Quiet success continues for Phoenix Mercury as concern grows for local counterparts

Phoenix Mercury fans turned out in high volume to watch their team play into at least the semifinals for the 11th time in franchise history. The Mercury have enjoyed success selling tickets throughout its history, a consistent success story within the history of the WNBA dating back to 1997.

After finishing first in WNBA attendance from 2014-2016, the Phoenix Mercury maintained positive momentum this season, finishing fourth. They have ranked near the top of the league annually, even during losing seasons.

“Even if you’re not winning a championship every year, do you have players who are recognizable faces in your community and have you established that relationship?” asked Vince Kozar, the organization’s Chief Operating Officer. The Mercury have created an atmosphere in Phoenix where fans feel close to their team, to the point where wins and losses are simply one ingredient in the larger strategy for growing revenue.

Howard Megdal, the founder and editor of the women’s basketball site The Summitt, said that “the Mercury seem to figure out ways to [maximize] their community outreach and media interactions—they are successful because as a business they do things the right way, more often than not.”

Focusing on sales revenue has been the first priority for the league since President Lisa Borders took over in February 2016. In an interview with the New York Times the week she was hired, Borders said, “this is a business, and you need better TV ratings, better attendance and better merchandising.”

Under Borders’ guidance, WNBA franchises have continued to be leaders building local fan bases. In Phoenix, where the Suns and Diamondbacks rank in the bottom half of their leagues in attendance, the Mercury’s success stands out. The Suns own the Mercury as well as Talking Stick Resort Arena, which both teams have shared under multiple names since the Mercury’s inaugural season. According to data provided by the Mercury, the team averaged nearly 10,000 fans per game this season at home.

“I think the biggest thing that we work for in the WNBA is to create and sustain awareness,” said Kozar.

Player connection is the common thread people within the league mention for how to develop from a business perspective. However, the WNBA faces the unfortunate dilemma of marketing to overcome bias. Some sports fans simply believe that a women’s basketball league is not entertaining, and opinions get uglier from there.

Kozar pointed to the perseverance of the NBA during the 1950s and ’60s at a time when most of America was unreceptive to the predominantly black league. He believes the WNBA can overcome preconceptions that affect it today. Mercury guard Danielle Robinson said over the phone, “People are hopefully a lot more open-minded now, and willing to give [the league] a shot.”

The Diamondbacks brought playoff competition to Phoenix during the Mercury offseason for the first time since 2011, momentarily setting aside concerns about attendance at Chase Field. When the Suns made the playoffs last in 2010, they nearly doubled this year’s Mercury’s average attendance at Talking Stick Resort Arena.

As the Mercury and the WNBA grow toward new goals and broader relevance, they will hope they are correct about the cultural momentum of their audience. For the Mercury, building on past success, the future beckons even brighter.

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