Los Angeles Sparks standout Nneka Ogwumike said Monday night via social media that “transformational growth” in the WNBA is being hampered by ongoing travel issues and what she sees as “tired arguments” against potential remedial action.
Ogwumike and the Sparks had travel troubles after their win over the Washington Mystics on Sunday at Dulles Airport in Virginia. After two delays, the Sparks’ flight was canceled and rebooked for Monday morning.
“First time in my 11 seasons that I’ve ever had to sleep at the airport,” Ogwumike said in a video posted to social media in the early hours of Monday. “Half of us sleep in an airport, half of us in a hotel. There weren’t enough rooms after our flight was delayed, delayed (again) and then canceled at 1am. It’s 1:44 now, and we’ll be here ’til 9″
The Sparks boarded the flight Monday morning and were back in Los Angeles by noon; They will host the Connecticut Sun on Tuesday night when the WNBA wraps up its final week of the regular season.
Multiple sources told ESPN that indeed every Sparks player was offered a hotel room, but not all at the same hotel due to a limited number of rooms being available. But because of the late hour and the need to be back at the airport with such a short turnaround time for the rescheduled flight, some players chose to stay at the airport. Sparks player Lexie Brown also confirmed this via social media.
More than 900 flights were canceled across the country on Sunday and nearly 700 on Saturday, according to a CNN report, as airlines continue to grapple with issues such as staff shortages and weather.
The WNBA’s travel situation continues to be a topic players are raising on social media, and Ogwumike’s standing as president of the players’ union executive committee drew additional attention to her post.
The WNBA doesn’t have charter flights because of prohibitive costs, league commissioner Cathy Engelbert has said on numerous occasions. But the league will charter for all WNBA Finals games, it announced in a press conference ahead of July’s All-Star game. The WNBA may also choose to charter earlier in the playoffs when teams cross 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 the 12 teams from individually opting for charters as it could put them at a competitive disadvantage. Earlier this year, news broke that the New York Liberty was fined $500,000 for intermittently using charter flights last season. Engelbert also denied a report that Liberty owner Joseph Tsai had offered the league a plan that would cover charters for all WNBA teams.
With her prominent union role, Ogwumike was instrumental in getting the CBA passed, but she noted in a statement on social media that a lot has changed in air travel since the COVID-19 pandemic and this needs to be taken into account.
“In these unprecedented times, the required form of business travel remains a significant drain on our players and their bodies,” Ogwumike wrote. “This is a serious health and safety issue that needs to be addressed.
“Competitive advantage is a tired argument that has outgrown its welcome. It’s a phrase preventing transformative growth in our league. New and emerging ownership groups have shown the ability and eagerness to invest the resources necessary to grow this league in the areas it needs most.”
In July, Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve expressed frustration that she felt the league was slow to respond to the Lynx’s travel issues coming to Washington for a game. When asked about it, Mystics coach Mike Thibault initially said he was “tired of hearing about WNBA travel delays” and that he had no sympathy for the Lynx because it happens to every team. However, he later apologized for his remarks.
In light of the Sparks’ woes on Sunday, Ogwumike, with support from the union, wrote on social media Monday that she hopes it will lead to further improvements in travel.
“We reiterate our ongoing invitation to league and team owners to work together to find a manageable solution to this issue, whose origins are complex but easy to fix,” Ogwumike wrote. “It’s time to allow teams to invest in charter flights between games, starting with the full 2022 WNBA playoffs and moving forward with a sane full-season fix from 2023.”
“And in a spirit of cooperation, we urge airlines, both private and commercial, to recognize this bold leadership opportunity: American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, United, NetJets, Wheels Up, JetSuiteX, among others: we encourage you to meet join the table and work with WNBA players to help eliminate the toughest opponent they face each season: travel.”