WNBA's Cathy Engelbert says charter flight model must be 'feasible'

With charter flights for games a lingering issue in the WNBA, especially as it relates to the ongoing free agency signings, league commissioner Cathy Engelbert reiterated Friday that the WNBA has to consider long-term financial prudence regarding any charter decisions.

It is estimated that to charter all flights for a 40-game season and playoffs would cost around $25 million for the 12-team WNBA.

"And the thing some people are missing is that this isn't a one-year funding," Engelbert told ESPN. "This is something you've got to fund -- I want to say in perpetuity -- but let's say you have to make sure you have a business model to fund it for at least a decade.

"So even if you brought a sponsor in to fund it one year ... sponsors can come and go. So you've got to make sure you have an economic model that is feasible to fund it long-term."

Breanna Stewart, who left the Seattle Storm to sign with the New York Liberty on Wednesday, has spoken a lot about the charter issue. Multiple sources also told ESPN's Ramona Shelburne in January that it's been assumed that Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner may need to fly privately due to security concerns after spending 10 months in a Russian prison after authorities in a Moscow airport found a small amount of hashish oil in her luggage.

However, Griner -- a free agent expected to re-sign with the Mercury if she plays in the 2023 season, as she has indicated -- has not made any special requests on travel.

Stewart -- who has the same agent as Griner and another high-profile Liberty free agent signee, Courtney Vandersloot -- tweeted she wanted to be "part of a deal that helps subsidize charter travel for the entire WNBA. I would contribute my NIL, posts + production hrs to ensure we all travel in a way that prioritizes player health + safety, which ultimately results in a better product."

Engelbert said the league has long been open to sponsorship deals, including obviously from airlines, to try to offset the cost of charter flights. But short of that, it's a long-play approach. Engelbert said her emphasis on evolving the league as a business goes hand-in-hand with any conversation of issues like charter flights.

"The way that all the leagues that do have charters get funded is through enormous media rights deals," Engelbert said. "This is why we're working so hard to transform the economics of our league. We want to build a revenue stream -- at the league plus the team level -- where we have bigger corporate sponsorships stepping up.

"I'm obviously very vocal about the fact that there's a huge undervaluation in women's sports of our media rights. We've got to right-size that in our next round of media negotiations."

The WNBA's current deal with ESPN/ABC ends after the 2025 season. The league also has games on CBS Sports, Amazon Prime, Twitter, Facebook, NBA TV and its own streaming service.

"I'm thinking very hard about how we can do this," she said of charters. "And it's all in the next round of media negotiations and bringing in bigger corporate partners because that's how we -- the teams and the league -- would be able to fund it.

"I know a lot of people are saying, 'OK, let's take $25-$30 million and just divide it by 12.' But that's not how it's going to work in reality, because we don't want to jeopardize the financial viability of this league by putting the full onus on either the league or the owners. We're all in this together."

The issue of charters also came to a head last year when the league fined the Liberty $500,000 for chartering flights to away games during the second half of the 2021 WNBA season. The flights were purchased by Liberty owners Joe Tsai, cofounder of the Chinese tech company Alibaba Group, and his wife, Clara.

In March 2022, Sports Illustrated reported the news of the fine and that the Liberty had made an "unofficial proposal" of getting three years of comped chartered flights for the entire league but that it was rejected by the WNBA Board of Governors. However, Engelbert countered in a league statement and an interview with ESPN that there was no such proposal for the board to consider.

The WNBA prohibits teams' unauthorized use of charter flights because it violates the collective bargaining agreement between the WNBA and the players' union and could provide a potential unfair competitive advantage over franchises that can't afford charters.

However, since Engelbert took over as commissioner in 2019, the league has supported the use of charters during the playoffs if teams have just a day between games and are crossing time zones. And starting last season, teams' flights for the WNBA Finals were chartered.

Engelbert also has said the league "would listen and be reasonable" if teams encountered significant travel obstacles during the regular season that a charter might alleviate.

WNBA travel is collectively bargained, with the most recent CBA signed in January 2020 as an eight-year deal with an opt-out after six years, which would be following the 2025 season.

The ownership split of the WNBA is this: 42% by the NBA's 30 NBA teams, 42% by the 12 WNBA teams and 16% by investors from the league's capital raise in 2022. Ownership, investors and the players' union will all be involved, of course, in subsequent CBA negotiations including travel.

And short of a substantial sponsorship investment and/or a significantly increased media rights deal, a full season of charter flights would be a major challenge to fund.

"I suspect, as we have been doing, it's more of the chip-away approach," Engelbert said. "We funded [charters] for the Finals, we funded them for the Commissioner's Cup, we funded them where it makes sense. But I'm not going to jeopardize the financial viability of this league and do something that doesn't make sense.

"And as far as potential expansion teams, with anyone we're in discussions with, I have been very transparent about the issues around charter: what the economic model is, how we want to fund it and that we're going to do it when it's economically feasible to do so. I don't think it scares anyone away."

Engelbert reiterated what she has said in the past: that she firmly believes the WNBA's Board of Governors are "all rowing in the same direction on this."

Without naming New York, which clearly seemed to use its charter support as a carrot for Stewart, Engelbert also said, "Some are using it as a talking point to try to build teams to compete for a championship.

"Which is why you need people like me at the league, who aren't biased towards any one team and who are going to make sure that whatever we do, it's fair and that we're setting the league up for the next 50-plus years.

"The one thing I want to state very clearly -- and the Board of Governors knows this is -- is there is no one that wants charter travel for these players more than Cathy Engelbert. That's why we're working so hard on the transformation. I learned from my 33 years in business before I came here. I know how to grow a business, give me some time. We're going to get there."