WNBA CBA: travel, scheduling, proposed solutions

Nightmare WNBA travel stories have made headlines over the past year. The Las Vegas Aces decided not to play a road game against the Washington Mystics that was later ruled a forfeit after more than 24 hours of travel due to flight delays and cancellations last season. 

Last month, the Indiana Fever had to bus from Atlanta back home to Indianapolis. The team had a Sunday game in Seattle and hosted the Minnesota Lynx that Tuesday. The team’s original flight to Atlanta was delayed, which forced them to miss their connecting flight from Atlanta back home to Indiana. The Fever couldn’t find another flight that day for a traveling party of their size, so they bussed back home instead. 

The Womens’ National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) exercised their right last fall to opt-out of the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which will now expire after the 2019 season. A new deal must be struck before the 2020 season. 

How big a role, then, will travel play in the upcoming CBA negotiations? How many concessions could the WNBPA realistically make a play for in this area? 

Following the Fever’s frustrating trip home from Seattle, Doug Feinberg of the Associated Press noted that a chartered flight from Seattle to Indiana would cost about $175,000 and that some WNBA air-travel budgets for entire seasons amount to about $100,000. 

Yes, the world’s best women’s basketball league deserves better. (As do professional athletes in other sports.) No reasonable mind is arguing that 6-foot-8 centers Brittney Griner or Liz Cambage—or any of their peers—should have to cram into seats on commercial flights. 

But a step from flying commercial to chartering flights, even only when absolutely necessary to arrive on time, would be a considerable one. And this is a league that only plays a 34-game regular season. 

The travel issue may be a useful lever for the WNBPA to make headway in a much more expansive issue outlined by union president Nneka Ogwumike last fall.

“In opting out of this CBA, our primary objective is full transparency,” she wrote in The Players’ Tribune. “We just want information about where the league is as a business, so that we can come together and make sound decisions for the future of the game. You probably don’t know this, but as players, we never get to see the numbers. We don’t know how the league is doing. As the kids say nowadays, we just want to see the receipts.” 

One can understand why the WNBPA has so many questions. Many players spend upwards of six and seven months per year supplementing their income playing overseas, where many of them make most of their money. Growing the business of the WNBA is already difficult enough with so many of them out of market for so much of each year. 

The other side has made at least one of its platforms known: the WNBA is losing money. On a related front, falling under the ‘grass actually is pretty green over there’ variety: The NBA PR account sent out a tweet in April vaguely asserting that inaccurate information had been circulated about WNBA pay and noting that the average compensation—note the word choice—last season was $116,000. 

This much is to be expected in some form. Two sides are facing off, butting heads, looking muster as many ‘wins’ as possible. We don’t quite know yet what the WNBPA’s messaging will be. The phrase ‘player experience’ has come up often. 

Hovering above it all, though, is the question of how much the WNBPA intends to ask for with regard to travel. 

Article XI, section four of the current CBA notes in its entirety that “All air travel provided by the Team (including, but not limited to, travel between games) will be coach.”

The Athletic recently published a roundtable on travel featuring responses from 12 different players, including Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury, who was very straightforward in putting the issue into context as she saw it:

“There’s certain things we just have to put up with right now as a league, and to me, travel is like dead last. Pay us more money. I could care less what airline I go on, but you know, other people have other ideas of bringing up stuff that can really not be fixed and taking attention away from things that can be fixed, like salary and playing in gyms that aren’t playable.”

As we await more on what the CBA negotiations will look like, here are some proposed solutions or ideas on travel that could bridge the gap between flying commercial and the ultimate goal of arriving at a point financially to fly charter instead. 

  • No more back-to-backs

Even spitballing rules to alleviate travel concerns is difficult. Mondays tend to be league-wide off-days, other weeknights tend to be lighter on games and weekends are often packed with two or more games tipping in the same window.

Do television and streaming partners ask for fewer games per night on weeknights to draw more viewers to their matchups? Does ESPN ask that the playoffs end by a specific date to avoid too much of a programming crunch as football season begins?

Eliminating back-to-backs feels like a natural starting point. If a team has an early-afternoon tip in, say, Los Angeles and can catch a flight that night before a late-evening tip the next night in Las Vegas, the team isn’t in too bad of a spot, all things considered. 

But an absolute like this can be presented as a clear positive for both sides. League-wide back-to-backs are down from 23 to six this season. Leaving the door open to having them with teams flying commercial leaves zero margin for error with flight delays or cancellations. 

  • Two days to enter a new time zone

Consider this a proposed step two in insulating the teams and the league from situations like the Aces faced last season. If you can pencil in one full day as a travel day and a second full day prior to a team’s next game, you guarantee yourself more wiggle room and decrease the likelihood that a team will have to fly into a city and play a game that same day. 

Playing every other day is still not ideal, especially if even a single flight delay pops up. But for the most part, cities in the same time zone are clustered together. Bussing from Phoenix to Los Angeles, Chicago to Indianapolis or New York to Connecticut is far from ideal, but this could be a big scheduling win if those become the new last resorts teams must turn to the day before a game rather than, say, Seattle to Atlanta or New York to Las Vegas. 

This suggestion should be seen as a must, by the way, in the postseason. Having just one day between single-elimination playoff games lowers the quality of the games (that are supposed to bring so much more excitement in this single elimination format) and increases the likelihood for nightmare-ish delays to run right up to the following game day. 

An example: the 2017 Mercury should not have had to play a second-round single-elimination game in Connecticut on a Sunday then make the arduous trip out of Uncasville to fly to Los Angeles to begin their semifinal series on a Tuesday night.

Another example: the 2018 Sparks wrapped the regular season in Uncasville on a Sunday, hosted a first-round single-elimination game on Tuesday, then had to travel to D.C. for their second-round game on that Thursday. 

Some hard lines in the sand give you breathing room and would be true indicators of positive progress in improving the player experience. 

Now, it’s important to not come across as making light of the monstrous task WNBA schedule-makers must face each year between having teams forced to play in different arenas and the many arena scheduling conflicts that arise in each individual market. But the advantages are easy to see and these ideas bring us back to one of the words hanging over all of this: transparency. 

  • Figuratively turn to a new page on the World Cup

The first two bullet points were hard-line ‘rule’ suggestions. This one is more about a mindset and involves another large entity—USA Basketball.

The condensed schedule last season was too much to put the players through. The 34-game regular season slate was packed into 94 days to accommodate the FIBA World Cup. (The 2019 regular season, by comparison, will span 108 days.) 

That decision flirts with sending a message that the World Cup is more important than the WNBA, but to whom?

Speaking of transparency, this is an issue I’d like to see the top players—Taurasi, Sue Bird, Elena Delle Donne, etc., perhaps in partnership with the WNBPA—decide on their own. Do they want to condense the season to give every WNBA star an opportunity to compete for a WNBA championship and have time to hop on a plane for the start of the World Cup? 

If so, then make it happen. Titans of the sport deserve that choice. 

If not, why make that concession as the best women’s basketball league in the world that you need to rush through your own season to completely clear the women’s basketball calendar for the World Cup once every four years?

The WNBA already must account for Olympic breaks and brace for odd-year departures of players competing in qualifying tournaments for their respective national teams. 

The big swing of a suggestion: Is it time for USA Basketball to just send teams full of college players? 

The more intermediate step: Have the WNBA line up the start of its postseason, not the end of it, with the start of the World Cup. Then a combination of the best college players and the best of the non-playoff teams can have that opportunity to look forward to as the WNBA playoffs begin. 

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