WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert says paying for charter flights would jeopardize league's finances

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert says paying for charter flights would jeopardize league’s finances

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said as much as she would like the league to use charter flights throughout the season, it is not financially responsible to do now.

“It would be more than $20 million a year to fund charter flights for an entire WNBA season,” Engelbert said Thursday in an interview with ESPN. “So this is something that we’re not going to jeopardize the financial health of the league and be irresponsible about. If we can get it funded by sponsors and supporters, great, but that’s not where we are. We do not have that.

“We’ve asked all the major airlines. We’ve asked charter companies. I’ve been working on this since the moment I came into the league. But without sponsors stepping up, it’s just not in the cards right now. If we could get it sponsored or funded in some way … I’m all ears. I’ve gotten lots of calls over the past year about this since we’ve been back in our 12 markets. Then when people price it out, and they see it’s $20 million-plus, you never hear from them again.”

The New York Liberty were fined $500,000 for chartering flights to away games during the second half of this past WNBA season and for other violations of league rules, including an unsanctioned team trip to Napa, California.

A portion of the letter sent to the team, shared with ESPN this week, read, “For these violations, the Liberty is hereby fined $500,000. Any similar violations in the future will result in more significant discipline, including larger fines and the possible forfeiture of draft picks.”

The league said Thursday the fine was always $500,000, and not a larger amount that was reduced after negotiations with the Liberty.

The flights were purchased by Liberty owners Joe Tsai, co-founder of the Chinese tech company Alibaba Group, and his wife, Clara. The news was first reported Tuesday by Sports Illustrated, which also reported that the Liberty’s unofficial proposal of getting three years of comped chartered flights for the entire league was rejected by the WNBA Board of Governors.

The WNBA said via a statement Tuesday that there was no proposal for the board to consider, which Engelbert reiterated Thursday.

“And if there had been,” she said, “it would have been supported.”

The league has supported the use of charters during the playoffs if teams have just a day between games and are crossing time zones. Engelbert also said the league “would listen and be reasonable” if teams encountered significant travel obstacles during the regular season that a charter might alleviate.

“We funded charter travel during the playoffs last year and in 2019, so I know what it costs,” Engelbert said. “I know how to be thoughtful about doing it when it makes sense.”

Engelbert, however, said the league needed to fine the Liberty because the team’s use of unauthorized charter flights violated the collective bargaining agreement between the WNBA and the players’ union. She said it provided a potential unfair competitive advantage for New York, since not all franchises can afford charters.

“The CBA is the cornerstone of the league,” Engelbert said. “And absolutely, we will never apologize for enforcing the CBA that was negotiated with the players and the players’ association, and that’s what we did here. That’s the ultimate equalizer: that the league — which is neutral — will come in and make sure teams are following the rules, and all the owners want that as well.

“Rules exist to create that competitive balance and to give every team an opportunity to compete for a championship under fair rules. There has to be a level playing field as much as you can have a level playing field.”

Engelbert referenced the business plan she began working on when she stepped into the commissioner’s role in 2019, and how it was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and the need for the WNBA to play that season without fans in a “bubble” in Bradenton, Florida. Last season, the WNBA teams were back in market, but were limited for part of the season in the amount of fans that could attend.

“The whole reason for the three-to-five-year business transformation plan, to have access to capital, is to grow revenue so that we can fund more things like [charter travel] in the next phase of the league,” Engelbert said. “But we are not even close to being there yet, after two pandemic years. I think we always have good healthy debates in our Board of Governors’ room about things. But it’s not something that we have been able to find: a sponsor to step up and fund charter travel.”

With newer owners such as the Tsais and Mark Davis of the Las Vegas Aces being billionaires who also own men’s pro sports teams, there has been the question of whether there is a lot of conflict between the WNBA’s wealthiest owners and others.

Engelbert disputed that. She said the board of governors meeting late last fall was its first gathering in person since the pandemic, and some owners were meeting others for the first time. Engelbert said she feels they have a strong working relationship.

“All 12 owners are in this together, no matter when they came into the league,” Engelbert said. “They’re all investing, they all see the vision. It’s good governance to have different viewpoints: new owners, owners that have been around for almost the whole 25 years in the league.

“They’re engaged about many issues, including this issue of charters that is getting all the attention. But there are lots of other things we’re trying to do — globalize the game, expansion, digital transformation, merchandise — that we also talk about in the boardroom.”

On Feb. 3, the WNBA announced a capital raise featuring both new investors and existing WNBA and NBA owners. It was funded via selling equity in the WNBA and brought in $75 million according to Engelbert, with the proceeds to be used for things like marketing and brand elevation.

“We’ve been around 25 years, we’re really healthy, we’re growing,” she said. “I’m trying to set this league up for the next 25 years. It’s only two years ago that we signed a very progressive collective bargaining agreement where we tripled the pay of the top players, we put a $1 million into league-marketing agreements , we put together a half-a-million-dollar prize pool for the Commissioner’s Cup, with more to come, hopefully.

“We’re growing viewership; a lot of things are going well. But we can’t jeopardize the momentum here. We have to make sure that we’re setting this league up to thrive for many years.”

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