Investments from ownership, partners, fans & players have led to 25 years of success for the Phoenix Mercury
By Cody Cunningham
Like many other players in the WNBA, Diana Taurasi used to spend her “offseason” playing basketball overseas in countries such as Russia and Turkey. The financially incentivized move felt necessary, but the year-round schedule took a toll on her body.
However, Taurasi enjoyed a new performance advantage heading into this season. Rather than traveling five thousand miles across around the world, the nine-time All-Star settled in at the brand new, state-of-the-art Verizon 5G Performance Center in Phoenix.
The 53,000 square foot basketball oasis is purposefully designed and laden with performance analytics and biometric innovation, a world-class gym, a rest and recovery zone, a staff dietician and executive chefs fueling basketball’s G.O.A.T. with customized menus. At 38 years old, Taurasi was able to pinpoint aspects of her game to improve, using methods that puts Phoenix at the forefront of sports technology.
Taurasi described the practice facility as the “Disneyland for professional basketball athletes” — and all of it is privately funded by Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury Managing Partner, Robert Sarver.
“It was important to me that our players, both the Mercury and the Suns, have every competitive advantage,” Sarver said. “Speaking about Diana specifically, the greatest-of-all-time deserves the best performance facility, the latest innovations, and conveniences available.”
The $50 million Verizon 5G Performance Center is one of just many reasons that Phoenix has become the marquee market of the WNBA. The investments from ownership, the league, partners, fans, media and, of course, the players are what has made the Mercury franchise so successful over the past 25 years.
The Mercury’s 29 All-Star appearances have featured some of the legends of the WNBA such as Michele Timms, Penny Taylor, Jennifer Gillom, Brittney Griner, DeWanna Bonner, Skylar Diggins-Smith and, of course, Taurasi — leading to three WNBA championships, four conference championships and 11 conference finals appearances. Friday night, the Mercury’s passionate X-Factor fan base will be welcomed back to a transformed home arena for a regular-season game for the first time in nearly 20 months.
This season, Phoenix was also chosen to host the WNBA’s inaugural Commissioner’s Cup. The in-season competition will take place on Thursday, Aug. 12 at Phoenix Suns Arena with conference bragging rights, the Commissioner’s Cup trophy and a prize pool of $500,000 to be split among players on the line.
The opportunity to host the headlining event wouldn’t be possible without the support provided throughout the past quarter-decade.
“I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished with the Mercury for their fanbase, X-Factor members, and our partners,” Sarver said. “They make up one of the most loyal groups I’ve ever seen in sports.”
In 1997, the WNBA granted Phoenix with one of the eight original franchises. Since then, only four remain in the league. Only three are in the same market. And only the Mercury remain under the same NBA-team umbrella.
The Mercury set the tone of the franchise early. In their inaugural season, they led the Western Conference with 16 wins, becoming one of the four teams to make the playoffs. Phoenix followed that up with a Finals appearance the next season, despite expansion teams added and two additional games on the schedule.
The floor had been set for the franchise, and expectations had been raised.
The current commitment from ownership has provided the Mercury with a transformed arena, the state-of-the-art practice facility and a financial backing to afford a star-studded lineup. Through the new collective bargaining agreement, the Mercury currently have four players making an annual salary of more than $190,000. That progress on the player compensation front has given players more freedom and flexibility than ever before in the history of the league, including some choosing to forego overseas play and focus solely on their WNBA careers.
“It says so much about Robert Sarver and the rest of the management team. They’re valuing basketball at all levels in Phoenix.” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said. “… It just really signals that long-term commitment that we’re going to need as we transform this league. Hopefully, Robert and the team can continue participating in the rising value of women’s sports and the WNBA’s place in that.”
These investments go beyond internal support. The Mercury was the first team to sign a marquee jersey sponsorship deal in 2009 (LifeLock) and have been the only team to wear one every year since the asset first became available.
Thanks to the success of the three-time WNBA champions, partners such as Fry’s Food Stores and PayPal have been eager to team up to grow each other’s brands. The Mercury proudly wear both logos on their jerseys, not only because of the support, but also because of the shared values when it comes to equality and representation for women across all three organizations.
“They make a point to say that women’s sports in general — and the Mercury specifically — needs the attention,” Chief Operating Officer Vince Kozar said. “It needs the time and it needs the resources that the men’s sports are getting, as well.”
Phoenix’s professional basketball culture has developed two simultaneous brands that have remained connected throughout the years. They have grown together, and shared their successes with one another.
Just a few weeks after being drafted first overall, Suns center Deandre Ayton was in the weight room when Taurasi walked in.
“I was freaking out,” Ayton said. “She was saying, ‘Hello, it’s great to have you.’ I was, like, star-struck. I was speechless. She is the Michael Jordan of the WNBA.’”
Fast-forward a few years, and Ayton’s respect for the “G.O.A.T.” remains the same. Prior to the Suns’ May 13 matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers, Ayton wore Taurasi’s newly released “Rebel” H.E.R. edition jersey.
Future Hall-of-Famer Chris Paul joined Ayton by repping Skylar Diggins-Smith’s uniform on the same night — and shouted out the WNBA during his postgame TNT interview. All-Star Devin Booker has also continuously shared his support for the women’s game, sporting the popular G.O.A.T. shirt while the Suns played in the Orlando Bubble and attending games in the summer since first arriving in Phoenix back in 2015.
This synergy dates back to the inaugural season for the Mercury. After she was drafted in 2004, Taurasi said there was an immediate connection between her and guys like Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and Mike D’Antoni.
“It’s been incredible. When you think about WNBA franchises, I don’t think any of them are as entrenched with an NBA team as we are,” Taurasi said. “That energy that the Suns brought there just poured over into the Phoenix Mercury.”
Along with supporting one another, Diggins-Smith has anchored herself further in the Suns’ culture by joining the broadcast team throughout the past month. She became a regular on the Suns Live! Pregame Show joining Tom Leander and Tom Chambers to provide a unique perspective as an active All-Star professional basketball player while preparing to play in market for the Mercury for the first time this season.
“It’s just great being a part of it now and familiarizing myself with the Suns and Phoenix Mercury organization,” Diggins-Smith said. “(There have) been cool little kumbaya moments we’ve been able to have, especially for me being new to the city.”
After playing in the “Wubble” last season, Diggins-Smith moved to the Valley this offseason and has quickly noticed the appreciation that the fans have for the sport. The X-Factor are infamously known around the league for their passion, excitement and overall support shown night-in and night-out. The additional source of energy from the stands fuels the Mercury, and can get under the skin of opposing players.
“I think we notice it most when other players finally put on that Mercury jersey and we try to explain to them about the X-Factor,” Taurasi said. “They’re like, ‘No, we know already. We already know what they’re all about.’”
That support has remained consistent from Day 1 of the franchise, with 170 active season-ticket membership accounts lasting for the entirety of the 25 years. Additionally, the Mercury retained 96 percent of season ticket members through the COVID-19 pandemic and 2020 season held in the “Wubble.”
“They make their presence felt at every game. That makes you feel good when you walk in the arena,” Taurasi said.
Throughout the years, the personal investments from the players have been critical in making Mercury basketball what it is today.
Taurasi, the 14-time All-WNBA honoree and 2009 league MVP, has been with Phoenix for 17 of the franchise’s 25 years. She has become a superstar, joining Valley legends such as Shane Doan, Larry Fitzgerald, Randy Johnson and Nash.
“When they say my name, they have to say Phoenix, and vice versa,” Taurasi said. “That’s how I want it. That’s how it’s going to be.”
The support from ownership, partners and fans have made Phoenix a desirable destination for stars such as Diggins-Smith. After spending six seasons with Tulsa/Dallas, the Mercury traded for the four-time All-Star in 2020 to team her up with Taurasi and create one of the most dynamic backcourts in the league.
That offensively dominant duo complements the two-headed defensive front court of Brittney Griner and Brianna Turner. The six-time All-Star and seven-time blocks leader in Griner uses her incredible length to deflect shots better than anyone in league history. Turner, the 11th overall pick in 2019, is quickly turning into a defensive force, as well.
Trading for 2019 All-Star Kia Nurse added another piece to the puzzle, pairing her outside shooting and defensive tenacity with veteran core around her. Soon, the Mercury will also welcome back guard Bria Hartley, who was having a career season in 2020 before sustaining a season-ending knee injury.
With this roster, the Mercury again have championship aspirations.
That is the expectation for the WNBA’s premier market. The Mercury has lured All-Stars, raised banners and showcased it is a first-class organization from top to bottom.
Hosting the Commissioner’s Cup during this landmark WNBA season further validates the widespread respect the Mercury has earned, thanks to the resources, investments and support that have been poured in for the past 25 years.