Travel-weary Sparks’ playoff hopes take a hit in loss to Sun

Latricia Trammell tried to settle into her bed for the night. Far from a luxurious hotel room, the Sparks assistant coach was sizing up four faux-leather airport terminal seats with cracked black upholstery and chipped piping around the edges.

“These players deserve better,” Trammell wrote on Twitter at 1:45 a.m. in Washington D.C. as half of the Sparks team spent the night in the airport when their travel plans went awry following a 79-76 win against the Washington Mystics on Saturday.

The WNBA’s struggle with commercial flights entered another round as several Sparks players slept at the airport after their cross-country flight was canceled at 1 a.m. local time and rescheduled for 9 a.m. Players were offered rooms at several different hotels because there was not enough space at one location, but because of the location, late hour and early flight, some chose to sleep in the airport Monday morning.

By Tuesday night, the Sparks were caught sleepwalking at Arena with their playoff hopes hanging in the balance. The team committed a season-high 21 turnovers and got outrebounded 40-23 in a 97-71 loss to the Connecticut Sun that kept the Sparks (13-21) one game out of a playoff spot with two games remaining.

The Sparks have lost seven of their last eight games, an ill-fated, late-season slump interim head coach Fred Williams credited to fatigue. Nneka Ogwumike, who finished with 16 points, noted the team’s exhaustion.

“It’s playing with team in mind, not the individual,” Ogwumike said. “When things get hard, sometimes it’s easy to focus more so on what’s going on with my situation and that’s something I think we can be better at in this next game on Thursday and also on Sunday.”

Even before the sleepover saga, Williams said the punishing travel schedule has been one of the biggest frustrations in a disappointing season, along with the constant injuries. The Sparks started the season with nine of their first 12 games on the road, which Williams called “one of the toughest schedules in the history of the WNBA.” Added in were flight delays and cancellations that plagued all travelers this summer.

But the team remained focused on the goal of chasing the playoffs.

“It’s a part of being a Spark right now,” Sparks guard Brittney Sykes said before the game. “We really don’t give a damn. As long as we got back to L.A. safe and sound, then it is what it is.”

The league’s latest collective bargaining agreement offered improved travel accommodations such as solo hotel rooms and premium economy seats with extended leg room but forbids teams to charter flights because the private trips may create a competitive advantage.

In a statement she drafted at 4 a.m. at the airport, Ogwumike focused on the oft-repeated phrase as a “tired argument that has overstayed its welcome.”

“It has become a phrase that impedes transformational growth across our league,” she continued in the statement posted on social media Monday. “The numbers and the trends suggest that The W is a smart investment with a measurable return. New and emerging ownership groups have demonstrated an ability and eagerness to invest the necessary resources to grow this league in the areas that require it most.”

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert told ESPN in March that chartering flights for the entire league during the regular season would cost $20 million, but at All-Star Weekend in June, celebrated the addition of private flights for this season’s WNBA Finals.

Ogwumike called for quicker action by allowing teams to charter flights during the entire 2022 playoffs and “continuing with a common sense” during the 2023 season. She elaborated after Tuesday’s game by suggesting an allotment of charter flights during the regular season.

The seven-time All-Star, who called upon airlines to partner with WNBA players, noted the changes since the WNBA and players association approved the latest collective bargaining agreement in 2020. The league expanded its regular-season schedule to 36 games this season, the most ever for a WNBA season. But with the extended slate is compressed into a 15-week regular season because of the FIBA Women’s World Cup beginning on Sept. 22 in Australia.

Sykes called it “2018 on steroids,” referring to the last time the WNBA compressed its season because of the World Cup. She noted there were numerous injuries across the league that season and back-to-backs in different cities that added to the difficult schedule.

Even without the timing restriction of a World Cup or Olympic Games next year, the schedule headaches likely won’t go away. The WNBA is already planning for a 40-game season in 2023.

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