WASHINGTON, D.C. — WNBA legend and 16-year Seattle Storm veteran point guard Sue Bird knows a big moment when she sees one. After the Las Vegas Aces made a statement by forfeiting a road game after 25 hours of plane delays and cancellations flying commercially cross-country on Friday, Bird recognized the monumental moment for the league’s future.
“It’s unfortunate for [the Aces] that they have to take a loss to get this point proven,” Bird told SB Nation after the Storm’s Thursday loss to the Washington Mystics. “But it’s one of those things where in a year or two, or five or 10 years down the line — because it’s going to happen again, it’s commercial flying — now another team won’t have to forfeit. They sacrificed for the greater good of the league and for that I have a lot of respect.”
The WNBA is at a point where its players have become more vocal than ever in voicing displeasure with the pay and travel arrangements in the league’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement. Statements like the Aces’ decision to forfeit carry extra weight because both the players and the league can opt out of the current CBA on Nov. 1.
The WNBA’s current CBA states that teams are only permitted to fly their players commercially, unlike the NBA, where players fly chartered planes to games. Flying commercially leads to the same travel woes suffered by any other passenger.
The Aces trip was the worst-case scenario.
The team’s plane from Las Vegas was scheduled to fly out at 1:13 p.m. the day before the Aces’ game in D.C. It was delayed three times and finally cancelled at 10 p.m. that night, the team told SB Nation.
At 1:30 a.m. on the day of the game, the team split up to find seats to travel to Dallas for a layover. From there, the team divided itself to fly on three different planes to D.C. the afternoon of the game. One flew coach Bill Laimbeer, one carried the players, and another carried assistant coach Vickie Johnson and the public relations staff.
The team arrived at the nation’s capital around 2:30 or 3 p.m. having not slept in a bed that night, and the game was delayed for just one hour until 8 p.m. The team never showed up to the arena.
“They were in a situation where they feel like their safety was at risk,” Bird said. “Fortunately, what I think will come from this is a discussion of language on rules that need to be in place in our CBA. If the players didn’t feel safe, then I’m going to side with them.”
The NBA CBA has a rule should a situation like the one the Aces went through ever happens, which clearly addresses traveling over different time zones on the day of a game:
No Team shall be required to play a scheduled game on the same day that such Team has traveled across two (2) time zones, except in unusual circumstances and unless the Players Association consents thereto, which consent shall not be unreasonably withheld.
No such language exists in the WNBA’s CBA.
Bird said she sees the potential for change the Aces stand brings.
“Maybe we’ll have a rule where if that does happen, teams can charter,” Bird said. “Or maybe the game gets postponed. But we’ll have the language in there, and that to me is the positive.”
Travel woes aren’t anything new to the WNBA, and the league’s vets all have their stories. But the Aces are the first team in WNBA history to forfeit a game, for any reason.
“I’ve had some shitty-ass travel,” Bird said. “It’s hard. I think in some ways I look at their scenario — and I’m not them, I didn’t experience that — but it would be hard for me as a team in the playoff hunt to sit out. I wasn’t there though, if they didn’t feel safe, you have to respect that. I personally don’t know if I would’ve been able to do that given what’s at stake.”
The Aces aren’t like most WNBA teams though. The team is led by three players age 26, 23, and 22 years old. Just one of its 12 players are 30 years or older.
“I think we’ve all had to deal with [travel problems] and we’ve all played through it,” Bird said. “So we’re like , ‘Ok we probably would’ve played.’ But sometimes it takes a newer, younger, fresher look at things to have advancement.
“It’s unfortunate they had to take an ‘L’, but simultaneously, if it gets things moving in the right direction in terms of our CBA and rules, then it’s a positive thing.”