The last eight years have been remarkable for the Phoenix Mercury.
During that time, the team has won three championships and made six playoff appearances. Diana Taurasi won an MVP award in 2009 and Brittney Griner is the reigning WNBA Defensive Player of the Year.
However, the defending WNBA champions, along with the rest of the WNBA, struggle when it comes to grabbing the attention of sports fans across the nation.
The Mercury led the WNBA in attendance last year, averaging 9,557 fans per game. That paled in comparison to a Phoenix Suns team that plays its games in the same arena but has only made three playoff appearances in that same eight-year span. The Suns averaged 16,923 fans per game last season, near the bottom of attendance in the NBA but almost double that of the Mercury.
Attracting fans to games in the arena is just one challenge faced by the women’s professional basketball league in the midst of its 19th season. The WNBA does not get the same viewership and coverage as many other professional sports.
“I often watch TV and, man, tennis players, soccer players, they have so much fan support,” Mercury forward and WNBA All-Star Candice Dupree said. “What’s going on with women’s basketball that people aren’t taking an interest and watching it?”
A study done in 2014, titled “It’s Dude Time!,” found that women’s sports received significantly less air time than any professional men’s sport. Only 2.3 percent of sports coverage in the summer of 2014 on ESPN’s SportsCenter and local network affiliates involved women’s basketball, according to the study. By comparison, the NBA received 35.5 percent of coverage even though the study was done while the WNBA was in season and the NBA was not.
“The dearth of coverage is most evident when compared with the lavish coverage of the NBA,” Michael Messner, one of the study’s authors, said via email. Messner is a professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California.
“Even when out of season,” Messner said, “the NBA receives far more coverage than does the WNBA when in season.”
Cheryl Cooky, another of the study’s authors and an associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Purdue, highlighted the discrepancy with an example from the Los Angeles television market from July of last year.
During the summer, while the NBA is relatively dormant “there were 68 stories, or nearly 49 minutes of coverage of the NBA (on KNBC, KABC and KCBS), while the WNBA, which was in season, received only 10 stories or about 7 minutes of coverage,” Cooky said via email.
The study also argued that televised news and highlight shows play an important role in building and sustaining audiences for men’s sports, and the bland presentation and
relative lack of coverage of most women’s sports presents yet another obstacle to building audiences and enhancing interest.
“We are not as visible as other leagues. We’re not at the level of the NBA,” said Vince Kozar, Mercury vice president of operations. “But it is not of an indictment of where we are at.”
Relative to other women’s sports, the WNBA has prospered. “It’s Dude Time!” found that the WNBA accounted for 81.6 percent of SportsCenter’s women’s sports coverage during the time period of the study.
The Mercury rank among the most popular teams in the most covered women’s sport. Already leading the league in attendance, the Mercury recently went over 15,000 followers on Instagram to become the most followed team on the service.
“The fan base here is huge,” Dupree said. “We have a lot of support every game, whether it’s weekday or weekend, and it’s interesting to see that, especially in the summer.”
Since head coach Sandy Brondello took the reins in Phoenix in 2014, the Mercury have one of the best records at home thanks in part to their “sixth man.”
“We have the best attendance in the WNBA, and that helps. The two years that I’ve coached here, we have only lost two home games and that says a lot in itself,” Brondello said in an interview earlier this season, prior to the team’s third home loss on July 18.
The Mercury go to great lengths to cultivate that fan following.
“Your fan base is your lifeblood,” Kozar said.
It is a fan base the Mercury are always trying to expand.
“We are all about trying to grow our league and our fan base. We want to market to everybody, we want to appeal to everybody, market what happens on the court, the athletes we have, how fun the atmosphere is, how affordable it is,” said Kozar.
In an attempt to reach families, Kozar said the franchise advertises at summer camps and schools across the Valley, along with family-targeted media like Raising Arizona Kids.
“Its about being seen, and the way to do that is to get out to the public, try to put our name to as many organizations as we can,” Brondello said.
Five-dollar kid tickets are also available on select days. General admission tickets on Ticketmaster start at $9.
“It appeals to families at a price point, for families looking for something to do over the summer,” Kozar said.
Even for some of the best seats at US Airways Center, the Mercury try to keep prices relatively low. Selected seats in the first two rows near center court range in price from $100 to $200 for Mercury games. That same area can range from $250 to $2,400 for Suns games, according to Maria Baier, Suns senior vice president of communications and public affairs.
Beyond ticket prices, the Mercury try to have some family-friendly start times and promotions. On Sept. 2, Phoenix will start its game at 12:30 p.m., as opposed to the usual night start, to cater to children and families. The team has given Mercury logo hampers to parents at past games. During some games, kids receive workbooks where they can test their geography skills by locating where Mercury players are born, or try their hands at a math section involving box scores.
“Old staples,” such as bobble heads are always a fan favorite, according to Kozar.
“We also like to do items that look great and involve fans in the game…thunder sticks, rally towels; that creates a great atmosphere,” Kozar said. “We try to be creative with it, whatever is going to interest people.”
Phoenix Mercury fans like Peoria High School basketball player Ariss Bailey notice the effort.
“They do a great job getting fans involved,” Bailey said. “They also put players on the big screen,” pumping up the crowd.
Promoting the players plays a big role in the team’s overall marketing strategy.
“Names appeal to sports,” Kozar said.
And Phoenix happens to have had two of the biggest names in the WNBA. It’s not often a team can market two high-profile players – reigning WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Brittney Griner and 2009 WNBA MVP and seven-time All-Star Diana Taurasi.
Unfortunately for the Mercury, Taurasi is sitting out this season at the request of her Russian Premier League team UMMC Ekaterinburg, keeping one the league’s marquee players out of the spotlight.
Even when Taurasi is active during the WNBA season, the offseason presents its own marketing challenges, with players from across the WNBA participating in leagues overseas.
“It is a challenge to stay relevant when the players are not always around,” Kozar said.
The Mercury are constantly reaching out within the community and hosting events at places such as local police and fire stations.
“Fry’s supermarket is a big sponsor. We’ve gone and done stuff with them, ( Griner) working the counter,” Dupree said. “We’ve gone out to an Indian reservation and done some stuff out there.”
The WNBA also constantly faces fans who won’t give it a chance because they don’t think it compares to men’s basketball.
“We don’t have the physical specimens like LeBron (James) or Gerald Green flying around,” Kozar said. But people are beginning to enjoy watching team basketball, “like the Spurs, the Warriors and the Hawks.”
Team basketball is one of the hallmarks of the women’s game.
“I always encourage anyone just to come to a game because if I think they do they’ll realize how good we are and appreciate the game for what it is,” Brondello said.