- Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.
Los Angeles Sparks standout Nneka Ogwumike said via social media Monday evening that “transformational growth” in the WNBA is being impeded by continued travel issues and what she sees as “tired arguments” against possible remedies.
Ogwumike and the Sparks had travel woes Sunday at Dulles Airport in Virginia after their victory Sunday over the Washington Mystics. After two delays, the Sparks’ flight was canceled and rebooked for Monday morning.
“First time in my 11 seasons that I have ever had to sleep in the airport,” Ogwumike said in a video posted on social media in the early hours of Monday. “Half of us are sleeping at an airport, half of us are at a hotel. There weren’t enough rooms after our flight got delayed, delayed (again) and then canceled at 1 a.m. It is now 1:44, and we’re here until 9 a.m.”
The Sparks boarded the Monday morning flight and were back in Los Angeles by around noon; they will host the Connecticut Sun on Tuesday night as the WNBA finishes its last week of the regular season.
Multiple sources told ESPN that every Sparks player actually was offered a hotel room, but not all at the same hotel because a limited number of rooms were available. But because of the late hour and need to be back at the airport with such a short turnaround time for the rescheduled flight, some players opted to stay at the airport. Sparks player Lexie Brown also confirmed that, via social media.
According to a CNN report, more than 900 flights were canceled nationwide on Sunday, and nearly 700 were canceled on Saturday as airlines continue to grapple with issues including staff shortages and weather.
The WNBA’s travel situation continues to be an issue that players raise on social media, and Ogwumike’s high profile as the president of the executive committee of the players’ union drew added attention to her post.
The WNBA does not have chartered flights due to prohibitive costs, league commissioner Cathy Engelbert has said multiple times. But the league will charter for all WNBA Finals games, she announced in a news conference before July’s All-Star Game. The WNBA also can opt to charter earlier in the playoffs if teams are crossing multiple time zones with limited time between games.
The WNBA’s most recent collective bargaining agreement, signed in January 2020, does not include charters, and league rules prohibit any of the 12 teams from individually opting to charter as that could create a competitive disadvantage among them. It was revealed earlier this year that the New York Liberty were fined $500,000 for using charters at times last season. Engelbert also denied a report that Liberty owner Joseph Tsai had offered the league a plan that would get charters covered for all WNBA teams.
With her prominent union role, Ogwumike was instrumental in getting the CBA passed, but she pointed out in a social media statement that much has changed about air travel since the COVID-19 pandemic, and that must be taken in consideration.
“During these unprecedented times, the required form of commercial travel remains a significant burden on our players and their bodies,” Ogwumike posted. “It’s a serious health and safety concern that must be remedied.
“Competitive advantage is a tired argument that has overstayed its welcome. It is a phrase that prevents transformational growth across our league. New and emerging ownership groups have demonstrated an ability and eagerness to invest the necessary resources to grow this league in the areas that require it the most.”
In July, Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve expressed frustration with what she felt was the league’s slow reaction to the Lynx’s travel issues getting into Washington for a game. Asked about it, Mystics coach Mike Thibault initially said he was “tired of hearing” about WNBA travel delays and that he didn’t feel sorry for the Lynx because it happens to every team. However, he later apologized for his remarks.
In light of the Sparks’ issues Sunday, Ogwumike, with the backing of the union, wrote on social media on Monday that she hopes this leads to more travel improvements.
“We reiterate our standing invitation to the league and team ownership to work together to identify a manageable solution to this problem whose origins are complex, but remedy simple,” Ogwumike wrote. “It is time to permit teams to invest in charter flights between games, beginning with the entire 2022 WNBA playoffs, and continuing with a common sense, full-season solution beginning in 2023.
“And in the spirit of collaboration, we call upon both private and commercial airline companies to recognize this bold opportunity to lead: American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, United, NetJets, Wheels Up, JetSuiteX, among others: We encourage you to meet us at the table and partner with WNBA players to help eliminate the toughest opponent they face each season: travel.”
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