Sparks players sleeping in airport highlights WNBA travel issues
Last season, the WNBA fined Joe and Clara Wu Tsai $500,000 for having the audacity to book a private charter jet to fly the New York Liberty players between games. You know, exactly how every NBA and major college basketball team flies between games — that’s a violation in the WNBA. Players have to fly commercial and if some teams have charter flights it’s seen as a competitive advantage.
Which is how you end up with high-level professional athletes having to sleep in an airport.
After the Los Angles Sparks knocked off the Washington Mystics on Sunday night to keep their playoff dreams alive, the players went to the airport to find their flight home was canceled and rescheduled for 9 a.m. The Sparks were without lodging for the night, and the only hotel with rooms near the airport could handle about half the players, leaving Sparks players sleeping in the airport.
This is unacceptable. The WNBA has to do better. This is not how to treat elite athletes.
The Tsais getting fined last year was part of a larger split and issue facing the WNBA. There is a divide in ownership between a new guard like Tsais who are both willing and have the means to spend big on the league player care — charter flights being part of that — and are taking a “you have to spend money to make money” approach to the WNBA. They see a league that can grow, but the plant needs to be watered. Then there is an older guard of ownership that says growth has to be slower and tied more to revenue (not necessarily profit, but reduced losses). This is how the WNBA has largely been run since its inception.
While the WNBA has upped its marketing game, it is not spending on players commensurate with their worth. That’s why you have WNBA players having no offseason because they spend their winters playing in Europe — or, in the case of Brittney Griner and others, Russia — because they make three or four times more there for a season than they do in the USA.
All the fantastic stories and impressive athletic feats the WNBA tries to highlight get undercut when images of players sleeping in airports show up on social media. The WNBA must aspire to more than the 1960s NBA. If the WNBA wants to reach the next level of fan acceptance, it has to start treating its players like the elite-level athletes they are.
Not having them spend the night in airports would be a good start.