Brittney Griner’s return to the WNBA this summer after being traded with Russia in a dramatic prisoner swap in December has clashed with free agency, leading to potential league travel complications over safety concerns for her.
If Griner, who is a free agent but has said she will be returning to Phoenix, needs special travel accommodations — such as charter flights — the league needs to come up with a plan for the 6-foot-9 star. Griner’s safety while traveling will be a top priority for the team and the league.
“We are very aware of BG’s unique situation,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told The Associated Press. “We planned and thought about it with security experts. BG’s side, our side. We’ll find the right time to comment on that when she signs with a team.”
That could come on Wednesday when free agents can officially sign.
While the Griner situation is unique, other prominent players raised the issue of charter flights, which teams deemed too costly.
The current collective agreement requires all teams to fly commercially and does not allow teams to charter flights. Any change would need to be approved by both the union and the league.
“No one wants to work on it more than I do,” Engelbert said. “That’s why we’re working so hard to transform the economic business model. We have seen positive changes over the past few years, but we will not jeopardize the league’s financial viability. We are here on the cusp of something big.”
HOW MUCH WOULD IT COST FOR THE WNBA TO CHARTER FLIGHTS?
Engelbert says it would cost the league about $25 million each season if each of its 12 teams chartered flights to every game. That number is about $5 million higher than the commissioner’s previous estimates due to the new 40-game WNBA schedule this season, fuel costs and other factors.
The estimated cost per franchise for charter flights would be approximately $2 million. According to two people familiar with the cost, air travel costs are currently around $150,000 for each team. People spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly address the issue.
“We did it for the finals last year and we have experience with how much it costs for routes that we have to fly,” said Engelbert. “We monitor and update our analytics. We will try to find an economic model to fund this as soon as possible.”
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A TEAM CHARTERS FLIGHTS?
If teams violate the current CBA, they can be fined.
The New York Liberty was fined $500,000 in 2021 for chartering flights to away games in the second half of that season.
HAS THE WNBA CONSIDERED SUBSIDIZING FLIGHTS?
Coveted free agent Breanna Stewart, who has narrowed her picks to a few teams including New York, launched a social media campaign to try and get charter flights for the league. She tweeted, “I would love to be part of a deal that helps subsidize charter travel for the entire WNBA. I would contribute my NIL, posts + production hours to ensure we all travel in a way that prioritizes player health and safety, ultimately resulting in a better product. Who is with me?”
Many current and former WNBA and NBA players offered their support. However, any change in travel restrictions would need to be coordinated by the union and the league.
“We need a permanent commitment to that,” Engelbert said. “That’s $250 to $300 million. Look at the goal and the media deal and the sponsorship money. We’re nowhere near able to afford $250 million over the next ten years.”
CHARTER FLIGHTS FOR WOMEN’S COLLEGE TEAMS?
WNBA players are used to flying charter flights. That’s how they traveled in college.
Title IX legislation requires universities to have equal opportunity for their athletic programs for men and women. The NCAA flies both the men’s and women’s teams on charter flights for the tournament when they are more than 400 miles from the venue of their game.
This legislation doesn’t apply to the pros, so NBA teams that charter between cities won’t affect what WNBA teams do.