Brittney Griner's return to the WNBA this summer after being traded in a dramatic prisoner swap in December with Russia has collided with free agency, creating potential travel complications for the league out of safety concerns for her.
If Griner, who is a free agent but has said she'll return to Phoenix, needs special travel accommodations — such as chartered flights — the league will have to come up with a plan for the 6-foot-9 star. Griner's safety when traveling will be a top priority for her team and the league.
“We are very cognizant of BG’s unique situation,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told The Associated Press. “We've been planning and we’ve been thinking it through with security experts, BG’s side, our side. We’ll find the right time to comment on it when she signs with a team.”
That could come Wednesday, when free agents can officially sign.
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While the Griner situation is unique, other marquee players raised the issue of charter flights, which teams have deemed too costly.
The current collective bargaining agreement requires that all teams fly commercial and doesn’t allow teams to charter flights. Any change in that would have to be approved by both the union and the league.
“No one wants to make this work more than me,” Engelbert said. “That’s why we’re working so hard to transform the economic business model. We’ve had positive changes over the last couple years, but we're not going to jeopardize the financial viability of the league. We are on the cusp of something big here.”
HOW MUCH WOULD IT COST THE WNBA TO CHARTER FLIGHTS?
Engelbert says 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.
The estimated cost per franchise to charter flights 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 Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly address the issue.
“We did it last year for the Finals and we have experience on how much it costs for routes we need to fly," Engelbert said. “We are monitoring and updating our analysis. We are going to try and get an economic model to fund this as soon as we can.”
WHAT HAPPENS IF A TEAM CHARTERS FLIGHTS?
If teams violate the current CBA, they could be fined.
The New York Liberty were fined a WNBA record $500,000 in 2021 for chartering flights to away games during the second half of that season.
HAS THE WNBA CONSIDERED SUBSIDIZING FLIGHTS?
Breanna Stewart, who announced on social media that she'll play with New York on Wednesday, started a social media campaign to try to help get chartered flights for the league. She tweeted: “I would love 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. Who’s with me?”
Many current and former WNBA and NBA players offered their support — though any change to travel restrictions would have to be voted on by the union and the league.
“We would need a commitment to it in perpetuity,” Engelbert said. “That’s 250-300 million dollars. Look at the gate and media deal and sponsorship dollars. We’re not close to being able to afford $250 million over the next decade.”
Stewart said on Wednesday that she knows it “won't go from zero to 100. Obviously we would love to have a charter company come in and get sponsors for the entire year. If we can be able to pick and choose the flights whether it's the East to West Coast trip or you know the worst back-to-back. ... Right now it's just a no. Maybe it can be a maybe or a yes sometimes. No is really hard to work with."
DO WOMEN'S COLLEGE TEAMS CHARTER FLIGHTS?
WNBA players are used to flying charter flights. That's how they traveled in college.
Title IX legislation requires universities to have equal opportunities for their men’s and women’s athletic programs. The NCAA flies both the men's and women's teams on charter flights for its marquee college basketball tournament if they are more than 400 miles from the site of their game.
That legislation doesn't apply to the pros, so NBA teams chartering between cities has no effect on what WNBA teams do.