From scheduling conflicts, to travel difficulties, to just feeling comfortable in their bodies, WNBA players having to fly commercial has been an issue for a long time. As the 2022 season gets underway, it hasn’t taken long for the situation to become a problem again. Only a week into the season, the Seattle Storm’s Breanna Stewart and Epiphanny Prince—along with the Washington Mystics’ Natasha Cloud—have all entered the league’s health and safety protocols.
According to ESPN, the players are putting the blame for their positive COVID-19 tests directly on flying commercial. Mystics guard Cloud, who missed Tuesday’s game against the Las Vegas Aces, quote tweeted Just Women’s Sports report of her absence, writing, “Shoutout to the @WNBA for flying us commercial during a pandemic. (And no mask mandates) Go mystics.”
League officials have long claimed using charter flights is just too expensive, with commissioner Cathy Engelbert estimating it would be about $20 million per season to use private flights for league travel.
Considering the league recently announced it raised $75 million in new investment capital, it seems like they could spare $20 million to ensure the health and safety of players. The WNBA plans to use the money for “brand elevation and marketing; globalization of the WNBA; innovation, digital, and growth of consumer touchpoints; and human capital and operational optimization as part of an overall effort to address some of the league’s obstacles to growth and generating new revenue.” That’s a lot of corporate-speak for “we want to grow the league.” However, it seems like investing in your players is the best way to grow the business. If Breanna Stewart is not on the court, you lose ticket sales and TV ratings.
Right now, the WNBA only tests for COVID-19 if players are symptomatic. Though their return is “symptom-specific,” it usually requires two negative tests 24 hours apart. While players in health and safety protocols can be temporarily replaced, it’s not a long-term solution.
Stewart’s teammate and veteran player Sue Bird pointed out that when NBA teams have players out with COVID-19, they have the G League to help round rosters at a moment’s notice. The WNBA doesn’t have that safety net, so it’s important their players get extra protections.
“We travel commercial,” Bird said. “When we’re on the road we’re in public places in order to eat, the hotels we stay at. With the new [COVID-19] variants, and the fact that we don’t have a G League to pull from, one would imagine that this might happen a lot. I don’t hope that for anyone. But who knows...given that the season has just started, and we are already starting to see it.”
When news broke of Stewart and Prince’s positive COVID-19 tests, Stewie quote tweeted the Seattle Storm PR account’s injury update writing, “Fly commercial they say…”
As much as the world wants to pretend it’s over, we’re still in a pandemic. Therefore, the league needs to allow players to use private flights, and it needs to expand rosters so teams have additional players available because this is going to happen all season long.