Column: The WNBA’s anticipated season is almost here, yet the league still seems to be playing catch-up

It’s an exciting time in the WNBA.

The much-anticipated 2024 season is mere days away, yet from an organizational standpoint, the league still looks as if it’s playing from behind.

To address player safety concerns, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced Tuesday that the league will launch a charter flight program “as soon as we can get planes in places.” The program is projected to cost about $25 million per year for the next two seasons and would provide full-time charter flight service for each team.

But the announcement was the first time teams had heard the news.

“We don’t have a ton of details, but everybody’s happy for obvious reasons,” Chicago Sky general manager Jeff Pagliocca said Wednesday at the team’s media day. “The players and teams have been fighting for this for some time, so to finally hear what we heard yesterday, players are thrilled, they’re relieved.

“But there’s not a ton of details that have come our way yet. It happened pretty quickly. We’ll be happy to share more details as soon as we have them.”

According to Sophie Cunningham, the players association rep for the Phoenix Mercury, the union also was uninvolved in the decision to fly charter this season.

Commercial flights have long been a concern for the WNBA. Last season Mercury star Brittney Griner — who was freed from a Russian prison in December 2022 after being wrongfully detained, according to the U.S. State Department — was harassed in a Dallas airport and video was posted on social media.

“Player safety while traveling should be at the forefront,” Griner’s then-teammate Brianna Turner, now with the Sky, posted on social media after the incident. “People following with cameras saying wild remarks is never acceptable. Excessive harassment. Our team nervously huddled in a corner unsure how to move about. We demand better.”

Preseason photos: Chicago Sky 101, New York Liberty 53

Flying commercial is part of the WNBA’s current collective bargaining agreement with players, which was signed in 2020. The league has said it didn’t allow charter flights previously because it would create a competitive advantage for teams that wanted to pay for them over those that did not.

The announcement of full-time charters is significant and comes at a pivotal time.

But with such a huge, season-impacting announcement, why weren’t teams made aware? Why wasn’t the announcement made on a bigger stage instead of in a meeting with sports editors? Why was it made so close to the start of the season and not weeks — or even months — in advance?

Plane travel wasn’t the only off-court issue to arise on the brink of the new season. On Monday the Sky confirmed to the Tribune they would stream Tuesday night’s preseason matchup against Courtney Vandersloot and the New York Liberty after a Minnesota Lynx fan, Alli Schneider, had streamed the Sky-Lynx preseason opener Friday on her iPhone.

Viewership of the livestream reached 250,000 as word spread after a glitch in the WNBA League Pass app incorrectly listed the game as available when it wasn’t. Schneider, a four-year Lynx season ticket holder, said coach Cheryl Reeve sent her a note thanking her for supporting the team. South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley said she watched the stream and even sent the fan $100 via Cash App.

Because of the demand to see rookies Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso, the Sky — whose game Tuesday at Wintrust Arena originally wasn’t going to be available — were left with a few options:

  • They could pay a production crew and stream the game themselves, with the stream then picked up by WNBA League Pass.

  • A regional sports network could broadcast and/or stream the game.

  • Or the WNBA could send a crew to produce and stream the game.

The Sky wound up going with the first option and hiring a crew themselves, and Tuesday’s game was available via League Pass.

While providing livestreams or broadcasts of preseason games is a relatively new venture for both the WNBA and the Sky, the entire debacle begs the question: Why weren’t they prepared?

The entire NBA preseason is broadcast through local affiliates and the NBA League Pass app. The WNBA selected two preseason games to offer in 2023: its annual exhibition in Canada and the first preseason game for No. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston of the Indiana Fever. No preseason games were streamed in 2022.

This year the league expanded its broadcast offerings to four games, adding a second game featuring No. 1 pick Caitlin Clark of the Fever (Thursday vs. the Atlanta Dream) and a game featuring No. 2 pick Cameron Brink of the Los Angeles Sparks (Friday vs. the Mercury).

Shouldn’t the league have known the influx of attention brought in by players such as Clark, Brink, Cardoso and Reese would stoke desire for broadcast accessibility? Why weren’t the league and individual teams prepared, especially considering the viewership numbers during the women’s college basketball season?

Also at the forefront of WNBA discussions are team practice facilities.

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The Las Vegas Aces opened theirs last year. In April, the Seattle Storm — who won over free agents Nneka Ogwumike and Skylar Diggins-Smith in the offseason over the Sky — opened the second stand-alone practice facility dedicated to a WNBA team. In October, the Mercury unveiled plans for a new business headquarters shared with the Phoenix Suns and a state-of-the-art practice facility dedicated to the Mercury.

But in Chicago, there has been no news.

Reese, Cardoso and others are coming to the WNBA from college programs that have professional-level practice facilities with state-of-the-art amenities. A new facility is as important to the franchise’s future as this year’s draft was. While we’ve heard the team is exploring locations and other logistics related to such a move, the lack of updates with a new season so close leaves more questions and continues to draw criticism.

When will the WNBA and its teams catch up to the growth that is happening? When will they invest big in their product and its offerings to meet the demand that a new generation of players — and their name, image and likeness deals — are bringing with them?

With new eyes come bigger expectations. The interest and growth the league has been asking for is standing outside the window in the rain with a boombox, begging for more.

Will the WNBA answer the call?