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Megdal: WNBA fines New York Liberty a half million dollars for treating its players too well

2021 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

You want to know the problem with the WNBA? Here it is... the league fined the Liberty $500,000, down from an originally proposed $1 million, for chartering flights for their players rather than force them to fly coach.

Howard Megdal, in this week’s cover story for Sports Illustrated, describes how the Liberty (and Nets) owners, Joe and Clara Wu Tsai, were fined because they had “violated the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement, a benefit that vastly exceeded the allowable compensation to players.” In other words, for “treating their players too well,” as Megdal writes.

The trips included one where Clara Wu Tsai and Liberty alternate governor Oliver Weisberg chartered a jet so the team, in the middle of a losing streak, could visit a weekend at a toney resort in California’s Napa Valley for some needed R&R. The Labor Day weekend trip won the Liberty owners praise from their players including a couple of joyous TikTok videos

As Megdal writes the league was not as amused...

The Napa trip, over Labor Day weekend, violated the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement, a benefit that vastly exceeded the allowable compensation to players. So, too, did the charter flights Liberty owners Joe and Clara Wu Tsai bought and provided to their team repeatedly throughout the second half of the WNBA season, a competitive advantage for New York that led to a league-record $500,000 fine of the team—originally floated by the league at $1 million, reduced on an appeal, itself an irregular process—and the removal of Liberty executive Oliver Weisberg from the league’s executive committee, sources told Sports Illustrated. The league confirmed these details, as well.

And as Megdal also writes, it was almost much worse...

After someone alerted the WNBA to the Liberty’s violations, possible remedies floated by the league’s general counsel, Jamin Dershowitz, ranged from losing “every draft pick you have ever seen” to suspending ownership, even “grounds for termination of the franchise,” according to a Sept. 21, 2021, communication between the league and the Liberty reviewed by SI.

There was even a suggestion that the Liberty, one of the WNBA’s three original franchises, be replaced in the playoffs!

The league’s refusal to let teams charter flights for its players has been a big issue, particularly among players, and even led to a game being postponed last season. 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.” Players can upgrade but the max salary for WNBA player is a mere $215,000. The Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu, whose jerseys are the league’s top seller and who makes a lot more from endorsements like those ubiquitous State Farm commercials, will make only $76,297 this season. .

One leading WNBA player, Liz Cambage, famously tweeted out her frustration with the league policy — and her out-of-pocket costs just last month.

Cambage is 6’8”.

Joe Tsai’s own frustration with the ban went public last July after his team was subjected to a travel nightmare over a series of games. In a tweet, Tsai promised to fix the issue “for good.”

By October, Tsai thought he had a solution, league wide charter flights with an airline as a sponsor.

Ultimately, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert gently but publicly shut things down, saying a more uniform charter policy would have to wait till the WNBA gets on better financial footing...

What Engelbert didn’t note was that three weeks earlier, Tsai’s idea had been debated and declined by the WNBA’s board of governors. Megdal writes...

On Sept. 13, according to a source familiar with the call, the WNBA Board of Governors considered an unofficial proposal from the Liberty to make charter flights the default travel option for WNBA teams—the Liberty said they’d found a way to get it comped for everyone in the league for three years—but it lacked majority support. Some owners worried that players would get used to it, so there’d be no going back, and others wondered whether players might just prefer a salary hike instead.

In the meantime, the Tsai’s and Weisberg took matters into their own hands and decided their players deserved better. They quietly chartered flights for road games.

The Liberty, who declined to comment to SI, chartered flights for each road game of the season’s second half, beginning in August with a trip to Minnesota. And eventually, despite a cone of silence over the franchise about it, word got out.

Dershowitz (Yes, he is the son of Trump lawyer Alan Dershowitz) was put in charge of the investigation that ultimately resulted in the fine. Weisberg’s response to Dershowitz was more about gender equity than any CBA violation...

“The focus on objecting to better travel arrangements seems to go against the spirit of what the entire League is trying to achieve under the leadership of WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.” Weisberg wrote, “We cannot begin to talk about gender equity until we solve some pressing issues that have put extra burdens on the health and well-being of WNBA players.

“In the spirit of improving working conditions for our female athletes, we are of the strong belief that WNBA teams should be permitted to arrange travel that is consistent with the fact that they are professional athletes.”

There is a bigger issue, of course, as Megdal writes. Tsai’s initiative — and the league’s fine — point to an increasingly large and fundamental division in the league’s ownership ranks.

A quarter-century into its existence, the WNBA features a mix of aggressive new owners eager to signal their optimism for the future and old-school owners who prefer the conservative approach that defined the league’s past. This is happening within a broader landscape of massive investment across women’s sports, really, for the first time in the U.S.

Born from it is a unique scandal, in which a prominent franchise stands accused of treating its players too well.

He adds that Tsai has allies particularly among the league’s newer — and more well-heeled— owners.

New owners—the Tsais in New York, Marc Lore in Minnesota, Larry Gottesdiener in Atlanta, Mark Davis in Las Vegas—found themselves dumbstruck by how little the WNBA could invest in growth.

There are other issues, financial and otherwise, as Megdal writes. One is that there are few women owners. Wu Tsai, who holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, is the exception.

At the end of the day, however, the fine may be a small price to pay for pointing up the bizarre way women athletes are treated by leagues like the WNBA and NWSL. As an ancillary benefit, the Tsai’s stand can’t hurt their standing among free agents, as their big off-season acquisition noted when she signed.

“The entire franchise, you can tell they just really care about their players,” Stefanie Dolson told SNY’s Maria Marino on Feb. 15. “They care about the level of basketball they put out on the floor, which we can produce the best when we’re not really worried about the other stuff, like where are we going to practice, how are we traveling, what’s the schedule, just all that other stuff. When we can focus on just basketball, we can put out the best product.”

The Liberty “politely” declined comment on the Sports Illustrated story. They’d already made their point.