Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner was harassed by a social media personality at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport on Saturday, once again bringing the issue of WNBA travel to the forefront.
Griner’s safety during air travel for road games has been a concern because of her circumstances: Griner was detained in Russia from February 2022 to December 2022 after Russian customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She was freed in a prisoner exchange to which some people objected. Griner’s travel provides a logistics challenge that the Mercury and the league are apparently still working out.
The WNBA has never faced anything like Griner’s situation: a player reacclimating to her job having been in a high-profile global diplomatic situation. And at 6-foot-9, Griner is recognizable wherever she goes.
Saturday’s incident also prompted more calls from Griner’s agent, the WNBA players’ union and several players leaguewide to move to all charter flights for players’ health and safety. But for now, other than Griner’s situation and some other exceptions — including Thursday’s news that teams this season are allowed to fly on a public chartering service called JSX — WNBA teams will continue to be on commercial flights. Here’s a look at the league’s travel situation.
How are teams allowed to travel in the WNBA?
The WNBA, founded in 1997, has always traveled mostly via commercial air. That is paid for by the individual franchises during the regular season, while the league reimburses teams for travel expenses during the playoffs. There have been certain upgrades since Cathy Engelbert became commissioner in 2019.
Starting that season, Engelbert allowed for the possibility of charter travel during the playoffs for teams that had just a day between games while crossing more than one time zone. Last year, the league moved to all-charter travel for the WNBA Finals.
This season, the league will pay for charters when teams play regular-season games on back-to-back days that require air travel, for the visiting team in the Commissioner’s Cup final and for all rounds of the playoffs.
Other than that, travel has to be commercial, as stated in the 2020 WNBA collective bargaining agreement: “All air travel provided by the Team (including, but not limited to, travel between games) will be, if available on the Team-chosen flights at the time of booking, premium economy (or similar enhanced coach fare). Teams are required to reimburse players for the application cost of obtaining Global Entry membership as part of the Trusted Travelers Program of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.”
Engelbert has said on numerous occasions that traveling to all games via charter flights at this point isn’t financially feasible for the league as a whole. And individual teams are prohibited from going to all charter flights even if they decide they can afford it because it is deemed a significant competitive advantage in the 12-team league. To that end, the New York Liberty were fined $500,000 last year after using charters in 2021 against league policy.
Player safety while traveling should be at the forefront. People following with cameras saying wild remarks is never acceptable. Excessive harassment. Our team nervously huddled in a corner unsure how to move about. We demand better.
— Brianna Turner (@_Breezy_Briii) June 10, 2023
Engelbert has also said many times that no one wants charter travel any more than she does, but she won’t jeopardize the league’s financial health for it. Several WNBA owners and general managers have acknowledged more gradual moves make sense.
“My hope is the league may open the door and say you can charter five in 2024, you pick which one,” one WNBA executive told ESPN. “And we gradually move to full charter.”
What else do we know about teams using JSX as a travel option?
Teams are allowed to fly JSX with certain protocols in place, league sources told ESPN this week. According to its website, JSX is a “hop-on jet service that’s faster on the ground and more comfortable in the air.” It’s “a taste of what chartering will be like,” one league executive told ESPN.
But JSX isn’t available in most WNBA cities, and unlike charters, the airline’s flights have preset routes and times, which the league has told teams they cannot change.
JSX usage varies by team, league sources told ESPN, depending on factors such as availability of flights and preexisting travel booked. Mercury guard Shey Peddy’s Instagram video from last month included a shot of the interior of a JSX plane from when the team took a JSX flight to Los Angeles for its season opener.
JSX planes can hold about 30 people, providing teams the option to buy out an entire flight. Passengers access planes through private terminals and can easily check their bags before boarding. Perhaps most convenient for teams, JSX advises customers to check in no later than 20 minutes before a domestic flight, and per JSX’s website, each plane is equipped with business-class legroom.
Tickets for JSX standard routes for the most part are not drastically more expensive than commercial flights. But the price goes up for “created routes,” which might be one of the things that is allowed for the Mercury because of Griner’s unique security situation.
Do WNBA teams travel with security?
The league as a whole and several teams independently elevated security measures heading into the 2023 season. New York Liberty coach Sandy Brondello and Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve revealed publicly that their teams are now traveling with security detail, something several other franchises confirmed to ESPN they have incorporated this year as well. That was allowed by the league lifting travel-party-number restrictions, sources told ESPN.
As of the start of this season, teams on the road can also coordinate additional “away market-local security” with the home squad.
Should we expect a leaguewide change to travel midseason?
This is highly unlikely to happen. There might be incremental moves to more charters next season, as there have been since Engelbert took over. But as she has stated many times, a wholesale change to all charter flights right now isn’t feasible.
The issue of WNBA travel is on a perpetual news cycle. It comes up every time there is any difficulty in WNBA travel, including airport delays. It’s an issue talked about frequently by some of the high-profile players, prominent agents such as Griner’s representatives at Wasserman, and the union. The situation Griner faced at DFW prompted familiar responses from those who are convinced charters can be done sooner rather than later, despite what Engelbert and certain owners insist.
The situation is more complicated by the fact other owners are ready now to charter because they can afford it. The league has said that would create a competitive advantage issue among WNBA teams. If all parties — the league, the board of governors and the union — were to agree to make any significant travel changes before the next CBA, that could be done via attaching a letter to the current CBA. But the league would not comment on whether such a process would require a majority or unanimous vote by the board of governors.
The concept of “competitive advantage” can be tricky. Does a team potentially have competitive advantages based on the city it is in, the arena it plays in and the practice facilities it has? Yes, and those are all factors for drawing free agents. But travel is an issue the league has stood firm on regulating for fiscal and competitive advantage reasons.
There are no longer any WNBA players who finished college with no American pro league to go to. The oldest active player is 41-year-old Diana Taurasi, who was in high school when the WNBA launched in 1997. The majority of today’s players also went to Power 5 conference schools where they were used to flying charter for college games. Players come to the WNBA now with different expectations than they used to.
But considering Engelbert’s firm statements on this and the fact that it will be on the table for the next CBA negotiations, a full move to charters doesn’t seem in the cards right away.