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WNBA’s Cathy Engelbert: Charter flights would require ‘long-term’ funding

(Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images)

As charter flights continue to be a hot-button topic in the WNBA, commissioner Cathy Engelbert is stepping on the brake pedal.

Breanna Stewart is reported to have made charter flights a big issue in free agency, including rallying support from other WNBA players and NBA players alike. Both Ja Morant and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar voiced their support, as well as WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike.

On Friday, Engelbert spoke with ESPN to talk about the logistics of chartering flights for the entire league. She said she estimates that to charter flights for the entirety of the season, including the playoffs, would cost around $25 million.

“And the thing some people are missing is that this isn’t a one-year funding,” Engelbert told ESPN. “This is something you’ve got to fund — I want to say in perpetuity — but let’s say you have to make sure you have a business model to fund it for at least a decade.

“So even if you brought a sponsor in to fund it one year … sponsors can come and go. So you’ve got to make sure you have an economic model that is feasible to fund it long-term.”

She added that the league has been open to sponsorship deals that could fund charter flights for a long period of time. But she also has been balancing evolving the league as a business.

“I’m thinking very hard about how we can do this,” she said of charters. “And it’s all in the next round of media negotiations and bringing in bigger corporate partners because that’s how we — the teams and the league — would be able to fund it.

“I know a lot of people are saying, ‘OK, let’s take $25-$30 million and just divide it by 12.’ But that’s not how it’s going to work in reality, because we don’t want to jeopardize the financial viability of this league by putting the full onus on either the league or the owners. We’re all in this together.”

Still, the league has been taking small steps recently, including funding charter flights for the WNBA Finals.

“I suspect, as we have been doing, it’s more of the chip-away approach,” Engelbert said. “We funded [charters] for the Finals, we funded them for the Commissioner’s Cup, we funded them where it makes sense. But I’m not going to jeopardize the financial viability of this league and do something that doesn’t make sense.

“And as far as potential expansion teams, with anyone we’re in discussions with, I have been very transparent about the issues around charter: what the economic model is, how we want to fund it and that we’re going to do it when it’s economically feasible to do so. I don’t think it scares anyone away.”