The New York Liberty were fined $500,000 for chartering flights to away games during the second half of the WNBA season and for other violations of league rules, including an unsanctioned team trip to Napa, California, a source confirmed to ESPN on Tuesday.
The flights were bought by team owners Joe Tsai, co-founder of the Chinese tech company Alibaba Group, and his wife, Clara, who purchased the Liberty and NBA’s Brooklyn Nets in 2019.
The news was first reported by Sports Illustrated.
Tsai has publicly campaigned for better travel accommodations for WNBA players, tweeting in October that he was working with WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert and airlines to find a charter sponsor.
Chartering typically isn’t allowed in the WNBA out of fear it would create a competitive advantage for teams whose owners can afford bankrolling such costly arrangements. Engelbert told media as recently as last month that, while she supports the idea of teams chartering, the league needs to experience more financial growth to be able to cover those expenses.
While Tsai has worked to find a solution for all franchises, last season the WNBA discovered he was secretly chartering flights for the Liberty. At the time, Liberty players openly posted on social media about the team’s Napa trip over Labor Day weekend. Sports Illustrated also reported that the WNBA Board of Governors rejected an “unofficial proposal,” spearheaded by the Liberty, in which the league would get comped for three years of chartered flights.
A WNBA spokesman disputed Tuesday that anything concrete had been presented.
“At no point was there a New York Liberty proposal for the WNBA Board of Governors to consider offering three years worth of charter flights for WNBA teams,” a spokesman said in a statement to ESPN. “It was agreed that the Liberty would explore opportunities regarding charter flights and present it to the Board. To date, that has not happened.”
The WNBA has occasionally stepped in to pay for postseason travel across multiple time zones, including most recently for the Chicago Sky and Phoenix Mercury in between Games 2 and 3 of the 2021 Finals.
Sports Illustrated also reported that the league’s general counsel suggested a plethora of severe punishments for the Liberty, including “losing ‘every draft pick you have ever seen’ to suspending ownership, even ‘grounds for termination of the franchise.'” According to SI, Engelbert said on a Board of Governors call that she “cut a deal with Joe” to reduce the fine from $1 million to $500,000.
Commercial travel for WNBA teams — stipulated by the league’s collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union — has been a major flash point for the league in recent years, as players have drawn attention to cramped, uncomfortable seating on flights and travel snafus that have even led to games being canceled.
The news of the fine led to an uproar on social media from players and fans alike.
“What a joke,” Sabrina Ionescu, the Liberty’s franchise player, wrote on Twitter in response to the league’s handling of the situation.
The WNBA players’ association tweeted, “Fining the teams for standing up for equity, standing up for the players, harkens back to a league that fined the players for standing up for social justice.”
ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne contributed to this report.
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