Clark, Fever embrace approval of charter flights

by 24USATVMay 9, 2024, 6:01 a.m. 23
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Stephen A. Smith praises Caitlin Clark for speaking out to help bring change to the WNBA's flight rules. (1:28)

INDIANAPOLIS -- Indiana Fever rookie Caitlin Clark already is one of the WNBA's most recognizable players.

So when she made her first road trip last week, the league's first overall draft pick had to adapt. Instead of loading her bag directly onto a plane and boarding, Clark found herself traversing the same lines and waits as everyone else at a Dallas airport -- just like most of the league's players.

It's a hassle she wouldn't mind avoiding on future trips, and now league commissioner Cathy Engelbert is working on a solution.

One day after Engelbert told a group of sports editors that she's trying to find regular charter flights for all 12 WNBA teams, Clark and her new teammates embraced the move.

"I think you just have to be aware of where you are," Clark said after Wednesday's practice. "You travel with security, which is nice. It's just different from college where you put your bag on the plane, hop on the plane and then you're off. But like [here] you're waiting at baggage claim, you've got to go through the normal security with everybody else. For me, it was my first time doing it. It wasn't terrible. I just went about my business and kept my head down."

Clark went on to score 21 points in her pro debut, a 79-76 loss.

But her star power has only fueled a debate that took center stage last season when Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner was confronted by a man who started asking questions as she walked through an airport. The incident became so heated that the man was tackled and law enforcement was called.

It spurred a leaguewide debate over player safety, with some veteran stars asking that league officials do more, including finding charter flights. And now, with one of the most heralded rookie classes entering the league, Engelbert wants to take action even if she doesn't have a defined timetable for when it could happen.

Fever coach Christie Sides also remembered sleeping in an airport while working with the Chicago Sky because of several delays before the flight was eventually canceled. She said the team took a 6 a.m. flight and played later that night.

For those reasons, charter flights can't start soon enough for those who have been around the league for years -- or for Clark, who has been driving WNBA ticket sales upward after driving a substantial increase in television ratings over the past two seasons.

"I'm thankful at whatever point that happens, that would be great for us. It will make recovery easier, it will make travel easier," Clark said. "It just makes life a lot easier for a lot of people, but also it's just something a lot of people have deserved for years and years."

In addition to the WNBA's improved travel accommodations, Clark and the Fever will enjoy increased screen time for the upcoming season.

Twelve television markets will aid in broadcasting 17 of Indiana's games for free this season, allowing fans to get a better glimpse at Clark.

WTHR in Indianapolis was originally set to air Fever games, but now it will be getting some help from 11 more stations across five states. Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Iowa and Kentucky will each have at least one station showing Clark and teammates take the court this summer.

With the expanded coverage, Fever games will have the chance to reach 4.6 million homes.

"This is a pivotal moment for our Fever team and women's basketball, more broadly, and this groundbreaking partnership with TEGNA [a broadcast and digital media company] will ensure more fans than ever will be able to watch this historic season," Pacers Sports and Entertainment chief executive officer Rick Fuson said in a statement.

May 14 marks Indiana's season opener at the Connecticut Sun, and the first broadcast of this expanded coverage will occur two days later when they take on the visiting New York Liberty.

"We could not be more excited to make these exciting WNBA games available to more fans, in more homes, across more markets, including Caitlin Clark's home state of Iowa," TEGNA senior vice president of media operations Brad Ramsey added in a statement.

The Fever went 13-27 last season, finishing 10th in the 12-team WNBA.

Information from The Associated Press and Field Level Media was used in this report.

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