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Joe Tsai vows to end WNBA travel woes ‘for good’ after Liberty nightmare

Chicago Sky v New York Liberty Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

It all started on Thursday. The New York Liberty had an away game vs. the cellar-dwelling Indiana Fever on Friday night and so they were booked to arrive the day before. But Tropical Storm Elsa intervened and the team got stuck in New York for more than five hours.

Of course, the flight was canceled and the Liberty were told to return home, then regroup early on Friday. They finally arrived in Indianapolis — Game Day, at 11:30 a.m. — a mere eight and a half hours prior to tip-off. Not ideal and, no surprise, New York lost to Indy by 13 on Friday night, turning the ball over 20 times and shooting less than 40 percent from the field.

As in most travel nightmares, things went from bad to worse. The Liberty were supposed to leave Indianapolis Saturday for New York and a big home game vs. the league-leading Connecticut Sun on Sunday afternoon. Sunday is also “Unity Day,” a special game created to shine a light on a broad range of issues affecting people of color in New York and elsewhere around the country. In other words, a big deal for the organization.

There were yet more delays and the Liberty couldn’t book a flight to New York until Sunday morning. As bad as things were in getting to Indianapolis on Friday, getting out of Indiana’s capital city was worse. The Liberty wouldn’t arrive at New York’s LaGuardia Airport until a little after 9 a.m., just five hours before tip-off!! No time to go home, no time to rest. Jazmine Jones, the Liberty’s second-year player who had chronicled Thursday night’s delays on Twitter, had had enough and again took to social media. This time in ALL CAPS!!

Liberty fans were outraged, retweeting Jones and sending a message to Joe Tsai, the Liberty’s co-governor with his wife Clara Wu Tsai...

Jones may not have been amused, but she certainly was amusing...

Then, as if by a miracle, things changed. Jones posted that suddenly, a flight was available, at 3:30 p.m. which would permit the Libs to sleep in their own beds, get rested up for the big game Sunday...

And indeed, she and her teammates got on a plane bound for LGA. Jones made like an air traffic controller...

The flight wasn’t a charter. The WNBA doesn’t permit teams to fly charter! The league wants a level playing field so under the league’s collective bargaining agreement, teams are limited to “premium Economy class status (such as Comfort/Economy Plus) for all players for regular-season air travel.”

So, the team somehow got a Republic Airways flight bound for home. No word how it got done. It didn’t end there, either. Tsai, upset with the way things were working out, took to Twitter himself (while the plane was still on the runway in Indy) both endorsing Jones’ outrage and promising happier trails...

Tsai did not say how he plans to solve the problem but noted that the status quo isn’t working. “Getting your team to an away game and back comfortably, safely, and on time is a basic business necessity. It’s the right thing every owner should do,” he tweeted.

It didn’t take long for his players to tweet out their appreciation...

Ionescu and teammates Betnijah Laney and Didi Richards got an added benefit from the afternoon flight. All three were able to get dressed up and head over to the ESPY’s at The Rooftop at Pier 17 at the Seaport.

As Joe Zucker points out in Bleacher Report, it won’t be easy getting WNBA travel situation resolved. He traced the rationale behind the no-charter, you’re-at-the-mercy-of-commercial rule, reminding readers of how it evolved back when the CBA was negotiated. The WNBA didn’t want teams owned by the mega-rich, like Tsai, to have an advantage over their smaller market, less wealthy counterparts. So no charters, unlike their NBA brethren.

Zucker also noted that the situation faced by the Liberty is not uncommon and not a good look for the WNBA, always wary of looking like the NBA’s little sister in terms of salary, benefits ... and accommodations.

This isn’t a recent problem for the WNBA, since the same situation seems to unfold at least once every year. The Las Vegas Aces forfeited a game in 2018 after enduring a 25-plus-hour trip for a game against the Washington Mystics.

No word yet from the Liberty about any details on Tsai’s plan but by publicly addressing the issue, it certainly looks like he wants to raise the stakes. As Jones and her teammates know, that’s a good thing.

Just before takeoff, Sabrina Ionescu tweeted her appreciation, indicating that the Tsais somehow got it done.