Yesterday kicked off Women’s History Month and the first story I read was Sports Illustrated’s cover article, How Airplanes Became the WNBA’s Biggest Scandal. As I began to further research the WNBA’s travel guidelines outlined in their collective bargaining agreement, I couldn’t help but be surprised that female professional athletes were traveling via premium economy to games across the country whereas their male counterparts in the NBA often take to social media to display their team’s private planes. There is a rising mantra coined by Kelsey Trainor to “Invest in Women. Pay women. Hire Women.” There is no better time than the present to invest in women’s sports; however, there is a rising tension between WNBA team owners attempting to invest in women, and what the players association and the league have already determined to be the rules of the game.
A collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is a labor contract between a union representing employees and the employer. It sets the terms and conditions of employment such as wages and employee benefits. The history of collective bargaining negotiations in professional sports mirrors American employment law in that it revolves around both parties battling for leverage at the bargaining table. Amidst the current battle between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association arguing over their new collective bargaining agreement, New York Liberty team owners are facing a $500,000 fine for violating the terms of the WNBPA Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Formal negotiations for the 2020 WNBPA Collective Bargaining Agreement began in March 2019 and culminated in January 2020. Among the noteworthy elements of the new CBA, that will run until 2027, alongside increases to the maximum player salary and better treatment overall, were the updated provisions for the quality of travel for the League and its players. The WNBPA CBA states that “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).”
In clear violation of this provision, New York Liberty owners Joe and Clara Wu Tsai, provided charter flights for their team during the second half of the WNBA season and during a Labor Day weekend trip to Napa. The use of chartered flights clearly provided Liberty with a competitive advantage among the other eleven WNBA teams who are not afforded the same luxury travel. The use of these chartered flights by New York Liberty led to a league-record fine of $500,000 to the team. As reported by Sports Illustrated, in September 2021, the WNBA Board of Governors considered an unofficial proposal from Liberty to make charter flights the default travel option throughout the League, but this proposal lacked majority support.
The New York Liberty chartered flights for every road game during the second half of their season. WNBA front office members, upon learning about Liberty’s travel history, reported Liberty’s use of charted flights to the League. Liberty then received inquiries and demands to cease and desist the unauthorized charter flights from the league’s general counsel, Alan Dershowitz. In response to Dershowitz, Liberty alternate governor Oliver Weisberg wrote a letter defending Liberty’s travel decisions stating “We cannot begin to talk about gender equity until we solve some pressing issues that have put extra burdens on the health and well-being of WNBA players. In the spirit of improving working conditions for our female athletes, we are of the strong belief that WNBA teams should be permitted to arrange travel that is consistent with the fact that they are professional athletes.”
The WNBA is only in its 25th season, a very young professional league compared to the National Basketball Association celebrating its 75th season, and the National Football League which has survived 101 years. In order to understand how decisions are made within the WNBA, it is important to understand the ownership structure, 50% of the WNBA is owned by the NBA’s 30 teams, while the other 50% ownership is divided among the 12 WNBA teams.
Early last month, it was reported that the WNBA had secured $75 million in funding, valuing the league and its 12 teams at $1 Billion. Viewership of the WNBA has never been higher. The 2021 WNBA Finals on ESPN, between the Chicago Sky and the Phoenix Mercury averaged 548,000 viewers across the four games, which was a 23% increase from the 2020 Finals. WNBA regular season viewership is also up 49% compared to 2020.
The WNBA is currently facing an incredible surge in viewership and interest. According to its own evaluation, the league has plenty of funding to provide better accommodations for their players.
Hannah Valente is a 2L at Elon University School of Law and host of Podcast “Bars to the Bar” from Hoboken, New Jersey. Hannah graduated from Providence College where she was a four-year manager for the Men’s Basketball Team. She can be found on Twitter @hannahjane503. She is a newly registered NBA Agent.