Angel City FC’s recent charter flight suggests NWSL prioritizing athlete well-being

Although Houston Dash goalkeeper Jane Campbell thwarted an Angel City FC attempt recently, it didn’t stop the enthusiasm of Los Angeles fans. (Photo by Matt Legere/Cronkite News)

LOS ANGELES – A sea of pink and black jerseys filled Banc of California Stadium as Angel City FC took the field in its inaugural home match of the National Women’s Soccer League season. A crowd of 22,000 screaming fans watched a team that is not only embraced by the community but has emerged, along with the league, as a face of progression.

As the club has rolled to a 4-1-4 record, it has also enjoyed travel perks not available to its counterparts in the WNBA.

Recently, it took a charter a flight to Kentucky for a game against Racing Louisville FC and ended a three-match winless run.

“At this point in our season, we want to focus on just soccer and not on anything else that could be a distraction, and traveling can certainly be a distraction,” Captain Ali Riley said.

Unlike the WNBA, the NWSL has the option to charter should a team choose. The league and players’ association agreed to their first collective-bargaining agreement before Angel City FC’s inaugural game. The NWSL made history by becoming the first women’s professional sports league to secure sponsorship from an airline company, Delta Airlines

Delta, which also sponsors Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Football Club, provides commercial travel to all teams in the NWSL. In MLS, teams are not required to provide chartered air transportation, although the CBA does not prohibit teams from doing so. Similarly, the NWSL allows teams to charter should they have the money to do so.

Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard hasn’t been afraid to speak her mind about inequities she sees between the NBA and WNBA. (Photo by Chris Nano/ Cronkite News)

The WNBA has no such provisions. In fact, the league fined Joseph Tsai, owner of the New York Liberty, $500,000 for the club’s use of charter flights during the second half of the 2021 season.

Following the fine, the Liberty sent an unofficial proposal to the WNBA Board of Governors to make charter flights the primary way of travel for the league, similar to the NBA. However, the league said charter flights provide a competitive advantage over teams that cannot afford to do so, and the proposal was rejected.

Women’s soccer players sympathize with the grueling schedule many WNBA teams face every season and understand that the fight for equal treatment cannot be done alone.

“Flying is not great on anybody’s body whether you are an athlete or not,” Houston Dash goalie Jane Campbell said. “Being able to charter just speeds up your recovery especially when you have quick turnarounds. I know it’s expensive but in order to be professional, you have to pay the price.

“Hopefully one day we get there, and hopefully, the WNBA get there because they deserve it.”

The Phoenix Mercury have been open about their frustration. After a game against the Los Angeles Sparks in May, Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard complained about the inequity.

“I mean, we just started an eight-day road trip,” she said. “We leave at 7 a.m to go to the airport and fly to Atlanta. That’s a long flight and if we were an NBA team, we’d be leaving right after the game. Everything would be really taken care of.”

Four straight road games fell in the middle of that trip and the Mercury lost all of them. The team battled injuries, early morning flights and COVID-19 related issues during the stretch. Those issues, Nygaard, said, contributed to the team’s poor performance.

Later in the season, Mercury All-Star Skylar-Diggins-Smith tweeted her frustration with the WNBA’s travel standards following an 83-65 loss to the Washington Mystics.

“Flying on the same day as the game will never sit well with me!” she wrote. “Back-to-back away games should never be scheduled, considering we fly commercial (with no security). The W (WNBA) wants quality/high-level basketball, but doesn’t (seem to) value quality of life for the player.”

Meanwhile, teams from the NWSL seem to be in a much better head space.

Spearheaded by women, Angel City FC is founded by actress Natalie Portman and businesswomen Kara Nortman and Julie Uhrman. The team has captivated Los Angeles fans with help from star-studded investors such as actress Gabrielle Union, singer Becky G and comedian Lilly Singh.

Singh can often be found in the supporters section, mingling and singing along with fans, adding to the Hollywood atmosphere.

The club is the first in the NWSL to have an official team anthem, “Running with the Angels,” performed by Grammy award-winning artist Brittany Howard and California-based artist Tia P. The song serves as a rallying cry for fans before the game and highlights the club’s uniqueness.

If anyone is still saying that women can’t do hard things, we can’t do great things, and we don’t deserve to be treated equally, we’re proving them wrong,” Riley said.

Aayush Gupta(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Aayush Gupta expects to graduate in spring 2023 with bachelor’s degrees in sports business and sports journalism. Gupta has interned with the Phoenix Business Journal.

Matthew Legere(he/him/his)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Matthew Legere expects to graduate in summer 2022 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Legere has interned with AZPreps365, the Milwaukee Brewers and Society for American Baseball Research.

Chris Nano Chris Nano
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Chris Nano expects to graduate in December 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism.