Mercury need strong leadership more than ever as Sarver prepares to sell Phoenix NBA, WNBA teams
- M.A. Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.
The Phoenix Mercury have won three WNBA championships and have perhaps the greatest player in the history of women’s basketball.
Robert Sarver, the majority owner of the Phoenix Suns and the Mercury, is selling the franchises. The Suns are an enticing pinnacle property in the NBA in a warm-weather city. But the Mercury — the NBA’s “sister” organization — has the titles and is an original WNBA team with one of the more engaged fan bases.
There is no guarantee the franchises will be sold together, although that appears to be Sarver’s intention, just as it was for Minnesota Timberwolves/Minnesota Lynx owner Glen Taylor when he sold both franchises last year.
The Mercury were one of eight teams that launched the WNBA in 1997, all then owned by NBA teams. The WNBA expanded to allow outside ownership (separate from NBA teams) starting in the 2003 season. As of now, five of the 12 WNBA teams are affiliated with NBA teams: the Mercury, Lynx, Indiana Fever, New York Liberty and Washington Mystics.
The new Mercury owner(s) will inherit an organization that is an integral part of the league’s history. Phoenix has hosted a WNBA All-Star Game (2014) and the Commissioner’s Cup final (2021), and is noted for its fan support.
But history is one thing; the present isn’t on stable ground with the franchises for sale. Once new ownership takes over, leadership will be more important than ever.
The Mercury had an inordinate amount of personnel conflict this past season and at some point will lose the face of the franchise and one of the faces of women’s basketball, Diana Taurasi. How much hands-on decision-making a new owner or ownership group would want to do with the Mercury remains to be seen. Longtime Suns/Mercury executive Jim Pitman, the WNBA team’s general manager since 2013, has been part of the Mercury’s financial decisions since the franchise was founded.
Sarver bought his share of the Suns and Mercury in April 2004, the same month the Mercury drafted Taurasi No. 1 out of UConn. Now 40, Taurasi is the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer and led the franchise to championships in 2007, 2009 and 2014. It’s uncertain how much longer Taurasi will play, but the Mercury know a new era will be coming sooner rather than later.
Taurasi’s future, though, is far from the only issue the Mercury are facing. They let go of longtime coach Sandy Brondello last year even though she had taken the team to the 2021 WNBA Finals. The Mercury replaced her with Vanessa Nygaard, a WNBA assistant whose only previous head coaching experience was at the high school level. They also signed center Tina Charles and guard Diamond DeShields as free agents, and at least initially it appeared to have a team that would strongly contend for the 2022 championship.
And then center Brittney Griner, another of Mercury’s former No. 1 picks, was arrested in February on drug charges and has been detained in a Russian prison since, sentenced to nine years in August. Then, tension was evident early in the season between Taurasi and fellow guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, and between Diggins-Smith and Nygaard. Charles then left the team in June in a contract divorce, joining the rival Seattle Storm. By the regular season’s end, Taurasi was sidelined by injury and Diggins-Smith had left the team for personal reasons while the Mercury were in the midst of a playoff race.
The Mercury reached the postseason, losing in the first round to eventual champion Las Vegas. Diggins-Smith is under contract for another season, as are DeShields and starter Brianna Turner. But the rest of the Mercury’s roster is in flux, and it seems the team might have to make a decision between keeping Diggins-Smith or Nygaard if their relationship can’t be mended.
The Mercury have made the playoffs 14 of the past 16 seasons, including the past 10. If the Suns and Mercury stay together, it will provide a continuity that the Mercury have thrived on since 1997. That hasn’t happened for all WNBA teams whose NBA brethren were sold or moved.
The Charlotte Sting were also an original WNBA franchise, owned by the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. But when the Hornets relocated to New Orleans, the Sting stayed in Charlotte, purchased by Robert L. Johnson, principal owner of the expansion Bobcats, who were coming to that North Carolina city. But the Sting were disbanded after the 2006 WNBA season when the Bobcats no longer wanted to own the team, citing low attendance.
When Clay Bennett bought the Seattle SuperSonics in 2006, he also purchased the WNBA’s Storm and owned them for the 2007 season. When a new arena wasn’t built in Seattle, Bennett moved the Sonics to Oklahoma City in 2008 to become the Thunder. The Storm were sold to a local ownership group, Force 10 Hoops LLC, which kept the WNBA team in Seattle and still owns it. The Storm have been very successful under independent ownership, winning three of their four championships for Force 10.
Detroit Pistons and Shock owner Bill Davidson died in March 2009, and later that year the Shock were sold to owners in Tulsa. The Pistons went up for sale in 2010, and were sold in 2011 to owner Tom Gores, who kept them in Detroit. The Shock played in Tulsa from 2010-2015, and then relocated to Dallas in 2016 to become the Wings.
The Sacramento Monarchs, another of the WNBA’s original eight franchises, folded in late 2009 after the Kings’ then-owners, the Maloof family, decided to no longer run the WNBA team and another buyer wasn’t found. The Maloofs eventually sold the Kings in 2013, and despite an effort to move them to Seattle, they stayed in Sacramento.
All of those situations occurred from 2006-2009, during the global financial crisis, when the Houston Comets also disbanded and the WNBA faced its greatest challenges. While WNBA franchises haven’t increased in value the way that NBA franchises have, the WNBA and its teams are in a stronger position financially now and have grown their audience.
That makes the Mercury a valuable property — not an “and” or an “also” in the forced sale — along with the Suns, and the new ownership must have that mindset going forward.
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