The current state of air travel, fraught with constant delays and cancellations, is stressful enough for even the most casual traveler. The WNBA—one of the few professional sports leagues that has their teams fly commercially rather than through charter or private flights—has often battled travel issues over the past few seasons.
This season, however, that hot-button topic has come even more to the forefront, even stealing the spotlight at times. For players and teams across the league, the trials and tribulations of commercial flight cause an even bigger headache, as upcoming games, road trips, and quick turnarounds are constantly put in jeopardy.
The WNBA has said it is working on fixing the issues and acknowledged it is considering charter flights throughout the season in the coming years, something the league says could cost upwards of $20 million a year. Most recently, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced the WNBA will provide charter flights to teams playing in the WNBA Finals.
Although these initial actions are steps in the right direction, no tangible change has occurred as of yet. The WNBA is still faced with a big issue when it comes to travel for its 12 teams, and something that should be improving has only worsened—and might continue to do so moving forward.
Back in 2018, the Las Vegas Aces spent more than 24 hours attempting to travel to Washington, D.C., only to spend the day dealing with flight cancellations and even sleeping in a Dallas airport before they finally departed. A season ago, in 2021, the New York Liberty decided to personally fund charter flights for the team, but that was in violation of the league’s collective bargaining agreement, resulting in the Liberty receiving a fine.
In May of this season, commercial flights and traveling with the general public also resulted in some players entering health and safety protocols—one example being Washington Mystics’ Natasha Cloud—leading to missed games.
Those issues have resulted in multiple players and coaches publicly expressing their displeasure with the league and its lack of addressing travel issues. Las Vegas first-year head coach Becky Hammon said earlier this season the WNBA has “gotta address the travel thing,” adding the travel situation needs “to be changed immediately.”
The public outcry hasn’t made much of an impact yet when it comes to actionable change from the league, and the travel issues have continued in the second half of the 2022 season. In mid-July, the Minnesota Lynx saw their flight from Indiana to Washington canceled, with the team arriving in the nation’s capital early in the morning and expected to play 12 hours later.
“I’ve been in this league a long time, as a leader of a team for more than a decade. If you do this long enough, you’re going to be in these situations,” Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve said. “When it comes down to the challenges that occur, it’s all about leadership and your ability to collectively work through a situation. In our situation, yeah—it was challenging and disappointing that we were in that situation.”
— Mitchell Hansen (@M_Hansen13) July 17, 2022
Aside from the delays and cancellations the Lynx experienced during that journey, Reeve noted there “was no communication with the leadership of the Minnesota Lynx,” adding it took multiple attempts from her and others on the Lynx to even reach anyone in the league office about the situation.
“Probably greater disappointment was a lack of support that we felt in terms of unresponsive messages to the league,” Reeve said. “To me, it’s an epic fail. When you go through these things, it’s unfortunate. Nobody’s blaming anyone, but let’s work through it. It’s unacceptable that didn’t happen. I thought we deserve more respect than that and I thought I deserved more respect than that. … We’re not happy that there was no consideration given to us.”
Travel issues have occurred long before the 2022 season, but they have only worsened this summer, and players and teams have had enough. Now, they are becoming more vocal in expressing their displeasure.
Performance when Traveling
Traveling can be taxing enough—whether it’s due to jet lag, time zone shifts, schedules for recovery, or the often short turnaround times—but throw in these delays and cancellations, and even the regular aspects of season life become unmanageable.
Players and coaches should be focusing on their games and trying to put forth the best product on the court. But traveling commercially, and the headaches it has presented WNBA teams, has made that a difficult objective.
“You try to show up and do the right things and be ready, but the scheduling is really hard. It’s about whatever it takes. It’s just part of the grind, we know that,” Lynx guard Kayla McBride said in July. “Hopefully the league can figure things out logistics wise, because if they want the best product on the court, they have to provide those kinds of resources. We know that’s part of our lives and our journey, but it is hard. I’m used to playing year-round, but this is really really hard. You just try and give everything you have.”
For teams playing either on limited days of rest or traveling away from their home markets, there has been a trend of sub-par performances. That’s not an uncommon thing to see, with many teams often ending up with better home records than away records (and also having better records with additional days of rest), but when you throw travel issues into the mix, it makes things even tougher.
More than 80 percent of the way through the regular season, WNBA teams hold a combined record of 92-88 in games played on either zero days or one day of rest. As far as games played at home and on the road, teams were 85-96 in road contests and an opposite 96-85 on their home courts. There has also been an expected difference in team statistics in road games compared to home games this summer.
Of course, charter flights might not fix or improve those statistics drastically, but a shift in travel experience would at least limit extra strain and stress for players already pushing a tight schedule.
Increased Need for Charter Flights
Though charter flights are desperately needed in the WNBA, introducing this change won’t happen at the snap of a finger, as it’s a complex issue.
First and foremost, it’s not cheap, assuming the league would pay for those travel arrangements. Up to $20 million in extra funding towards travel is a hefty expense for a league that is already trying to expand and increase player salaries, among other improvements. Yes, the billionaire owners of each franchise could provide assistance—if they all wanted to do so—which is one avenue worth looking into in the near future.
“We discussed [charter flights]with the [players association],” Engelbert said recently. “I think we’ll look for other opportunities to do charters like we have in the past. People don’t know we did a bunch of charters during last year’s playoffs when we had a West to East [travel]with challenging one-day’s rest or no-day’s rest, so we’ll continue to look for those opportunities should our budget allow it.”
Regardless, it’s apparent now more than ever that a shift from commercial travel to charter flights needs to be at the top of the WNBA’s to-do list. The league has started to take steps, but that won’t be enough moving forward, and the league could see even more issues with travel if a permanent change isn’t made.
In 2022, the league already expanded the regular season schedule from 32 to 36 games, with that expanding to as many as 40 games beginning in 2023. The WNBA is also starting its new postseason format, which could add up to eight playoff games compared to previous seasons. That will mean more games over the same period of time, resulting in teams traveling with quicker turnaround times. Those road trips cannot be spent stranded in airports.
Shouldn’t the WNBA want to showcase the best on-court product on a nightly basis? If so, a major way of assisting that would be providing these professional athletes with charter flights. It has been an issue for years, has increased in 2022, and could worsen moving forward if the league doesn’t find a permanent solution to its travel issues.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of WNBA Stats.