#FromtheArchives: How charter flights became the NBA's norm
Men's sports? We're talking about men's sports?!
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Now, let’s get on to today’s main event, which takes us back to the archives.
Can the WNBA learn anything from the NBA’s transition from commercial flights to charter flights?
In the WNBA, charter flights have been a hot topic over the past few years, especially since last year when our friend Howard Megdal reported in Sports Illustrated that the WNBA fined the New York Liberty $500,000 for chartering flights during the latter half of the 2021 season.
And over the past two months, charter chatter has reached a fever pitch in the W; Breanna Stewart made the issue of charter flights a central part of her free agency campaign, and there are reports that the Phoenix Mercury and WNBA might need to make private flight accommodations available for Brittney Griner this season, given her understandably heightened security concerns.
The problem is, in the WNBA, it is in the collective bargaining agreement (which doesn’t expire until 2027) that teams are to fly commercial. Chartering flights are expressly prohibited. The rationale is that not all owners are in a financial position to be able to afford charter flights for their teams, and the playing field needs to be level.
The NBA and WNBA are often compared to one another, for obvious reasons that I hope I do not have to spell out. And while the NBA has exclusively chartered flights for travel for decades now, I know it wasn’t always that way. So, I wondered, how did the transition from commercial to charter go for the NBA? Are there any lessons to be gleaned?
And thus, a #FromtheArchives newsletter was born.
First, some caveats:
This is not a comprehensive look back at the NBA’s journey. I’ve researched the topic for a few hours, not for years. But I found some newspaper clippings that paint a very interesting picture, and I think you’ll agree.
I know the NBA then and the WNBA today isn’t an apples to apples comparison. We’re just looking back at history, that’s all.
Alright, let’s dig in.
Initially, NBA owners balked at the cost of charter flights and didn’t want to pay for them, even for the Finals.
By the mid 1980s, NBA team valuations were starting to soar, and teams were obligated to fly players from game to game in first class if at all possible. (If first-class seats weren’t available, the team had to pay the player the difference between a first class and coach ticket.) But, while occasionally teams would charter flights on road trips, for the most part, owners still viewed private flights as an extravagant and unnecessary expense.
This is a wild article from 1983 in which Philadelphia 76ers owner Howard Katz opts not to pay for a charter flight for his team to fly out to Los Angeles for Games 3 & 4 of the *NBA Finals.* The FINALS!!!
Katz initially tried to get reporters to help fund charter by charging them $600 round trip to join the flight. But not enough of them took the deal — despite the fact that the 76ers head coach called up a few journalists to plead his case — and Philly flew commercial to Los Angeles. The decision did not backfire, though — the 76ers swept the series, 4-0.
As this article from the Miami Herald in 1988 details, commercial flights were taking a toll on NBA players; that season, only two teams had winning road records.
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