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Kyrie Irving hopeful for changes in WNBA travel policies

Seattle Storm v Los Angeles Sparks Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

As WNBA free agency ramps up — free agents can sign starting new deals on Wednesday — a big issue remains the league’s stance on charter flights. In almost all cases, teams are required to fly players commercial which has led not just to missed connections and late arrivals but also health issues.

Earlier this week, Breanna Stewart, the leading WNBA free agent and a New York Liberty target, said she’d be willing to contribute her off-court earnings to pay the difference, noting it would produce a “better product...”

Also, there are reports that the Phoenix Mercury may be permitted to fly charter because of security concerns surrounding their star Brittney Griner, recently released from a Russian prison, further complicating the league’s long-standing policy.

On Thursday night, Kyrie Irving touched on the subject and seemed to suggest a resolution might be in the offing. Irving is both a vice-president of the NBA Players Association, which is working with the WNBA players union, and someone with a record of helping WNBA players, setting aside $1.5 million in 2020 to help women who needed financial aid during the “wubble,” the WNBA’s version of the “bubble.”

“As one of the Vice Presidents in the NBPA, we’ve discussed a range of these things, and I wish it was as easy as getting it tomorrow, but business takes a little bit of patience, and our W ladies have been patient long enough,” Irving said. “We’ve definitely gotta get something done, and I’m with them no matter how much it costs. I think we could all collectively come together and make something very doable happen, and we just want to have our ladies have peace of mind while they’re playing.”

The use of charter flights became an issue last year when the WNBA fined the Liberty a record $500,000 and removed Joe Tsai’s representative, Oliver Weisberg, from the league’s executive committee for violating the league’s policy on travel by flying the Liberty on charter flights. That might wind up being a good investment because it showed potential free agents the length to which the Liberty and their owners, Joe and Clara Wu Tsai, would go on behalf of their players.

As Sports Illustrated reported at the time, there is a disagreement on the subject — as well as other issues — between the league’s old guard and a group of new owners including the Tsais and Mark Davis, owner of the Las Vegas Aces. It is estimated that chartering travel for all teams would cost between $20 and $30 million.

Irving also touched on the salary issues that require many of the WNBA players including starts like Stewart to play overseas in the WNBA off-season. Griner was playing for a team in Ekaterinaberg, Russia. when she was arrested on drug charges. The U.S. described her situation throughout the nine-month imprisonment as being “wrongfully detained.”

“[WNBA players] don’t need to be overseas all the time. They need to be here playing in front of their families every single day doing what we do,” Irving said. “So I think it’s a lesson learned right now of how we can attack this as a family because the W and the NBA, we’re a family. And I think things will be figured out before the season gets started. I’m very optimistic about that.”

The WNBA opens its season May 19.

As more than one pundit has suggested, the travel issue could become moot if the NBA subsidized the women’s league, something the men’s league has not done despite record revenues and team valuations.