The New York Liberty were eliminated from last year’s WNBA playoffs on a free throw with 0.4 seconds left by the Phoenix Mercury’s Brianna Turner. The trip back to New York had to be a rough one, in part because the team had to return on a commercial flight. This was unusual for them: According to a report in Sports Illustrated by Howard Megdal today, the Liberty paid for charter flights for the team numerous times over the course of the season, but did not do so for the playoffs.
This practice of chartering flights started after a mishap earlier in the season. Due to canceled flights, the Liberty had a weekend in July where they arrived for a game in Indiana only about eight and a half hours before tip-off. Then it seemed like they wouldn’t get back to New York until about five hours before tip-off of their next game. Joe Tsai, the Nets owner who also owns the Liberty with his wife Clara Wu Tsai, ended up getting the team an earlier flight ahead of the second game, and apparently fixed the problem for the rest of the season by chartering private flights.
This is not a regular perk of being a WNBA player. Teams fly on commercial flights. This occasionally causes mishaps because of commercial flights’ unreliability: In 2018, after arriving in Washington, the Las Vegas Aces decided not to play and forfeited a game to the Mystics. They’d gotten into D.C. about four hours before tip after more than 25 hours of travel. During last year’s WNBA playoffs, coaches and players for the Connecticut Sun and Chicago Sky were frustrated about having to fly commercial between games. (Their NBA counterparts travel on charter flights.) The WNBA eventually agreed to pay for charter flights for last year’s Finals, where the Sky beat the Mercury in 4 games.
Chartered flights weren’t the only perk the Tsais gave Liberty players. Late in the season, with the team mired in a losing streak, the Liberty were flown to a vacation in California’s Napa Valley over Labor Day.
According to the league, all of this is very bad. Turns out that the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement explicitly states this:
All air travel provided by the Team (including, but not limited to, travel between
games) will be, if available on the Team-chosen flights at the time of booking, premium economy (or similar enhanced coach fare).
Liberty management wasn’t just giving its players a perk. It was giving its players an impermissible perk. And, as SI reports, the league fined the Liberty a WNBA-record $500,000. A league email said the WNBA had also considered taking away “every draft pick you have ever seen” from the Liberty and said the charter flights were “grounds for termination of the franchise.” I also enjoyed this turn of phrase from Medgal: “Born from it is a unique scandal, in which a prominent franchise stands accused of treating its players too well.”
After word got out, the Liberty and the WNBA battled over this toward the end of the season, which led to the team flying commercial for its playoff game in Phoenix. Meanwhile, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert reduced the fine to $500,000 from $1 million. Other owners were then upset, figuring that teams could just pay 500 grand to violate league rules if they wanted to.
Tsai previously said he’d “fix” the travel issues, and SI reports he told the league he found a way to pay for charter flights for teams for the next three years. (It was likely some sort of sponsorship deal.) It did not have the support of owners, who worried about what would happen after three years.
So that’s where we stand now. Just think: If you happen to be flying from Las Vegas to Chicago this year, you might be on a flight with the 2021 WNBA champions, heading home from a game.