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New York Liberty’s rule-breaking a call for WNBA to be the world-class league it purports to be

A WNBA owner knowingly broke league rules and is receiving overwhelming support for doing so. Where does the league go from here?

Phoenix Mercury v New York Liberty Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

Every week, Cat Ariail writes about a women’s basketball issue that deserves some examination off the court. This week, in light of Howard Megdal’s report for Sports Illustrated that the New York Liberty were fined $500,000 for chartering flights for their players, Cat decided to talk things through with Zack Ward and Sabreena Merchant to discuss Liberty owner Joe Tsai’s decision, the punishment levied by the league, what the piece reveals about WNBA owners, and more.

Sabreena: First things first, what was your reaction to learning that Joe Tsai had deliberately flouted the rules of the Collective Bargaining Agreement?

Zack: First, I was shocked that a team had done something against the rules and realized that this was a big deal. The Liberty even played in the playoffs after this happened with no punishment. It was odd to see a team disobey the rules even when I know teams are desperate to get better travel conditions for their players. And there could have been a competitive advantage gained because of the rule that was broken. I think the punishment for this should be strict.

Cat: It seems clear that the league and their legal counsel did not know what a fair punishment would be, as the floated punishments — the fine, the loss of “every draft pick you have ever seen,” or the “termination of the franchise” — were wildly disproportionate. Overall, I’m having a hard time analyzing this whole saga from an objective perspective; instead, I can’t help but look at it as a fan who is pro-player and wants to see the league grow in ways that benefit the players. In that regard, I think the mild punishment is a bit absurd, but also am anxious to see if it serves as a real deterrent or if other new-school owners, interested in both advertising themselves to players as pro-player and earning positive PR from the WNBA fan community, decide to again push the envelope as the Tsais did.

Reporting from journalist Matt Sullivan about the Brooklyn Nets, the NBA franchise that the Tsais also own/govern, suggests that the organization provided improper benefits to star players. The Tsais now have a track record of going above and beyond to please players, regardless of the rules and regulations of the WNBA or NBA. And the many social media reactions from players should only further embolden them.

Sabreena: Now that the WNBA has set a precedent with this $500,000 fine, I wonder if they will be beholden to this punishment should another team choose to break the travel rules. On the one hand, it would be hypocritical to increase the punishment for a similar infraction, but on the other hand, this is a drop in the bucket for owners like Marc Lore (Minnesota), Mark Davis (Las Vegas), and Larry Gottesdiener (Atlanta). If this is all it takes to provide players with a better experience and gain a competitive advantage via rest/recovery — though the Liberty hilariously did not benefit from this in terms of wins/losses — why wouldn’t these owners go for it?

Zack, you said you think the punishment should be strict for what the Liberty did. And I understand that the competitive balance is disturbed if certain teams have amenities that others don’t. But given that the Aces have their own practice facilities and Lynx/Mercury get to share resources with their NBA teams, do you think that the fairness principle violated here is more important than trying to elevate the overall player experience?

Zack: I think flying accommodations are slightly more impactful on the fairness than practice facilities. But I think that the real story here is how ridiculous it is that the WNBA doesn’t have chartered flights. Tsai went all out on Twitter to support having chartered flights, to the point where you wonder if he really thinks he did anything wrong. Or if anyone thinks he did anything wrong. Because that’s the direction everybody wants to go in. And that’s really important. But to do this when you know other teams are getting it isn’t right. Hopefully good will come from this though and we will get closer to having chartered flights.

Cat: I found the argument Tom Ziller advanced in his most recent “Good Morning It’s Basketball” newsletter compelling. Maybe the WNBA should shift to a structure that resembles European soccer, allowing the owners with deep pockets and a willingness to spend to offer all the perks and privileges and, presumably, attract many of the best players? Is the perceived importance of a level and fair financial playing field among franchises outmoded, if not paternalistic or infantilizing? Allow the New Yorks and Vegases (and maybe Minnesotas and Atlantas) to treat their players as the elite athletes they are, forcing “old-school” owners to invest in their team and players or sell their teams to someone who is willing to dedicate such resources.

Sabreena: In a league that already has a hard cap, the fact that the CBA attempts to further ensure competitive balance through managing extra benefits seems unnecessary to me. The problem is that the players bargained for it — on that note, it’s crazy that a CBA agreed to in 2020 already seems woefully out of date — even if the union is criticizing the league for merely enforcing its rules.

As much as I would love for certain organizations to break the rules and force the rest of the league to follow them, I think the best path forward is for the WNBA itself to invest in improving travel. This is where we get to what I think was the most interesting part of Megdal’s piece, that the Liberty reportedly put together a proposal that would ensure charter flights for three seasons, but it was rejected. The league has stated that there was no proposal. Even if the WNBA didn’t actually reject an offer to improve travel, this is just a horrible look for the league itself, and something that really should be addressed by the new capital raise at the very least.

Zack: I agree that the league looks bad here. Cat’s idea seems good, but for a while things would be unequal. Then again, as Sabreena said, there are already advantages out there for certain teams in other ways. Do you guys think this is something the league should be able to handle?

Cat: Yes, it is obvious why the WNBA did not want this news bomb to drop during the playoffs. The PR hit to the WNBA has been brutal. However, might the trope that “any publicity is good publicity” eventually apply to this “scandal”? Could wider awareness of the WNBA’s operating structure and policies lead to more investment and additional capital raises? At least, maybe some of those intransigent “old-school” owners will be more receptive to a formal charter flight proposal from Tsai and the Liberty?

Sabreena: I certainly hope so. For so long, the WNBA has existed in pure survival mode, which is understandable given the history of women’s sports leagues in the United States. But 25 years have come and gone, and it’s time for the W to start behaving as the best women’s league in the word, which it purports to be. That means treating its players as well as they are treated overseas, and there are owners in the United States who are willing to make that happen. The league has to think about growth, not just in terms of expanding the number of teams, but in terms of improvements. The new CBA was a good step, but there’s no reason for progress to stop until that agreement expires.

2022 NBA All-Star Game
Much of the good will Cathy Engelbert and the league earned from the announcement of the capital raise has been undone by the revelations from the New York Liberty travel story.
Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

Cat: I agree. And I think we can all agree that the next CBA negotiations are going to be super interesting, both in terms of negotiations between ownership camps and between the WNBPA and the league!

Zack: I agree with Sabreena about the WNBA needing to not just focus on adding more teams. I heard Mike Thibault say at a press conference in either 2020 or 2021 that the league needs to focus on the 12 teams it has and making sure everything is at a high level across the board before looking to add teams. However, adding teams is something a lot of fans want. It is a question that gets asked of Cathy Engelbert at every press call she does with media and some cities, such as Oakland, have more WNBA fans than some current WNBA cities.

Sabreena: I think that’s the beauty of fixing this travel issue, because it would address Thibault’s (and others’) concerns about the overall health of the league, and it would also lead on the path towards expansion because more cities means more travel. To me, the main takeaway here is that the WNBA is in need of some damage control. Whether the league chooses to do that via charter flights or something else is unclear, but I don’t think we’re anywhere close to done with this story yet.