investing in them, and there is more impetus to protect those investments. Players such as the Indiana Fever's Caitlin Clark and the Chicago Sky's Angel Reese have endorsement deals that have put them in the millionaire category before even playing a WNBA game. If NIL had been in place years earlier, other top women's players would have brought a similar kind of financial leverage into the WNBA. But it's happening now.

What has Engelbert said about the financial commitment for this decision? How will the league fund a full-time charter program?

Voepel: Some franchises have more resources than others. But it was against the collective bargaining agreement and league rules for those franchises to charter, as it was considered a competitive advantage. The New York Liberty were fined $500,000 in 2022 for having used charters for game travel and a team excursion in 2021.

Engelbert is an accountant by trade who rose to CEO of Deloitte before retiring from the finance world and moving to the WNBA. As Alexa said, Engelbert has been metronome-like in saying charters had to make financial sense. So while we don't know the details yet, it's reasonable to think the WNBA has made enough progress on that front to do this. There has never been an indication that Engelbert would even consider taking a huge financial risk that could harm the league.

Philippou: Prior to Tuesday's news, Engelbert had said that the league would spend $4 million on chartering for the 2024 postseason, Commissioner's Cup and back-to-back games requiring air travel.

What does this mean for the upcoming CBA negotiations?

Pelton: It's a huge win for the players to address their biggest concern without needing to bargain for it during CBA negotiations. That sets the stage for players to aim higher: getting a guaranteed share of revenue, like NBA and NFL players enjoy in exchange for their league's salary caps. The current CBA guarantees players only a designated share of revenue past cumulative growth targets starting with the 2020 season, when there was no ticket revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It's not realistic for WNBA players to get the same percentage of revenue as their NBA counterparts (50% of basketball-related income) because fixed costs like travel eat up a larger share of expenses. Still, tying the cap to revenues would allow players' salaries to keep pace as WNBA revenue booms.

Voepel: What Kevin said is key: The growth targets for WNBA revenue sharing have never been triggered. So it really hasn't mattered what the percentage was, from CBA to CBA, since they never reached the trigger to begin with. But if those targets are adjusted, combined with more growth, that changes things.

Many of us who cover the WNBA have pointed out that the players have signed off on all their CBAs over the years without insisting on the move away from commercial travel. So while they might complain about it, they did agree to it. The assumption was that they would finally reach a CBA negotiation where both sides could agree it was time to use charters. The players can opt out early from the current CBA after 2025, but it appears if they do that, they won't have to negotiate the move to charters.

Philippou: In ESPN's WNBA player survey last summer, over half the players polled stated travel was the top issue facing the league at that moment. Assuming the chartering issue is now fully taken care of, players might look to fight for roster expansion -- currently teams can have a maximum of only 12 players on their rosters, and some carry only 11 due to cap space -- or increased salaries -- the supermaximum in 2024 is $241,984. Both were commonly mentioned issues in our survey.

What role did security concerns play in ushering in this change?

Philippou: Last season, Brittney Griner -- who was detained in Russia for 10 months in 2022 before being freed in a high-profile prisoner exchange -- was harassed in an airport by a provocateur, prompting the league to allow her to fly charter for the rest of the 2023 season. With high-profile players such as Clark and Reese entering the league this season, there was some concern about what sort of interactions those superstars would experience in airports. More generally, the profiles of WNBA players have never been greater, so limiting their exposure in public spaces helps ensure their safety and security.

Voepel: Becky Hammon played 16 seasons in the WNBA, then spent eight years as an NBA assistant before returning to the WNBA in December 2021 as Aces coach. She said improving team security was paramount when she came to Las Vegas, considering how much she knew about that necessity in the NBA.

"We've hired security to travel with us full time, every event that we have," Hammon said on a media call Tuesday. "The No. 1 priority for me is their safety. We want to make sure that as they're moving in and out of cities, they're taken care of."

What have been the other major reasons WNBA players want charters?

Philippou: Players have taken to social media over the years to document travel horror stories, whether it be delayed flights, spending the night in airports, long travel days, or something in between. In addition to comfort, security and reducing wear-and-tear, chartering should significantly save teams time and energy as they travel to and from games. Some markets, such as Connecticut, are notoriously difficult to get to (Uncasville is an hour from the Hartford-area airport, and it's difficult to get a direct flight to many destinations). Travel hiccups will still occur, of course, but chartering should significantly reduce some of those issues.

Pelton: Travel was one of the main areas where the WNBA lagged elite college basketball programs in providing for players. While the notion that players are taking a pay cut because WNBA salaries are lower than their potential off-court NIL income in college is folly because those endorsements typically carry over, it is true that college stars are accustomed to flying charter between games, making commercial air travel as a pro a shock to the system.

Voepel: One thing some people don't understand is that colleges have Title IX obligations regarding women's programs. If they are chartering for men's teams, they have to balance that for women's teams. It's completely different for a business like the WNBA that is profit-based. There are no Title IX regulations. The only thing that determines amenities for pro teams is, "Can they afford it?"