NEW YORK (AP) — The WNBA is adding charter flights for the entire playoffs and back-to-back regular season games this year, the league announced Monday.
The league will pay for all of the flights.
“It’s significant dollars,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told The Associated Press. “Now that we have best of three and five in the semifinals and finals. … You add it up it’s a lot of flights.”
The cost is expected to be around $4.5 million, according to a person familiar with the negotiations. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because details haven’t been publicly released.
Last year, the league chartered for the WNBA Finals as well as for the road team in the Commissioner’s Cup championship game. Since taking over in 2019, Engelbert has slowly added a few more charter opportunities for teams. She allowed playoff teams that were traveling for more than one time zone to fly charter if they only had a day between games in the past.
“It’s something I’ve been working on since I came into the league,” she said. “It was never coming up with money for one year, but creating a sustainable model for the charter program to continue in perpetuity. Once you do it, you have to do it every year.”
Engelbert said that there will be five charters needed during the regular season. Most of them are short trips between Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix. The longest one takes the Seattle Storm from Washington to Atlanta.
“As we continue to work on our growth as I’ve said we would chip away on this,” she said.
Engelbert also said that the league has had discussions with the Mercury and Brittney Griner about her travel arrangements.
Griner is back in the WNBA after her nine-month legal fight in Russia, during which she was detained when customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage, then later arrested before being released in a high-level prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Russia.
“We’ve been working with Brittney and Phoenix since she signed and our security experts,” the commissioner said. “Working on a plan, but we want it to be confidential. She wants to travel with the team sometimes. Work as much as we can making sure we are following advice of our team. We have a very good plan, but I’m not going to share more specifics.”
Chartering flights for games on consecutive nights this season is easier then next year. With no Olympic break or condensed schedule for the World Cup this season there are less teams playing on consecutive nights. Next season that will change because of the 2024 Paris Olympics and Engelbert said that it will be more challenging.
“Next year we can’t do all of them,” she said.
The commissioner hopes that charters in the future can be funded in part by the next TV deal.
“Longer term, if we can get a really good media deal we can do something more fully for these players,” she said.
WNBA teams have flown commercially during the regular season since the league’s inception in 1997. The league typically doesn’t allow teams to charter because it could create a competitive advantage for teams who can afford to pay for them.
The WNBA has come down hard on teams in the past that have broken that rule and flown charter.
Engelbert has said in the past that it would cost the league about $25 million each season for each of its 12 teams to charter flights to every game. That number has increased about $5 million from previous estimates by the commissioner due to the new 40-game WNBA schedule this season, fuel costs and other factors.
To charter for the whole season the estimated cost per franchise would be approximately $2 million. Air travel expenses currently for each team is about $150,000, according to two people familiar with the costs. The people spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly address the issue.
The playoffs are where there could be a major increase in spending with teams potentially flying across country pending the postseason seeding.
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