Breanna Stewart leverages for WNBA players’ comfort

When a player in any sport hits free agency, the status quo is to sign a contract that ties you to a team for a predetermined number of years for an annual salary. The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) MVP and superstar Breanna Stewart, however, is attempting to break down the doors of what is expected of a free agent contract.

Stewart is hitting unrestricted free agency for the second time in her career, after signing a one-year deal with the Seattle Storm last season. Getting the obvious out of the way first, Stewart is an elite player in the WNBA. Her skills combined with her size and athleticism create a mismatch against any player in the league. 

The list of teams lining up to sign her included every team in the league, but on Wednesday, Stewart decided to sign with the New York Liberty. Contract stipulations are still pending. 

When Stewart officially hit free agency on Jan. 22, she sent out a tweet saying “I would love to be part of a deal that helps subsidize charter travel for the entire WNBA. I would contribute my NIL, posts + production hrs to ensure we all travel in a way that prioritizes player health + safety, which ultimately results in a better product.”

Stewart brings up what has been an important talking point in not only the WNBA, but in all of women’s sports. In March of last year, Liberty owner Joe Tsai was fined $500,000 — the maximum amount allowed — for chartering private flights for his players to travel in between games. 

It is part of the WNBA collective bargaining agreement that teams must fly commercial air in order to maintain a competitive balance in the league. Tsai paid to charter five flights for the Liberty during the 2022 season, and one team trip to Napa, California. 

Coming out in support of Stewart’s idea was nearly the entire NBA and WNBA community. “We gotta get something done and I’m with them no matter how much it costs,” said NBA star Kyrie Irving. 

“Been there – done that… Today’s NBA players never had to deal with the effects of commercial travel on their bodies. I’m all for WNBA players getting equal rights. Congrats Breanna for raising the issue,” said NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. 

WNBA players are no stranger to charter flights, as Title IX legislation requires that universities provide private charter for both men’s and women’s teams. So why is that different in the professional leagues?

The idea of providing charter flights for the 12 WNBA teams has been floated around in the league offices before. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has said it would cost around $25 million per season for teams to charter flights to every game. 

Breaking down WNBA ownership is not an easy task. Half of the owners in the league also own an NBA team, meaning they already pay to charter NBA flights. Three teams, the Storm, the Los Angeles Sparks and the Connecticut Sun are owned by million and billion dollar corporations. The Las Vegas Aces are owned by billionaire Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis. To put it simply, there is more than enough money in the league to charter flights for every game.

In addition to creating equal conditions for men and women, at the top of the minds of people discussing Stewart’s idea is Brittney Griner. Griner, who was imprisoned in Russia for nearly a year, was released back to the United States in a prisoner swap in December, and she is planning to play for the Phoenix Mercury this season. 

“We’ve been planning and we’ve been thinking it through with security experts,” Engelbert told the Associated Press last week regarding Griner’s safety. Both Griner and the league have expressed concern over Griner’s safety throughout the WNBA season, which begins in May. 

The WNBA is a relatively new league in the sports world, with its first season coming just 25 years ago. Free agency is still a new concept for WNBA teams, and player empowerment is beginning to take shape. As Stewart signs with the Liberty — a move that is viewed as the largest in league history — league officials will have no choice but to reevaluate their treatment of players. 

Providing charter flights for every team might not happen this year, but according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, “Stewart believes she has raised the issue to a level of importance that meaningful conversations and changes will continue in the immediate future.”

Photo courtesy of BDZ Sports, Wikipedia