The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Los Angeles Sparks players sleep in airport after flight cancellation

The Los Angeles Sparks played the Washington Mystics on Sunday afternoon and were stuck in the area overnight. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

Nneka Ogwumike has won a WNBA MVP award, been named an all-star seven times and earned a championship ring. After her Los Angeles Sparks upset the Washington Mystics on Sunday while making a late playoff push, she slept in the airport.

The WNBA’s travel issues were, once again, thrust to the forefront as the Sparks were stranded in the Washington area hours after a 79-76 victory helped keep their postseason hopes alive.

Ogwumike, the No. 1 draft pick in 2012, took to Twitter early Monday morning as she strolled through Dulles International Airport and documented a first for the Women’s National Basketball Players Association president.

“Yeah, so, we are roaming the airport,” she said. “First time in my 11 seasons that I’ve ever had to sleep in the airport. … It was only a matter of time. So half of us are sleeping in the airport, half of us are at a hotel. There weren’t enough rooms after our flight got delayed, delayed, delayed, delayed and then canceled at 1 a.m. So it is now 1:44 and we’re here till 9 a.m.”

The Sparks were scheduled to leave at 10:30 p.m. and didn’t find out about the cancellation until 1 a.m., according to a team spokesman. All players were offered a hotel room, but not everyone took advantage of the accommodations, according to the team.

The team made it back to Los Angeles late Monday morning. The Sparks, who are a game out of the final playoff spot with three to play, will host the Connecticut Sun on Tuesday night.

The lack of charter flights for WNBA teams has long been a point of contention, and the players have become more vocal about the issue in recent years. The league does not permit individual teams to charter flights, and the New York Liberty was fined last season when owner Joe Tsai did so. Tsai tweeted last year, “League says you can’t fly charter because different owners have different financial situations.”

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Delays and cancellations have been a growing issue for all travelers; federal transportation officials said 88,161 flights were canceled this year through May — the second most in the first five months of a year since 1988. The only year worse was 2020 as the pandemic began.

That has left WNBA teams regularly scrambling to arrive in cities for games or to leave afterward. Last month, the Minnesota Lynx arrived in Washington around midnight for a 3 p.m. game after their original flight was canceled, a second had mechanical issues and the team and staff were forced to split up and take separate planes.

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has said the league has researched an abundance of options, but without a major commitment from a sponsor, charter flights for all teams would be detrimental to the WNBA’s financial health. The league declined to comment Monday.

“Nobody wants this more than me, but no one has stepped forth,” Engelbert said in June. “No owner, no airline, no corporate sponsors stepped forth and said, ‘We’re ready to fund a charter program for the WNBA.’ Everybody would like to, and then they hear the price tag. We’ll continue to talk about a [path] towards it — if we can build the economic model, get more corporate sponsorship, get more revenue.

In a statement Monday night, Ogwumike, speaking on behalf of the players union, called the WNBA’s travel situation “a serious health and safety concern” and added: “We reiterate our standing invitation to the league and team ownership to work together and to identify a manageable solution to this problem. ... It is time to permit teams to invest in charter flights between games, beginning with the entire 2022 WNBA Playoffs, and continuing with a common sense, full-season solution beginning in 2023.”

The league announced last month that it will provide charter flights for all WNBA Finals games this season.