WNBA conditions under scrutiny after Sparks players forced to sleep in airport

The working conditions of WNBA athletes have come under scrutiny again after Los Angeles Sparks players were forced to sleep at an airport when their flight was cancelled.

The Sparks had beaten the Washington Mystics on Sunday night but their flight back to LA was cancelled at 1am and then rescheduled for 9am.

First time for everything @WNBA

— Nneka Ogwumike (@nnekaogwumike) August 8, 2022

“We’re roaming the airport. It’s the first time in my 11 seasons that I’ve ever had to sleep in the airport,” Sparks player Nneka Ogwumike, who is also the WNBA Players Association president, said in a video she posted to Twitter. “But based on travel … It was only a matter of time. So, half of us are sleeping in the airport. Half of us are at a hotel. There weren’t enough rooms.”

Sparks assistant coach Latricia Trammell tweeted a photo of airport lounge seats along with the caption: “Our beds tonight!”. Trammell also included the hashtag “charter”, a reference to the fact that WNBA teams are required to take commercial flights (NBA and top college teams usually fly on private jets). The WNBA fined New York Liberty last year after the team chartered private jets for some games, as it considered it an unfair advantage over other franchises with smaller budgets. WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in March that chartering flights would cost around $20m a year and “jeopardize the financial health of the league”, which lacks the huge broadcasting deals that help support the NBA.

Travel problems are nothing new to WNBA players. The Chicago Sky also had to sleep in an airport earlier this season, while Olympic champion Kelsey Plum said flight delays contributed to her team, the Las Vegas Aces, losing to the Mystics in May. In the same month, the Connecticut Sun cancelled a practice session after their flight was delayed into the early hours of the following morning. Meanwhile, some players argued that flying commercial has put their health and careers at risk during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Sparks’ travel problems come days after a Russian court sentenced WNBA star Brittney Griner to nine years in jail on drugs charges. The Olympic champion’s supporters say she was only playing in Russia, where she reportedly earned $1.5m a year, because the WNBA’s maximum salary is $222,000.

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