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WNBA teams will travel on chartered flights for the next 2 seasons, the league says

Players and staff of the New York Liberty WNBA basketball team wait to board buses at Harry Reid International Airport, Wednesday, June 28, 2023, in Las Vegas.
John Locher
Players and staff of the New York Liberty WNBA basketball team wait to board buses at Harry Reid International Airport, Wednesday, June 28, 2023, in Las Vegas.

For the next two seasons, WNBA teams will begin traveling to away games on chartered flights, after primarily relying on commercial planes since the league's inception nearly three decades ago.

The change will be gradually phased in at the start of the 2024 season, which kicks off May 14, the WNBA announced Thursday.

"We are thrilled to announce the launch of a full charter program as soon as practical for the 2024 and 2025 seasons, a testament to the continued growth of the WNBA," WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said. "We have been hard at work to transform the business and build a sustainable economic model to support charter flights for the long term."

Before, teams could travel on chartered flights during the postseason and during the regular season if they had games back-to-back.

The league is partnering with Delta Air Lines to carry out the expanded program. It said it raised $75 million in 2022 for "marketing, digital transformation, globalization, and fan engagement."

"It's exciting to add the WNBA to our prestigious roster of sports charter partners as we participate in this historic advancement in women's professional sports," Delta CEO Ed Bastian said. "We're looking forward to providing the WNBA with the welcoming, caring and elevated service that Delta people have made famous."

Women's basketball has had tremendous growth in the past year, driven by phenoms like Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark. Reese helped lead her LSU team to the championship in 2023 against Iowa, which was led by Clark. This past year, Clark became the NCAA's all-time basketball scorer, male or female, and whose games shattered records for attendance and TV ratings.

Since Reese and Clark have been drafted, to the Chicago Sky and Indiana Fever, respectively, ticket sales have skyrocketed, with some teams having to move venues to meet the demand. The season-opening games, including Clark's professional debut, will be streamed on Disney+ on May 14, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Several players reacted positively to the news.

"I'm really excited that the younger players will not have to experience everything that we experienced, and the ones before us had to experience with that," Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner saidin a press conference. "I always said that safety is a number one key. Our safety should have always been high priority."

Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison after she was detained at an airport there for packing hashish oil in her travel bag, which she says was an accident. The Biden administration was able to negotiate her release.

She added that while being accessible to fans can be a positive experience, it also makes them more vulnerable to threats.

After Griner's return to the U.S., she was confronted by right-wing YouTuber Alex Stein in a Dallas airport, asking her a series of questions, such as, "Do you hate America?"

"I'm thankful at whatever point that is that it happens and occurs, it'll be great for us," Clark said. "It'll make recovery easier, it'll make travel easier. It just makes life a lot easier for a lot of people, but also it's just something that a lot of people have deserved for years and years now. So, I'm just very fortunate to come to this league and have that opportunity the first year I'm here."

"I'm excited," Las Vegas Aces forwardAlysha Clark said. "Whatever it took for it to get there, it's here, and I'm looking forward to it. It's been a long time coming. It's been something that affects how we show up on the court. It affects the ability to be able to rest and get more rest, so I think you'll see a difference in the players as we're out here on the floor this season."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ayana Archie
[Copyright 2024 NPR]