The New York Liberty He was fined $500,000 for chartering flights to away matches during the second half of the WNBA season and for other violations of league rules, including an unauthorized team trip to Napa, California, a source confirmed to ESPN Tuesday.
Trips were bought by team owners Joe Tsai, co-founder of Chinese tech company Alibaba Group, and his wife, Clara, who bought Liberty and Brooklyn Nets from the NBA in 2019.
The news was first reported by Sports Illustrated.
Tsai has publicly campaigned for better travel facilities for WNBA players, tweeting in October that he was working with WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and airlines to find a charter sponsor.
Rentals are not normally allowed in the WNBA out of fear that it will create a competitive advantage for teams whose owners can afford to fund such an expensive arrangement. Engelbert told the media as recently as last month that while she supports the idea of hiring teams, the league needs to experience more financial growth to be able to cover those expenses.
While Tsai was working to find a solution to all the perks, the WNBA discovered last season that he was secretly chartering flights to Liberty. At the time, Liberty players publicly posted on social media about the team’s trip to Napa during the Labor Day holiday. Sports Illustrated also reported that the WNBA Board of Regents rejected an “unofficial proposal,” led by Liberty, that the league would have three years of charter flights.
A WNBA spokesperson on Tuesday questioned whether anything concrete would be presented.
“At no time has there been a proposal from New York Liberty to the WNBA Board of Governors to consider offering three-year charter flights to WNBA teams,” a spokesperson said in a statement to ESPN. “It was agreed that Liberty would explore opportunities related to charter flights and present them to the Council. So far, that has not happened.”
Sports Illustrated also reported that the league’s general counsel has proposed a slew of severe penalties for Liberty, including “missing” every draft pick I’ve ever seen “to suspend ownership, and even “reasons to terminate the franchise.” According to SI, Engelbert said in an invitation to the Board of Governors that she “made a deal with Joe” to reduce the fine from $1 million to $500,000.
Commercial travel for WNBA teams — stipulated in the league’s collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union — has been a major flashpoint for the league in recent years, as players have drawn attention to cramped and uncomfortable seats on flights and travel. It even led to the games being canceled.
The news of the fine caused an uproar on social media, among players and fans alike.
“What a joke,” Sabrina Unescua player for the Liberty franchise, wrote on Twitter in response to the league’s handling of the situation.
The WNBA Players Association tweeted, “Teams fined for defending fairness, and defending players, are back in a league that has fined players for defending social justice.”
ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne contributed to this report.
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