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Will WNBA players get charter flights in aftermath of Brittney Griner nightmare?

Not long after Brittney Griner left a Russian prison and was released before Christmas in a high-level prisoner swap, the women’s basketball star made a surprise announcement.

“I plan to play for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury this season,” she wrote on social media.

With league games starting in the spring, her return is good news for fans, but also raises some tough questions.

The problem begins with Griner’s possible need to travel on charter planes for safety reasons. While most men’s teams fly privately, women’s leagues often cut corners by going commercial, even if it means delays and tight seats in premium economy. Last summer, half of the Sparks team had to sleep in an airport when their flight was canceled.

WNBA stars have responded to Griner’s predicament by offering to contribute to the roughly $25 million it would cost all 12 WNBA teams to make the switch.

“Whatever it takes,” said All-Star forward Elena Delle Donne.

Players paying for their own travel won’t solve what sports economists see as an even bigger problem: a discrepancy in how men’s and women’s sports are treated as businesses in this country.

Experts argue that leagues such as the WNBA, National Women’s Soccer League and Premier Hockey Federation are crippled by a lack of investment in player contracts, coaching salaries, facilities, marketing budgets and television coverage.

“This is really a conversation about unconscious bias,” says Alicia Jessop, who teaches sports law and administration at Pepperdine and the RulingSports.com website. “You’re facing a system and you have to take that system down.”

The standard argument goes like this: In a free-market economy, women’s sports generate revenue commensurate with their popularity. In other words, women are already getting exactly what they deserve.

The NBA generates $10 billion annually compared to the WNBA with a reported $60 million. The WNBA won’t release financial details, but NBA commissioner Adam Silver, whose league co-owns, told the Associated Press in 2018 that the women have “lost more than $10 million each year.”

Given those numbers, it might seem unwise to add charter flights. Experts disagree.

WNBA star Brittney Griner acknowledges fans as she watches the 16th hole of the Phoenix Open on Feb. 11 in Scottsdale, Ariz.

(Darryl Webb/Associated Press)

Every company should invest in creating the best possible product, they say. Better basketball — stealing more three-pointers, more dives — arguably requires better-paid players and coaches, better training facilities, maybe even more legroom on road trips.

For the WNBA, entering its 27th season, this is no short-term venture.

“The NBA didn’t make any money in its first 25 years,” said David Berri, an economics professor at Southern Utah University. “Neither the NFL or Major League Baseball.”

Marketing a league requires patience because people don’t get into sports the same way peanut butter or laundry detergent do. Fans need to be passionate enough about their teams to buy season tickets, watch away games on television and buy the latest merchandise.

“On an average summer day, I can find cornhole or pickleball on TV easier than the WNBA.”

— Pepperdine sports law professor Alicia Jessop

“The key is developing an emotional attachment,” Berri said. “It comes from parents who bring their children to the stadium. The history of men’s sport says that takes decades.”

History also suggests that the US has not yet made that investment in women’s leagues. Cathy Engelbert recalls learning the hard way in 2019 when she left her position as CEO of the accounting giant Deloitte to become a WNBA commissioner.

Fan loyalty was only part of the equation. “What I didn’t know was the huge bias against women’s sports and the underinvestment in women’s sports,” she said.

Engelbert had to sell her vision to television networks and corporate advertisers, even some owners.

After buying an NFL team in Pittsburgh in 1933, Art Rooney lost money season after season, keeping the franchise alive for nearly 40 years before the Steelers won their first playoff game.

The late Paul Allen, one of the richest men in the world at the time, retired from his WNBA franchise, the Portland Fire, in 2002 after three mediocre seasons.

Billionaires don’t line up to buy women’s teams like they do in the NFL or NBA, Berri said, and the reasons aren’t purely financial. The Lakers, Dodgers and Rams provide examples of owners throwing money at franchises chasing a championship.

Again, it’s a matter of passion.

“In men’s sports, the attitude is ‘This is competitive and we’re trying to win and I don’t care if this team makes $3 million or loses $3 million,'” Berri said.

That calculation gets complicated in the WNBA, where the management structure is split between individual owners at 42%, the NBA at 42%, and an investor class that recently paid $75 million for a 16% share.

The NBA has been criticized for treating its sister league like a charity or even a place to park losses, which would not encourage an aggressive approach to brand building. The same accusation has been made against some longtime owners.

Recently, a new generation has made its way into the WNBA and is pushing for more spending. Las Vegas Aces owner Mark Davis, who also owns the Raiders, hired coach Becky Hammon for a record $1 million and won a championship last season.

Las Vegas Aces coach Becky Hammon talks to players during the WNBA All-Star game on July 10 in Chicago.

Las Vegas Aces coach Becky Hammon talks to players during the WNBA All-Star game on July 10 in Chicago.

(Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press)

Joe and Clara Wu Tsai acquired the New York Liberty in 2019 and recently signed high-priced free agents Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot. The couple, who also own the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, were fined $500,000 for renting private jets to take the Liberty to several away games and a short vacation in Napa during the 2021 season.

“I think there is more recognition among some owners that there can be a lot of growth in this league and women’s sport in general,” said Jessop, who studies the intersection of business and sport. “But there are still some people who lead (the WNBA) with blinders on.”

When asked about disagreement among owners, Engelbert dismisses the topic as just “a lot of chatter out there.” The commissioner prefers to focus on what she sees as the biggest obstacle to boosting investment: getting the top dollar for broadcast and streaming rights.

There is another recurring debate – of the chicken-and-egg variety – around women’s sports.

A USC and Purdue University study found that in 2019, television news and highlights devoted only 5% of their time to female athletes. Some observers say women get less coverage because they aren’t as popular; others claim they aren’t as popular because they don’t get enough coverage.

“On an average summer day,” Jessop said, “I can find cornhole or pickleball on TV easier than the WNBA.”

The WNBA’s viewership has increased significantly in recent seasons, averaging 379,000 viewers per game in 2022. That’s more than Major League Soccer drew, but the WNBA received $25 million in broadcast rights compared to the MLS at a reported $90 million for a deal that included US national teams.

“The NBA didn’t make any money for the first 25 years. Neither does the NFL or major league baseball.

— Southern Utah economics professor, David Berri

This circles back to ownership.

Television rights drive corporate sponsorships and push team valuations into the billions for the NFL, NBA and MLB so owners in those leagues can afford to put money into their franchises. Women’s teams, which are worth much less, don’t have that luxury.

“Historically, women’s sports have been viewed exclusively in terms of wins and losses,” Berry said. “You have some owners who treat the WNBA like they bought a cardboard factory.”

The discrepancy frustrates proponents, who see proof of the concept in the popularity of the U.S. women’s soccer team and events such as gymnastics and figure skating at the Olympics. They point out that women make up more than half of the US population and make most of the decisions about household spending.

A 2021 report from Deloitte – Engelbert’s former employer – predicted that women’s sports could surpass a key global benchmark of $1 billion in annual revenue, but only if the industry “invests on a sustainable basis in creating more opportunities for women’s sports to prove its commercial value”. .”

In Los Angeles, Angel City FC could serve as an example. Although the team struggled in NWSL play last season, it is owned by all the stars – including actors Natalie Portman and Eva Longoria — helped sell nearly 16,000 season tickets and raise capital with a valuation of over $100 million before the first game was played.

The team also flew over the road during a long stretch last year.

“So why isn’t there increasing spending (on women’s sports)?” Jessop asked. “If we don’t fully invest…it’s a missed business opportunity.”

As players and some owners continue to push for charter flights in the WNBA, Engelbert remains steadfast in keeping costs down. At least for now.

“We just need to build a long-term economic model to afford it,” she said. “Not for a few years, but for 20 years.”

The commissioner is nothing but optimistic about the league’s future and praised recent investments from Google and Nike. While players still earn a fraction of what their NBA counterparts get, maternity leave and other benefits have improved, as have performance bonuses.

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert waves to the crowd before a playoff game

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert waves to the crowd before a playoff game between the Las Vegas Aces and the Phoenix Mercury on September 30, 2021.

(David Becker/Associated Press)

More importantly, the WNBA’s media rights are due for renewal in 2025, with the league hoping to see a significant increase in annual revenue in that category. It helps to have a corporate veteran like Engelbert at the helm, but Jessop notes that the WNBA is down to earth.

The Griner story won’t go away, putting pressure on the league to change its travel policies sooner rather than later. Jessop had mixed feelings when players offered to join.

“I understand where they come from and it shows their love for the game,” said the sports law professor. But, she added, “I think this is the worst thing they can do. The moment they do, the league knows it will never have to compensate them for their value.”

Meanwhile, negative headlines don’t exactly fuel the growth of a league trying to prove it deserves more. More investments. More television coverage. More corporate dollars.

“If you’re constantly telling people you don’t have money — which is what this charter flight does — why would they invest in you emotionally?” said Berri, the economics professor. “You have to convince people that you are real.”