Last season, during the 2021 WNBA Finals, the league announced that it would pay for chartered flights for the Sky and Mercury when the two teams needed to travel from Phoenix to Chicago between Games 2 and 3. Such perks are rare because of the cost, but the league has recently made exceptions during the playoffs under new commissioner Cathy Engelbert.
But while the league has occasionally been willing to pick up the bill in certain circumstances, owners are not allowed to do the same for their teams during the season. Under the current CBA, charter flights are banned in order to maintain competitive balance; some owners may be willing and able to pay for them, but other owners cannot.
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Last season, the New York Liberty, led by new owners Joe and Clara Tsai, decided to push those boundaries by paying for chartered flights anyway, according to Sports Illustrated‘s Howard Megdal. After they were caught, a furious league office proposed massive penalties, including a $1 million fine, substantial loss of draft picks and possibly even “termination of the franchise.”
Ultimately, after the Liberty acquiesced and did not charter a flight for their first-round playoff game, they were fined $500,000 — still the biggest fine in league history — and would not face any further punishment. Per Megdal, Engelbert told the WNBA’s Board of Governors during a call in November that she “cut a deal” with the Tsais.
During a previous WNBA Board of Governors call in September, the Liberty reportedly made a proposal to have chartered flights be the standard for all teams, and claimed to have a path to get the cost comped for three years. The plan did not go through because it did not have majority support, per Megdal.
In a statement provided to CBS Sports, a WNBA spokesperson disputed that aspect of the report: “At no point was there a New York Liberty proposal for the WNBA Board of Governors to consider offering three-years-worth of charter flights for WNBA teams. It was agreed that the Liberty would explore opportunities regarding charter flights and present it to the Board. To date, that has not happened.”
All told, 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 team bonding experience — a benefit that also violated the CBA. 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 better travel gave them much of an edge. Still, it was a purposeful violation of the current rules, and it’s no surprise the league came down hard.
The bigger question moving forward will be how this affects the league’s approach to issues like travel accommodations 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 who are either unwilling or unable to meet the rising expectations continue to hold back the rest of the league? How does expansion, which looks increasingly likely in the next few years, play into all of this?
In February, the WNBA announced a $75 million capital raise from investors to help address some of these problems. “It’s really important that the players know this is investment in them, even though it’s in the league and not a specific team or just specific players,” Engelbert said. “It’s to help grow our revenue streams and produce sustainable long-term growth.”
But even with a substantial increase in funding, it’s clear the league is facing some serious existential questions as it plans for the next five, 10, 25 years.