Better planning, care by the WNBA could alleviate travel issues

Mystics guard Natasha Cloud has been outspoken about WNBA travel issues this season. Getty Images photo.

The 2022 WNBA season has been one of travel woes.

Each year at least one team seems to have a flight delay or a cancelation, which either threatens to make them late for the game they’re trying to get to, or impedes their return to home, and much-needed rest.

This summer, as airline staffing shortages have plagued the entire country, just about every one of the WNBA’s 12 teams have experienced at least one such episode of delay. Chicago, Washington and Minnesota players have taken to social media to highlight the issue, with some calling for the league to “do better” in making travel arrangements.

In perhaps the most dramatic travel mishap this season, the Sparks’ flight back to LA from D.C. was canceled at 1 a.m. Monday, and half of the team slept at the airport before their new 6 a.m. flight, as there were only enough available hotel rooms for a few people. All-Star forward Nneka Ogwumike, who is also the president of the league’s player’s union, chronicled the event with a video. In it she said that “there’s always a first time for everything,” noting she’d never had to sleep in an airport waiting for a flight in her 11-year pro career.

Later that afternoon, Ogwumike and the WNBPA released a statement calling for the league to “permit teams to invest in charter flights between games.” It echoed a previous interview with the union’s executive director, Terri Jackson, who said that the league is “young, but it’s old enough” for a commitment to charter flights. Athletes say they deserve the respect.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert has said the league can’t afford the estimated $20 million that it would cost to fly teams on chartered planes for a season. She has maintained that the WNBA and its franchises and athletes need to become more visible and make more money before more teams are added, and charter flights are considered.

Both parties are right in this case.

The athletes in the best professional basketball league in the world deserve higher pay, and they deserve to be accommodated in ways that enable them to play at their best at all times, which includes reasonable travel arrangements. Solutions do need to be found, as numerous athletes have fallen to injury of late – possibly due to overwork during this year’s compressed schedule.

At the same time, the WNBA doesn’t have nearly the budget that the NBA has. The 30-team league has annual revenues of $7.4 billion, with average player salaries of $6.4 million. The WNBA’s yearly revenue is around $60 million, with average player salaries of $71,635. The annual $60 million price tag for about 40 charter flights per season in the NBA is a far smaller chunk of their total revenue than what such flights would cost the WNBA.

Solutions do need to be found, but there are more realistic and responsible options to consider than charter flights.

Even if privatized flying fit into the WNBA budget, would it align with the social justice and social activism stances that athletes have fought hard for over the last several years? The average charter flight emits two tons of carbon waste in one hour, in comparison to the average person, who produces 8 tons of CO2 in an entire year. Weather extremes are becoming more common across the globe as temperatures rise, as icebergs melt and species become extinct. It is responsible to add to that toll with more private flights?

The WNBA could have prevented a lot of the inconvenience and stress for its athletes this summer with better planning.

To begin with, they opted to shorten the schedule and have it end about a month early to accommodate the FIBA World Cup tournament in September. This means that all 144 players have to rush through a season so that eight percent of them can play in the international competition. This is how the WNBA has worked in the past, but is that necessary now?

Nneka Ogwumike, with Chiney Ogwumike, explains on video why they and some of their teammates will sleep in the Washington D.C. airport early Monday morning. Twitter photo.

This year saw the most brutal preseason cuts that the league has ever seen – cuts that left veterans, a previous rookie of the year and other great young talent off of a roster. How about not compressing the season and just letting the 12 World Cup team members leave early, and sign some of the other talent to finish out the year? The U.S. has the most basketball talent of any nation, by far, and replacements on both sides wouldn’t make that much of a difference.

Flight and hotel accommodation should have taken center stage as the WNBA prepared to go into the season. As early as April, an airline employee staffing shortage was on the rise as plane fares went up and flight cancelations became more common. The league could have arranged bus, instead of plane transportation for teams that could get to the next city with ease, such as Los Angeles-Las Vegas, Chicago-Indianapolis and New York-Connecticut.

A hotel backup plan could have been made for cases when flights were delayed or canceled. In 2022, and especially in major metropolitan areas, there is no reason any team shouldn’t be able to find a hotel where they can sleep for a few hours.

WNBA athletes are tired of being marginalized, insulted and sometimes receiving second-class treatment. It is understandable. But Engelbert, who has more than three decades of business experience, is trying to make the league more visible and viable. That will take time. Meanwhile, the league should do what it can to help itself with better planning, and in taking better care of its product – the players.

It is worth noting that the NBA didn’t begin experimenting with charter flight usage until around 1991 – 45 years into their existence. Prior to that, players in that league flew commercial and sat in first class. Private planes didn’t become the standard for them until the mid-1990’s, at which time the average NBA player made just over $1 million. That league’s now-extravagant salaries and accommodations are a reflection of its growth.

While the WNBA grows to that level, league officials need to be more proactive in planning for travel, and in taking care of the athletes that give their bodies and souls to the game that they love.