According to a report from ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, Breanna Stewart is making private air travel for WNBA teams a major point of her free agency meetings and could play a role in where she chooses to sign.
Shelburne added that, due to concerns about Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner’s safety, there is an assumption that the seven-time All-Star will travel on chartered flights, instead of the WNBA’s standard commercial travel.
If Griner were to fly privately the league would have to address whether her teammates on the Mercury would fly privately with her. That would raise the question of fairness for the other teams in the league, which are barred from flying privately.
Stewart took to Twitter on Sunday afternoon to express her thoughts on the topic.
I would love to be part of a deal that helps subsidize charter travel for the entire WNBA.— Breanna Stewart (@breannastewart) January 22, 2023
I would contribute my NIL, posts + production hrs to ensure we all travel in a way that prioritizes player health + safety, which ultimately results in a better product.
Who’s with me?
Players from around the league — from President of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) Nneka Ogwumike to New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, to Minnesota Lynx forward and Treasurer of the WNPBA Natalie Achonwa — all offered their support for the idea.
In order to change the league’s current travel format, the WNBA team governors would have to hold a board of governors vote, per Shelburne.
So, how does that impact her chances of joining the Lynx? It’s hard to say, but her decision very well could shed more light on the organization’s incoming ownership group.
President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach Cheryl Reeve told Canis Hoopus back in November that she needed to speak with Lynx minority owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez in order to understand their vision for the WNBA.
“Those were great conversations. They’re competitive people,” Reeve said, noting Lore’s background as an elite track athlete and Rodriguez’s storied MLB career. “I wanted, more than anything, to bring them closer to this, share with them what our needs are, as our desire to be the gold standard in the WNBA in terms of a free agent destination. ‘What are free agents looking for?’ That sort of thing. And so we had some really productive conversations around that.”
Reeve also communicated clearly that Lore and Rodriguez want be aggressive not only in improving the team on the floor, but also as it pertains to moving the WNBA forward as a league.
“That’s what I think is really meaningful. When I talked with [Marc], Alex and Glen (Taylor) about the league, where we are when we talk about the top ownership in the WNBA ... and (confirmed) that we are a part of the group that is very interested in the league taking these next steps from an economical standpoint, from an investment standpoint,” Reeve said.
“I’m very encouraged by that and our ability to remain as a gold standard in the league. That’s going to be because your ownership allows you to do that. And so I’m extremely confident that we have a strong ownership group that will see this league take that next step.”
It should be noted that three of the four organizations Stewart took meetings with — the Lynx, Liberty and Washington Mystics — are all owned by groups that also own a brother franchise in the NBA. Brooklyn Nets governor Joe Tsai and his wife Clara own the Liberty, while Ted Leonsis is the majority partner of Monumental Sports, which owns both the Mystics and Washington Wizards. Leonsis co-owns the Mystics with Sheila Johnson, the co-founder of BET and CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts.
Needless to say, Tsai, Leonsis, Taylor and Lore are no strangers to the economics involved in professional teams’ charter travel. The Liberty were even fined $500,000 for chartering flights (paid for by Tsai) to two road games in the 2021 season and on an “unsanctioned” trip to Napa, California, according to ESPN. Tsai also publicly called for chartered flights and reportedly worked to try to find a solution, but a WNBA spokesperson told ESPN last year that the Liberty never made an official proposal to the league’s board of governors.
“If we could get it sponsored or funded in some way ... I'm all ears. I've gotten lots of calls over the past year about this since we've been back in our 12 markets. Then when people price it out… you never hear from them again."— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) January 23, 2023
Keep in mind that Reeve — who first got her start in the W as an Assistant Coach with the Charlotte Sting in 2001 — has a wealth of WNBA experience not only as the greatest coach in league history, but also on the business side of the league. She is incredibly well-respected as a driver of change league-wide, both on and off the floor. And Reeve isn’t the only executive at Mayo Clinic Square with significant WNBA experience, either.
Lynx President of Business Operations Carley Knox has nearly two decades of business experience in the WNBA. Knox “serves as the primary liaison between the organization and the WNBA on league-wide business and marketing initiatives,” per the Lynx.
Given that Stewart chose franchises with three of the wealthiest ownership groups in the league, it will be fascinating to see how her decision unfolds behind the scenes in the W’s business arena.
The league can’t afford to pay for chartered flights for all of its teams on its own, otherwise it would have done so by now. As a result, if the W can’t find a sponsor to cover the costs (partially or in full), they may have to be incurred by the individual franchises; if that is the case, it’d be a major competitive advantage for organizations like the Lynx, Liberty, Mystics, Indiana Fever, Las Vegas Aces, Phoenix Mercury and Los Angeles Sparks, all of whom are backed by individuals or groups that own other pro sports franchises.
But at the end of the day, if Stewart’s free agency decision catalyzes the ratification of private air travel, it’d be a massive win for the entire WNBA, regardless of which team signs the 2018 WNBA MVP.