Free Pizza and Easy Sleep: W.N.B.A. Upgrades Travel for Finals

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — There were “oohs and aahs” of excitement as the Connecticut Sun players entered their chartered plane on the way to Las Vegas for Game 1 of the W.N.B.A. finals, guard Nia Clouden said.

Waiting for them were pillows and blankets, seats that fully reclined and a generous menu of complimentary food. Clouden typically never eats the roasted salted almonds, cookies, chips and other snacks offered on the team’s commercial flights. But on that night, she ordered a pepperoni pizza.

Sun center Jonquel Jones pointed to the long legs that make up part of her 6-foot-6, 215-pound frame to show how the leg room on the charter flight made a difference for her. She usually tries to find the exit row seat on flights, but the space is never enough. Jones said she was also happy to avoid “all the unnecessary stuff that happens at airports.”

“Sometimes after a game, you don’t really feel like talking, and you go to the airport and people want to talk about the game,” Jones said while laughing. “Or they want to ask you how tall you are — constantly — all the time. ‘How’s the weather up there?’ And it’s just like, dude, I’m just trying to get to the next destination.”

She added: “As much as we love our fans — we appreciate them — sometimes it does really get a little exhausting, and it makes the season a little bit tougher.”

This season, for the first time ever, the league agreed to provide charter travel throughout the W.N.B.A. finals. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has said that the league does not have enough revenue to cover travel for all teams during the regular season and playoffs, which she estimated would cost more than $20 million. Teams fly commercially during the season and playoffs, with rare exceptions for extreme travel difficulties.

Athletes in major professional sports leagues like the N.F.L., N.B.A. and M.L.B., and even many men’s and women’s Division I athletes, have grown accustomed to charter travel. But those men’s leagues have been around much longer than the W.N.B.A. and have billions of dollars of revenue, while the women’s league regularly operates at a loss.

The W.N.B.A. hasn’t committed to offering charter flights for next year’s finals or expanding them to the regular season or any other part of the playoffs. Engelbert said the league was able to provide charters for the finals because of its efforts to increase revenue.

“As we focus on growing this league by adding more corporate partners, increasing media exposure and disrupting the outdated media rights valuations of women’s sports,” Engelbert said in a statement, “it would be our hope to continue offering these opportunities when possible.”

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The W.N.B.A.’s collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union prohibits teams from chartering flights without league approval. The Liberty were fined $500,000 for secretly traveling to several games by charter last season.

So players fly commercially, dealing with the delays, Covid risks and the many flight challenges that everyday customers also deal with. If you’re wondering why professional athletes should have different travel standards anyway, many W.N.B.A. players said it started with rest.

Having a relaxing night’s sleep is paramount for playing in a 36-game regular season — with half of those games on the road — when a player’s future salary and place in the league depend on their performance each night, players said. Rest can be especially challenging on a commercial flight for the tall humans that occupy women’s basketball teams. But more important, delays and flight cancellations can result in teams’ having to forfeit games.

The Aces forfeited a game in 2018 after dealing with over 25 hours of delays and layovers on their way to Washington, D.C., to play the Mystics. They arrived just four hours ahead of their game. The Aces cited health concerns as the reason not to play and were the first team in league history to forfeit a game. Las Vegas missed the playoffs, finishing one game behind the Dallas Wings.

“I definitely think having charters is a trickle-down effect to people being able to take care of their bodies better in rest,” Aces guard Sydney Colson said. “And then you have better games to watch because people are rested and injury free.”

Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones said though she loved the Sun’s fans, it can be challenging running into them at the airport after games when players might not feel like talking.Credit…Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

For those players who played college basketball for major programs in the United States, the special finals travel is a welcome return to the norm, as many of their schools provided charter flights to all games.

“There aren’t many times that I can remember at all that we flew commercial,” said Aces forward Theresa Plaisance, who played at Louisiana State University. “And when you get to the W.N.B.A., and you’re going to your middle seat on Southwest — sometimes it’s really hard to swallow that pill and think like: ‘Oh, this is my progression. I went from college to make it to a professional league, and I have to go backward.’”

For Peter Feeney, the basketball operations manager for the Sun, who has handled all flight logistics for the past four years, the simplicity of the travel blew his mind, he said. Feeney typically arrives at airports an hour before the team to ensure that they can pass through security without any hiccups. But on their two charter flights, they’ve arrived at the plane less than an hour before takeoff, and the flight staff handled almost everything.

The moment made Feeney realize that if the league switched to charter flights for the entire season, he would become less useful in his role. But he also serves as a video coordinator, so he welcomes the idea. “That’s a good problem, right?” he said with a laugh.

Aces forward A’ja Wilson, who has been outspoken about the W.N.B.A.’s travel woes, said that the players had talked about what life would be like if chartered flights were normal after they comfortably made the cross-country trip to Connecticut from Las Vegas for Game 3 on Thursday.

“We need it. Ain’t nothing else,” Wilson said. “We need to be able to fly like that after every game. I can only imagine how my body would feel if we did. So, I think it’s a huge deal for us to do it. We need to continue to push it.”

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