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Travel issues resurface early in the season for Mystics and Aces

Flying commercial continues to create challenges for WNBA players.

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Las Vegas Aces All Access Practice Photo by David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images

The Mystics defeated the Aces Tuesday on the strength of a dominant 24-7 third quarter to earn perhaps the most impressive win of the young WNBA season. But before and after the game, the conversation turned to the league’s travel policy.

This isn’t the first time travel has dominated the discourse between Washington and Las Vegas, but at least this time, the game went on as scheduled.

Four years ago, during their inaugural season in Las Vegas, the Aces spent more than 24 hours traveling to Washington, a harrowing day that involved flight delays and cancellations, sleeping overnight in a Dallas airport terminal, and splitting up from there on the way to D.C. Las Vegas ultimately forfeited the game, even after it was pushed back an hour, because the Aces didn’t believe they were physically fit to play.

(Frankly, nothing ever goes according to plan when these two teams play, but we’ll stick to travel for now.)

The next season, in one of her first acts as WNBA commissioner, Cathy Engelbert decided to charter planes for Las Vegas — and the Los Angeles Sparks — who were both flying cross-country to Washington and Connecticut, respectively. The Aces and Sparks were contesting playoff games on a Tuesday on the East coast after each playing on the West coast that Sunday.

At the time, it seemed like chartering flights might become a more regular part of the WNBA travel experience. But other than when the New York Liberty covertly chartered flights a year ago in violation of the collective bargaining agreement, charter planes have only been used within the rules once, when the Sky and Mercury had to travel between games 2 and 3 of the 2021 WNBA Finals.

It’s worth noting that the league has played its last three seasons, including the current one, during a global pandemic, making commercial flights even more of a sticking point. That is particularly true since the mask mandate ended, as Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud became acutely aware of this this week. Cloud was unavailable to play in Tuesday’s game after entering the league’s health and safety protocols, and she blamed her positive Covid test on the commercial flight the Mystics had taken from Minnesota.

Natasha Cloud was not happy about testing positive for Covid and missing her team’s game Tuesday.
via @t_cloud9 on Instagram

Cloud’s teammates were able to pick up the slack for her, in part because of fatigue from Las Vegas. The Aces played at their home arena Sunday night, then traveled all day Monday to get to Washington for the Tuesday tip. It was a relatively simple process compared to their 2018 ordeal, but flight delays and a full day of making their across the country left them at less than their best.

“I think I’m the best conditioned player in this league, respectfully, and I feel like to play that type of game against Seattle (Sunday), then to get on a delayed flight for five and a half hours, fly across the country, wake up and play the next day, I mean, I was tired today,” Kelsey Plum said postgame. Plum had 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting in the first half against the Mystics and 4 points on 1-of-6 shooting in the second half.

“If you guys have ever watched me play, I can go all day,” Plum added. “So I don’t think it’s necessarily conditioning as it’s just the setup of the schedule. I mean, let’s be real, I mean, I’m not here to blame a charter flight for the reason that we lost, but normally a team would fly out that night, and have that whole day to rest and get your legs back under you and then go play the next day. So you know those little things make a difference. Hopefully we’re on our way.”

Cloud’s complaint may be a relatively new issue for the WNBA to deal with, but Plum’s is familiar to the league office. After a marquee game featuring 2019 MVP Elena Delle Donne out-dueling 2020 MVP A’ja Wilson and undrafted rookie Katie Benzan splashing three triples, the talk of the game should be on basketball, not Cloud’s absence or Plum’s fatigue. But instead the players are harping at the league’s travel policy only three games into a condensed schedule that has more games than any WNBA season to date.

The 2022 season has gotten off to an entertaining start, from the Mystics’ excellence to signs of life from the Indiana Fever and the rest of the rookie class. The league’s product is worth celebrating, but Tuesday was a reminder that the WNBA still has work to do to place the focus on the court instead of off of it.