August 30, 2023 

Frustration boils over in WNBA’s playoff charter travel policy

'A bunch of stipulations'

Back in the spring, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced at the 2023 draft that “we will have charter flights for all postseason games.” She reiterated this at all star weekend last month.

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“As you know, we’ve been chipping away at it,” she told reporters. “We’ll put a little over four million into charter flights this year. Our players, some of them have benefited more recently. We’ve had back-to-backs on that. We’ll do the full playoffs this year.”

So it came as a shock to many around the league when the WNBA released an internal memo this week detailing playoff travel and “the full playoffs” was defined in such a way that as many as six teams could be forced to take a commercial flight during the playoffs after winning a series.

Or as one team front office member familiar with the memo said to The Next: “Doesn’t make sense! Really?!?”

Here’s how the league has outlined this to teams.

“Between rounds, Teams will have the option to charter from the home market or directly to Game 1 of the following round (only one route permitted, not both). Therefore, teams will need to plan their own commercial flight)s) if and when necessary, depending on their choice.”

The league even outlined within the memo how and when a team would be forced to fly commercial.

“Example hypothetical scenario: if a Team wins Rd 1 in a sweep, and they have a week before their next game. Under the above scenario, the team is only granted 1 charter (either from Rd 1 city to home OR home to Semis OR Rd 1 city to Semis Game 1 city.) Therefore, this choice could result in a route being commercial (which would be reimbursed per Playoff reimbursement policy).”

Let’s use the current standings to produce a specific scenario from this language. Right now, the Connecticut Sun are the three seed, the Atlanta Dream the six seed, meaning the Sun would host the Dream for Game 1 and 2 of a three-game first-round series. That series can begin on either Sept. 13 or 15 (we’ll get into why it will likely be Sept. 15 in a moment). If the Dream win both games in a series beginning Sept. 13, the second game would come on Sept. 17, but Game 1 of the semifinals isn’t until Sept. 24.

At that point, the Dream can either fly charter home, but would need to fly commercial to Game 1 of the semifinals, or fly commercial home, preserving that charter flight for their semifinal opener trip. (Among those executives I polled, the latter option was the overwhelming choice.)

The same potential issue exists for any of the four lowest-seeded teams in the playoffs, 5-8. In a league with so much parity, especially beyond the top two to three seeds, such a scenario is indeed possible.

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The same could hold true for the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds in the event the league schedules either the 3-6 or the 4-5 playoff series to begin on Day 1 of the playoffs (Sept. 13) as opposed to Day 2 (Sept. 15), but the league can avoid this potential problem simply by starting the 1-8 and 2-7 series for the Sept. 13 start date. (The top two seeds, by virtue of their seeding, are guaranteed to host any semifinals series, so if they sweep at home, they’d simply remain at home for Game 1 of the semifinals, no flight required.)

Even so: As many as four playoff teams are facing the potential to sweep a higher-seeded opponent, then receive the reward of a commercial flight for it during a postseason the commissioner declared would be entirely chartered on multiple occasions. The potential for flight delays, embarrassing public spectacles and even the potential to have schedules affected should teams choose commercial flights to the semifinals will suddenly return to the WNBA postseason.

“You came out and said you were going to have charter travel for the playoffs,” one aggravated team official told The Next. “Now you say, charters, with asterisks, unless this happens.”

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The cost difference between a commercial flight and charter flight is approximately $20,000, one team official estimated to The Next, a number confirmed by a different team official. So in the unlikely scenario that all four lowest-seeded teams win, the league’s total output would be comparable to a veteran minimum salary, just to make for a “full playoffs” of charter flights. But teams cannot even choose to bear that cost and charter themselves.

“Full playoffs should mean there are no commercial flights,” another team official told The Next. “No ‘fine print.’ I couldn’t believe it when I read the memo. A bunch of stipulations.”

From the league’s perspective, teams can charter to all playoff games. The progress has been significant, from back in Engelbert’s first year as commissioner in 2019, when the league allowed and paid for the Los Angeles Sparks and Las Vegas Aces to fly charter to their Game 1 semifinal matchups against the Sun and Washington Mystics, respectively, going west-to-east for a quick turnaround. Now, at a cost the league estimates at north of $4 million, select regular-season games are covered, the Commissioner’s Cup is covered, and every team can travel charter for every playoff game.

Except, potentially, a few.

“You’re trying to do the whole thing,” another team official said to The Next. “Go all the way!”

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.

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