PHOENIX – With a tremble in his voice and tears welling in his eyes, Richard Smith shared a story of pain and resentment. A tale familiar to much of the LGBTQ community, Smith detailed the disownment by his father and the loneliness that came to consume his life.
As he yearned for support, he found little. As he craved acceptance, he found none.
Years later, his search appears over. Flanked by his mother and stepfather, who had volunteered their son to be interviewed and whipped out their smartphones to capture the moment, Smith spoke Friday during the Phoenix Mercury’s sixth annual Pride Night to the comfort he now felt and his ability to live life as a “proud gay man.” The event has provided a voice to the LGBTQ community, not to mention a boost to area businesses.
His attendance at Friday’s event signaled another big step for Smith, who had shied away from identifying himself as a member of the LGBTQ community. Surrounded by thousands of his fellow community members and allies, Smith felt at ease as he took in the sights and sounds of the night.
“I look around and I see all the rainbows and all these different colors, I feel very comfortable,” Smith said. “I’m so proud of the (Phoenix) Mercury. It’s good to know that someone has our back.”
Smith’s story is far from unique, as Talking Stick Resort Arena was filled with others who have endured similar struggles. For many, Friday’s game was a rare opportunity to celebrate the pride they felt for their community in a safe and controlled environment. Whether it was the pair of women who got engaged midway through the third quarter, or the plethora of rainbow attire that populated the lower concourse, the sense of belonging that many non-members take for granted was palpable from the opening tip.
“I think what we establish is our games are a place that’s welcoming to everyone,” said Vince Kozar, chief operating officer for the Phoenix Mercury and longtime advocate for the LGBTQ community. “Whether that’s fans, whether it’s partners, it’s a safe space, it’s a welcoming space, and it’s a place where you can see people who are like you.”
Phoenix Mercury fans cheer on the team during Pride Night. More than 10,000 fans attended the game. (Photo by Kynan Marlin/Cronkite News)
Brittney Griner stands at the block while the Mercury shoot free throws. Griner has been an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQ community. (Photo by Kynan Marlin/Cronkite News)
Griner led all scorers with 24 points and all rebounders with 13 in the game against the Los Angeles Sparks. (Photo by Kynan Marlin/Cronkite News)
The Sparks proved to be a tough opponent for the Mercury, who lost on Pride Night by 17 at Talking Stick Resort Arena. (Photo by Kynan Marlin/Cronkite News)
Many fans at the game said they were grateful the WNBA has been so supported of the LGBTQ community. (Photo by Kynan Marlin/Cronkite News)
Phoenix Mercury players displayed a variety of shoes on Pride Night. (Photo by Kynan Marlin/Cronkite News)
Standout Diana Taurasi, who has been sidelined with a back injury, showed off her version of Pride Night shoes. (Photo by Kynan Marlin/Cronkite News)
Signs were all over Talking Stick Resort Arena that reflect Pride Night. (Photo by Kynan Marlin/Cronkite News)
Phoenix Mercury CEO Vince Kozar has long been a strong voice for the LGBTQ community. (Photo by Kynan Marlin/Cronkite News)
The economic impact of an event of this magnitude is clear. As each professional franchise looks to create its niche, the Mercury have established themselves as a vocal supporter of the LGBTQ community. As the only professional sports team in Arizona with openly gay athletes, the partnership between the team and the community makes sense. With 25% of lesbians identifying as viewers of the WNBA and 21% having attended a game, according to a 2012 study conducted by the WNBA, the league also embraces the idea of an economic benefit.
“In the past this event has brought over 4,000 members and allies to the event, so it really supports the surrounding area,” said Fred Delgado, chair of the Greater Phoenix Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. “I think it’s giving more recognition and openness to the community, while also allowing the community to be involved in an event that we usually wouldn’t be. Now beginning to do more sports events, it’s opening a whole new venue for our community.”
It can be financially beneficial for businesses to support the LGBTQ community as well. A 2011 Harris Poll of 2,357 adults found that 74% of LGBTQ consumers are likely to consider brands that support nonprofits and causes that are important to them.
One of the Mercury’s more vocal advocates of LGBTQ rights also happens to be one of their best players, as center Brittney Griner has been a strong defender of gay rights throughout her storied career. The five-time All-Star has talked at length about intensifying her efforts, and said she hopes to organize an open conversation with gay youth and their parents about strategies to better cope with the maturation process.
“When I was going through it, I felt alone,” Griner said. “I felt like I had no one to relate to. With hormones, and your changing body, it can get really dark and it got really dark for me. I went through suicidal thoughts growing up. I actually tried a couple times, and I made it through it. I wish I would’ve been more vocal, I wish I would’ve reached out more, so I definitely encourage any kids listening to this to reach out to somebody, find somebody that you can talk to. There’s always somebody that will listen.”
Despite losing by 17 to the Los Angeles Sparks in Friday’s game, the Mercury likely gained new fans. Among them is Smith, who considers himself a big basketball fan but had never attended a Mercury game before Friday. In a marriage he called the perfect “double-whammy,” Smith now counts himself among the Mercury faithful.
“We have come as gays and lesbians a long way, and just to have a night of celebration is huge,” Smith said. “This is my new adventure. I want to come every year.”
Follow the Cronkite News Sports Bureau on Twitter.