LAS VEGAS — Settling in at the podium at the Aria Hotel, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert spoke to an in-person and Zoom press contingent about the future.

It was simple to mention, but significant considering the circumstances. 

In a wide-ranging media availability prior to Wednesday’s WNBA All-Star Game, Engelbert discussed topics as heavy as league expansion, travel issues and player exposure, and as light as WNBA merchandise.

Engelbert spoke for nearly 40 minutes, and began mentioning the growing momentum the league has had over the course of a two-year span. 

This includes a season affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which displaced league-wide plans along with placing the league in Florida for the entire 2020 season.

“We’re looking to the future,” she said.

Where the league stands

When the WNBA relocated to IMG Academy in Florida for its own bubble last year, it forced the league to change its approach.

The league took on some of the expenses of the “Wubble” and had to account for the lack of revenue without any fans. That’s still a pain the league is feeling at the All-Star and Olympic break in 2021.

“Last year, we flipped the business model around,” Engelbert said. “We’re still in recovery from that.”

Now that all markets have fans in attendance, that pain is beginning to alleviate. However, teams still need to comply with directives from local health departments.

Engelbert said she’s proud of where player safety is currently, especially with 99 percent of WNBA players vaccinated against the coronavirus. Teams were preparing to reach that rate across the last month, and to reopen for more fans. 

The commissioner said there’s still more transformations to come as the back end of the pandemic continues.

“The fan experience is so enhanced the closer you are to the court,” Engelbert said.

Addressing league issues 

Two years ago at the 2019 All-Star Game, Engelbert announced how Team USA and the WNBA expanded player training and pay so WNBA players could train with the national team as opposed to having them play overseas and risk injury.

Present day, the league is still eying to address travel, which is one of the biggest issues the league faces. Players face delays flying to different markets commercially as opposed to flying charter.

Engelbert said she understands how difficult traveling can be, but reassured the league understands the issues.

“Summer travel is very, very tough,” Engelbert said. “We’re monitoring every flight of every team.”

Engelbert said there were discussions in 2019 and 2020 with stakeholders and union representatives about the next step forward within the current collective bargaining agreement about travel with where the league is with travel.

It’s something the league is still monitoring, and it’s why the league approved charter travel during the playoffs in order to put the best product on the court possible.

“I wish we had an economic model that supported what I know we all want here,” Engelbert said. “We don’t have that today.”

Engelbert also tackled the topic of expansion,

The Glynn Academy girls basketball team hosted a one-day shootout on Wednesday where they played scrimmages with four other schools. The Lady Terrors took on Pierce County and Charlton, but Lowndes County and San Jose Prep from Jacksonville were also there.

While it was a Lady Terror event, it was also time for Shayla Smith, Glynn assistant coach and head coach of the FBC Nightmares AAU team to see some of her girls play against each other.

“I have three girls that have actually played in the program on Charlton County,” Smith said. “I have seven on San Jose Prep, and then one on Glynn Academy — Paris played for us years ago, and I have two on Lowndes. So pretty much there is this Southeast Georgia connection going on that they’ve either played in the program or currently play in the program with me.”

Smith said they decided to do this event after going to other places each summer.

“Every summer, we’ve seen other teams do it. Last year, we wanted to do it, but with COVID-19, we didn’t have a summer, so we wanted to take the opportunity to bring some of the talent to the southeast,” Smith said. “We’re always going to everybody else’s tournaments, so we wanted to do something here at Glynn Academy. We knew it was going to be small due to the auxiliary gym being built — we didn’t want to invite too many teams in with the conditions of not having an AC.”

Even with just five teams, those games were intense and full of elite talent. Some of the girls from San Jose Prep are nationally ranked.

Smith said this event isn’t only good for her AAU girls, but also the Glynn Academy girls because it allows them to compete against talented teams that could help them get ready for the upcoming season.

She said that this area is kind of a hidden spot in terms of girls basketball and getting them recruited, so any way she can get the exposure, she will.

“I tell them, it gives them that exposure,” Smith said. “We’re close to Jacksonville, but it’s that little pocket of the 912 area that those kids — they get overlooked. This whole area is a football recruiting grounds. So we’re trying to bring that back into the area. I always try to reach out to any kids in the area and say, ‘Hey, look, we’re doing this. We’re based out of Jacksonville. I got a team in Savannah. Come, let’s do this.’”

The Lady Terrors already have a tough region, so going up against teams like San Jose only helps them improve.

“We have a tough region —we’re tough. So, for us to go out there and try to get those games with those players that are on a national scene is only going to prepare our girls for the season,” Smith said. “We always say it’s not about wins and losses, it’s about us being able to

Blocking middle seats on airplanes reduces the risk of COVID-19 exposure, according to a study released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The research, done in conjunction with Kansas State University, found a 23% to 57% reduction in exposure to “viable” virus particles when middle seats are vacant.

The conclusion: “Physical distancing of airplane passengers, including through policies such as middle seat vacancy, could provide additional reductions in risk for exposure to SARS-CoV-2 on aircraft.”

Airlines have abandoned the pandemic practice of blocking seats to maintain social distance between travelers.

Delta Air Lines is the only U.S. carrier still blocking middle seats in economy, and that practice will end May 1. Southwest stopped blocking seats Dec. 1.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby has repeatedly said there is no way to keep passengers 6 feet apart on a plane, and chief communication officer Josh Earnest said last summer that blocking seats is a PR strategy, not a safety strategy.

“The CDC just dropped a bombshell on the airline industry,” said Robert Glatter, an emergency room physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. “That’s really what this report is.”

Airlines deferred comment on the CDC study to their trade group, Airlines for America.

The group’s statement did not address the study but reiterated that airlines have a host of measures to prevent virus transmission on planes, including hospital-grade ventilation systems, strict face mask requirements, preflight health forms and intensified cleaning of planes.

The group pointed to Harvard research, paid for in part by the airline industry, that concluded that the ventilation on planes, together with other measures, reduces the possibility of exposure to COVID-19 to a point where it “effectively counters the proximity travelers are subject to during flights.”  

COVID-19 exposure on flights: More common than you think

The bottom line for travelers: Don’t expect airlines to resume blocking seats or, in the case of Delta, to keep blocking them. (The CDC never required social distancing on planes. Airlines started the practice to give travelers confidence to book.)

Airlines lost billions in 2020 and are doing everything they can to fill their planes as travel resumes. On Easter Sunday and the following day, Delta temporarily lifted its middle seat block to rebook travelers stranded by flight cancellations caused by staffing issues and other factors. 

Domestic travel is rebounding strongly: Passenger counts at U.S. airports have topped 1 million every day since March 10. The number of travelers had fallen below 100,000 a year ago and didn’t top a million again until October.

Bookings got a boost this month when the CDC said vaccinated travelers can resume travel at low risk.

CDC middle seat study: Mask use not included 

The data for the social distancing study was collected before the pandemic began, so the effects of mandatory airline passenger mask use on COVID-19 exposure were not measured.

The CDC said the fact that mannequins in the study weren’t wearing masks does not negate the findings, because