Inside Breanna Stewart and WNBA players’ fight for flight equality

Breanna Stewart is, by most estimates, the best female basketball player in the world, and as she enters free agency in her prime at the age of 28, she has the potential to topple the WNBA. In more ways than one.

Stewart is leveraging the attention surrounding her decision and whether she’ll take her talents to Brooklyn (New York Liberty, which plays home games at Barclays Center, is likely the favorite among the four finalists to sign her ) to advocate for the league to abandon its budget travel policy and adopt the use of charter flights for its teams.

The issue of charter flights is at the heart of economic tensions in the WNBA’s growth from a fledgling league to a more traditional, profitable operation — and who foots the bill.

“I would love to be part of a deal that helps subsidize charter travel for the entire WNBA,” Stewart wrote on social media on Sunday. “I would contribute my [name, image and likeness], shifts + production hours to ensure we all travel in a way that puts player health and safety first, which ultimately results in a better product. Who is with me?”

Brittney Griner will return to the WNBA this season.
Brittney Griner will return to the WNBA this season.
Getty Images

The tweet, which had 3.6 million views Wednesday afternoon, was promoted by fellow WNBA stars Chiney Ogwumike and Elena Delle Donne, as well as NBA All-Star point guard Ja Morant and Connecticut phenom Paige Bueckers. .

“I’m glad they’re speaking out. … I want this generation of WNBA players to really fight for what’s good for our league,” former All-Star Chasity Melvin told The Post.

“It was very difficult [when I flew commercial], because one thing that’s hard is the training aspect and the physical aspect, you know, the swelling in your knees and your feet. … You can have the best trainers, but you won’t get all that bulk and you won’t stretch properly to play in the game. We trained for long hours and we were doing commercial flights and we had to get up at 4 am for the flights. … So you take a full day to travel where you could use it as training time if you have charter flights.

Chasity Melvin
Chasity Melvin says she wants the current generation of WNBA players to “really fight for what’s right for our league.”
NBAE via Getty Images

Only it’s not as simple as picking up and then refueling private jets. Travel standards rules are part of the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players’ union, and WNBA team owners — many of whom have balked at the added cost — are expected to vote to change the current system in which teams fly exclusively. commercial and charter flights are prohibited.

In an interview this week with Sportico, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the projected cost of chartering flights across the league is $25-30 million per year and the current ticket budget plane is only a “very small fraction” of that.

“I think it should be a corporate collective because $25m or $30m a year is a big number – but if a group of players had a group of companies that wanted to help fund that, we would absolutely be partners. with the players and talk to them about how it would work,” Engelbert said.

“Honestly, when you start talking about the numbers that are involved here, it scares people. That’s why in the longer term, it [happens] at the end of the day, either through the proper valuation of our media rights, or through a collective of sponsors who really want to step in and make this happen.

The shift of responsibility to players and their sponsors is at least partly due to a split within the ranks of owners over investing in charter flights out of their own pocket. Liberty and Nets owners Joe Tsai and Clara Wu Tsai are among a contingent of new, deep-pocketed WNBA owners — reportedly including Las Vegas Aces owner Mark Davis and Larry Gottesdiener-led Atlanta Dream Group — ready to make seven-figure internal investments.

But the fact that one team flies privately and another continues to fly on commercial airlines is seen as an unfair advantage. In 2021, the Tsais were discovered to have been providing charter flights for the Liberty during the second half of the season, according to Sports Illustrated, and the team was initially threatened with “termination of the franchise” before resigning. ultimately accepting a league record $500,000. very well – for treating the players too well.

Joe Tsai, left, and Clara Wu Tsai, right, own the WNBA's New York Liberty.
Joe Tsai, left, and Clara Wu Tsai, right, own the WNBA’s New York Liberty.
Getty Images

(In related news, Clara Tsai led a Liberty contingent in Istanbul – not on United with a Lisbon connection, we assume – on Wednesday for a meeting with Stewart.)

Another wrinkle for the 2023 season involves All-Star Mercury center Brittney Griner, who plans to return to the WNBA after spending most of 2022 as a prisoner in Russia. ESPN recently reported a speculation there that Griner will have to fly private due to security concerns. And if a team flies privately…

So the WNBA, now entering its 27th season, is experiencing the turbulence of a mid-sized professional league — similar to MLS or the G-League — trying to synchronize its ambitions with the realities of the record. As recently as 2018, a match was called off after the Aces were forced to spend the night at an airport; last year the league found the money for charters in the finals.

“At the end of the day, we’re not a G league,” Melvin said. “We are the premier women’s professional league. We have to find a way to get charter flights.

Stewart talks about the discomfort of commercial travel — but to reach new heights with charter flights, someone has to write the big check.


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