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Cathy Engelbert says charter flights would ‘jeopardize’ WNBA finances

(David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert responded to a report earlier this week that the New York Liberty faced “termination” over chartering flights last season, rebuking that claim and shedding light on the league’s financial situation.

In an interview with ESPN, Engelbert said that while she would like to see teams take charter flights throughout the season, doing so would cost the league and its teams more than $20 million a year.

“This is something that we’re not going to jeopardize the financial health of the league and be irresponsible about,” she said. “If we can get it funded by sponsors and supporters, great, but that’s not where we are. We do not have that.

“We’ve asked all the major airlines. We’ve asked charter companies. I’ve been working on this since the moment I came into the league. But without sponsors stepping up, it’s just not in the cards right now. 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, and they see it’s $20 million-plus, you never hear from them again.”

A report in Sports Illustrated Tuesday detailed how the Liberty were fined $500,000 for chartering flights during the second half of the season in 2021 as well as for other rules violations, including an unsanctioned team trip to Napa, Calif.

Other possible sanctions reportedly included forfeiture of draft picks and even possible termination of the franchise. SI also reported that the fine originally proposed for the Liberty was $1 million, before negotiations led to it being cut in half. On Thursday, the league said the fine was always $500,000.

In a statement Tuesday, the WNBA also refuted the report that Liberty owners Joe and Clara Wu Tsai had secured an unofficial proposal of three years of comped charter flights for the entire league that was rejected by the WNBA Board of Governors.

The league said there was no such proposal. Engelbert reiterated the statement on Thursday.

“And if there had been,” she said, “it would have been supported.”