Sports

Next steps for Mercury after Sarver NBA, WNBA Phoenix sale

The Phoenix Mercury have won three WNBA championships and have perhaps the greatest player in women’s basketball history.

Robert Sarver, the majority owner of the Phoenix Suns and the Mercury, sells the franchises. The Suns are an enticing highlight of the NBA in a warm-weather city. But the Mercury — the NBA’s “sister” organization — holds the titles and is an original WNBA team with one of the more dedicated fan bases.

There is no guarantee that the franchises will be sold together, although that appears to have been Sarver’s intent, 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 created the WNBA in 1997, all owned by NBA teams at the time. The WNBA expanded beginning with the 2003 season to allow for outside ownership (separate from NBA teams). As of now, five of the 12 WNBA teams are affiliated with NBA teams: 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 known for its fan support.

But history is one thing; The present is not on stable ground with the franchises for sale. Once new owners are taken on, leadership will be more important than ever.

The Mercury had an inordinate amount of personnel conflicts last season and will eventually lose the face of the franchise and one of the faces of women’s basketball, Diana Taurasi. How much practical decision-making a new owner or group of owners will want to do with the Mercury remains to be seen. Longtime Suns/Mercury executive Jim Pitman, general manager of the WNBA team since 2013, has been involved in Mercury’s financial decisions since the franchise’s inception.

Sarver bought his stake in Suns and Mercury in April 2004, the same month that Mercury Taurasi No. 1 from UConn drew. Taurasi, now 40, 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 is coming sooner rather than later.

However, the future of Taurasi is far from the only problem facing the Mercury. They fired longtime coach Sandy Brondello last year even though she led the team to the 2021 WNBA Finals. The Mercury replaced her with Vanessa Nygaard, a WNBA assistant whose only experience was as a high school-level head coach. 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 be fighting hard for the 2022 championship.

And then center Brittney Griner, another former Mercury No. 1 pick, was arrested on drug charges in February and has since been incarcerated in a Russian jail, sentenced to nine years in August. Then there was tension 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 via a contract divorce and joined rival Seattle Storm. At the end of the regular season, Taurasi was out with injuries and Diggins-Smith had left the team for personal reasons while the Mercury were in the middle of a playoff race.

The Mercury reached the postseason, losing in the first round to eventual champion Las Vegas. Diggins-Smith is signed for another season, as is DeShields and starter Brianna Turner. But the rest of the Mercury roster is in flux, and it seems the team will have to make a decision on whether to keep Diggins-Smith or Nygaard if their relationship can’t be repaired.

The Mercury have made the playoffs 14 of the last 16 seasons, including the last 10. Keeping the Suns and Mercury together will provide a continuity that the Mercury has thrived on since 1997. That hasn’t happened for all WNBA teams whose NBA brethren have been sold or relocated.

The Charlotte Sting was also an original WNBA franchise owned by the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. But when the Hornets moved to New Orleans, the Sting stayed in Charlotte, purchased by Robert L. Johnson, principal owner of the extension Bobcats that came 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.

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Ramona Shelburne lists potential new owners of the Suns after Robert Sarver announced his intention to sell the franchise.

When Clay Bennett bought the Seattle SuperSonics in 2006, he also bought and owned the WNBA’s Storm for the 2007 season. With no new arena being built in Seattle, Bennett relocated the Sonics to Oklahoma City in 2008 to become The Thunder. The Storm was sold to a local ownership group, Force 10 Hoops LLC, which retained and still owns the WNBA team in Seattle. The Storm has enjoyed great success 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 was sold to Tulsa owners. 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 to 2015, then moved to Dallas in 2016 to become the Wings.

The Sacramento Monarchs, another of the WNBA’s original eight franchises, were dissolved in late 2009 after the Kings’ then-owners, the Maloof family, decided to no longer manage the WNBA team and could not find another buyer . The Maloofs eventually sold the Kings in 2013 and despite efforts to move them to Seattle, they stayed in Sacramento.

All of these situations happened between 2006 and 2009, during the global financial crisis, when the Houston Comets were also disbanding and the WNBA faced its greatest challenges. While WNBA franchises have not increased in value as NBA franchises, the WNBA and its teams are now in a stronger position financially and have expanded audiences.

That makes the Mercury a valuable asset — not an “and” or “also” in the forced sale — along with the Suns, and the new owner needs to have that mindset going forward.

https://www.espn.com/wnba/story/_/id/34638306/next-steps-mercury-sarver-nba-wnba-phoenix-sale Next steps for Mercury after Sarver NBA, WNBA Phoenix sale

Emma Bowman

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