WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert says charter flights, which would cost $25 million annually, must be ‘feasible’
Few, if any, issues loom over the WNBA’s relationship with its players like charter flights, and league commissioner Cathy Engelbert again addressed the demand in an interview with ESPN’s M.A. Voepel published Friday.
Engelbert reportedly told ESPN that such transport, for both a 40-game regular season and playoffs, would cost the league $25 million annually, a price tag she indicated was too steep for the league’s current finances:
“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.”
WNBA players have long chafed at having to fly commercial, with the league even forbidding teams from footing the bill themselves due to a supposed unfair advantage, but the issue has received new urgency due to the situation surrounding Brittney Griner.
If the Phoenix Mercury star opts to play next season, some reportedly believe she will require private flights due to security concerns after her stay in Russian prison last year. That would create a conundrum for the league since you would imagine Griner’s Phoenix teammates would come along for the ride.
Recently signed New York Liberty star Breanna Stewart reportedly made air travel a major factor in her free agency and spoke out last month, calling for a deal that would subsidize charter travel for the WNBA. She pledged her own resources to help the cause and received public commitments from the likes of Sue Bird and Ja Morant, but Engelbert told ESPN she saw the most viable path would be a new media rights deal:
“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 media rights deal with ESPN and ABC reportedly runs out after the 2025 season, though the league also has games aired through CBS Sports, Amazon Prime, Twitter, Facebook and NBA TV.
That year will loom large for the WNBA’s future, as the league has seen impressive ratings growth but will still need a network to bet big on its future.