The WNBA has been accused of a traveling violation—one that could cost as much as $30 million per year to solve if it’s done the way the players want, which means ditching commercial flights in favor of private planes.
The W’s current media rights deal is worth less annually than what charter travel would cost, but some of the league’s biggest stars, led by two-time WNBA champion Breanna Stewart, are tired of hearing why it doesn’t or can’t work.
“I would love to be part of a deal that helps subsidize charter travel for the entire WNBA,” Stewart, the league’s 2018 MVP and currently one of it’s most sought-after free agents, tweeted Sunday, adding that she’d be willing to put her name, image and likeness, time and social posts toward an agreement with charter sponsors. “Who’s with me?”
The WNBA isn’t—at least not yet. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert maintains that the league cannot afford the costs of charter travel, especially for its 12 teams over the league’s expanded 40-game slate, and hasn’t yet found partners to support it. The current travel spend on airfare is a “very small fraction” of the projected charter costs, she says. But she’s not ruling Stewart’s suggestion out, instead just leaving it in the hands of the players, for now.
“We work with players all the time with different partners they’re partnered with,” Engelbert said. “Look, if they could get companies to step up—I think it would have to be a collective of companies, because $25 or $30 million a year is a big number—but if a bunch of players got a bunch of companies who wanted to help fund this, we’d absolutely partner with the players and talk to them about how it would work. Now, it would have to be fair across the 12 teams, but we’d absolutely be open to anything that our players are looking at from an endorsement or potential sponsorship perspective.”
The WNBA says the other option, which is allowing owners to choose how their players travel, could create competitive imbalances. Thus, charter travel without league approval is prohibited by the current collective bargaining agreement. Players agreed to table the charter travel conversation during their most recent negotiations in exchange for more substantial increases in compensation, but not all are willing to accept the status quo through the end of the agreement in 2027.
Nearly a dozen of Stewart’s peers—among them some of the WNBA’s most marketable players, including Elena Delle Donne, Chiney Ogwumike and recently retired Sue Bird—jumped on her proposal. Even UConn’s Paige Bueckers and Memphis Grizzlies superstar Ja Morant raised their digital hands.
Stewart’s public campaigning for a solution could reignite sponsorship conversations, but it also begs the question of what player participation is worth to potential league partners. An endorsement deal worth $25 million annually is something few individual athletes in the world can command, but the collective value and reach a group of star players could provide is significant. The combined social following of the six aforementioned athletes is nearly 15 million users—could they generate $25 million in value for potential partners, or enough to make private travel affordable for all 12 teams?
Wasserman’s Lindsay Kagawa Colas, who represents Stewart and several other WNBA stars including Brittney Griner, “absolutely” believes players could deliver exposure and brand awareness on par with what sponsoring a charter effort would cost.
“There are several creative approaches, including the integration of the influential athletes and media companies that responded in the affirmative to Stewie’s tweet that would produce an outsize return on investment for brands,” Colas said. “To date, proposals for a league-wide solution have not included individual athlete activation. Athletes like Stewie, Sabrina [Ionescu], Sue Bird, EDD [Delle Donne], Jewell [Loyd], Chiney, Nneka [Ogwumike], Paige, Ja and Brittney Griner signaling they want to be part of the solution change the calculus entirely.”
Engelbert is wary of making such a change without having a sustainable economic model to support private travel longer term. What happens if a sponsor drops out? If the league expands and charter travel costs increase? Who covers those differences? The WNBA can’t, she says, at least not today.
Last season, the league provided charter flights during the WNBA finals—a welcome first—but Engelbert reiterated that there’s a lack of sufficient revenue to deliver the same for the full season. Getting the green light for chartered flights before the league has the revenue itself requires either an equitable financial commitment from owners (whose financial means vary across the league) or partners to sponsor the private flights league-wide. Engelbert has tried to accomplish the latter without success despite pitching the proposition “all the time.”
“Honestly, when we start to talk about the numbers that are involved here, that scares people away,” Engelbert said. “That’s why longer term, it [happens] ultimately either through the right valuation of our media rights or a collective of sponsors who really want to step up and make this happen. Because once you do it, you have to do it for decades, if not in perpetuity, so you have to make sure that you have an economic model that’s going to fund it long term.”
She’s banking on the WNBA’s next media rights deal and boosted annuity payments to change its revenue trajectory and open the door for things like charter flights. The league’s current deal with its biggest broadcast partner, Disney, runs through 2025.
Until then, the league will continue to chip away at the charter hurdle as it can. Chartering without approval still won’t fly, even if an ownership group is willing to cover the costs. Just ask Joe Tsai—a longtime advocate for an airline partner to help address travel issues for all teams—who was hit with a record $500,000 fine for chartering flights for the Liberty in 2021.
“No one wants this more than I do, that’s why we are working so hard on this business transformation to drive revenue to be able to afford things like this,” Engelbert said. “We’ll support this when we have an economic and financial model to support it. None of [the owners] want to jeopardize the financial future of the league. They understand that. Some want to go out there and talk about it and be heroes, but ultimately, they know what we’re doing. … We need a little more time coming off two COVID years, but our owners are 100% committed to making this work [and] building a revenue base that can fund charter longer term.”
Athletes in many other professional sports leagues, including the NBA, fly private, as do many men’s and women’s Division I college programs. The WNBA’s financial realities are quite different from their male counterparts, which operate in a league that generates billions in revenue. Top-tier athletic departments, which exist within the billion-dollar enterprise that is the NCAA, operate eight- and nine-figure budgets themselves.
Commercial flights are the status quo in many younger leagues, and particularly throughout women’s sports. NWSL teams fly commercial, even after the league inked a partnership with Delta last year—the airline’s first major sponsorship of a women’s professional league; the deal did not include a charter contract. Premier Lacrosse League and National Lacrosse League players also fly commercial.
Commercial flights can be cramped, riddled with delays and cancellations and often scheduled at inconvenient times. The WNBA has even faced a situation where a team had to forfeit a game because it couldn’t get to its opponent in time. In addition, players have to worry about potential security concerns. Breanna Stewart wants a better solution.
“The number of eyeballs she can get on those social posts will hopefully show the enormous amount of public support for a partnership and how much attention WNBA players can garner,” said Excel Sports Management agent Erin Kane, who represents players including Arike Ogunbowale and Napheesa Collier. “There’s such an opportunity for brands that are willing to help the athletes solve problems to really benefit from being the solution provider. What [Stewart] is saying is: ‘We’ll be good partners. We’re not just asking for a freebie. We’ll help. We’ll advocate for you and share the good that you’re doing.’”
(This article has been updated in the second-to-last paragraph to clarify that one WNBA team had to forfeit a game due to a flight delay.)