The Phoenix Mercury has won three WNBA championships and is perhaps the greatest player in the history of women’s basketball.
Robert Sarwar, the majority owner of Phoenix Sons and the Mercury, is selling the franchise. The Suns are an attractive peak property in 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 a more engaged fan base.
There is no guarantee that the franchises will be sold simultaneously, although this appears to be Sarver’s intention, as was the case for Minnesota Timberwolves/Minnesota Lynx owner Glen Taylor when he sold both franchises last year.
The Mercury was one of eight teams that launched the WNBA in 1997, which was then owned by NBA teams. The WNBA expanded in the 2003 season to allow outside ownership (aside from NBA teams). So far, five of the 12 WNBA teams are affiliated with NBA teams: Mercury, Lynx, Indiana Fever, New York Liberty, and Washington Mystics.
Mercury’s new owner(s) will inherit an organization that is an integral part of the league’s history. Phoenix has hosted the 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 franchisees do not currently have stable ground for sale. Once new ownership comes in, leadership will be more important than ever.
Mercury had an extreme amount of personnel conflict this past season and would at some point lose to Diana Torassi, the face of the franchise and one of the faces of women’s basketball. How practical a decision a new owner or ownership group will want to make with Mercury remains to be seen. Longtime Suns/Mercury executive Jim Pittman, general manager of the WNBA team since 2013, has been part of Mercury’s financial decisions since the franchise’s inception.
In April 2004 Sarvar bought his share of Sun and Mercury, the same month Mercury drafted Taurashi No. 1 from Yukon. Now 40, Taurasi is the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer and led the franchise to championships in 2007, 2009 and 2014. It is uncertain how long Taurasi will play out, but Mercury knows that a new era will come sooner rather than later.
However, the future of Taurasi is far from the only issue Mercury is facing. She let go of longtime coach Sandy Brondello last year, even though she led the team to the 2021 WNBA Finals. Mercury replaced him with Vanessa Nygaard, a WNBA assistant whose only previous head coaching experience was at the high school level. They also signed center Tina Charles and guard Diamond DeShields as free agents, and at least initially it appeared to be a team that would struggle strongly for the 2022 championship.
And then center Brittany Griner, one of Mercury’s former No. 1 picks, was arrested on drug charges in February and has been languishing in a Russian prison since serving nine years in August. Then, at the start of the season the tension between Taurasi and fellow guards Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diggins-Smith and Nygaard was evident. Charles left the team in June in a contract divorce, joining rival Seattle Storm. By the end of the regular season, Taurasi was sidelined due to injury and Diggins-Smith left the team for personal reasons, while Mercury was in the midst of a playoff race.
Mercury reached the postseason, losing to eventual champion Las Vegas in the first round. Diggins-Smith is under contract for one more season, as are Deshields and starter Brianna Turner. But the rest of Mercury’s roster is in flux, and it looks like the team may have to decide between keeping Diggins-Smith or Nygaard if their relationship can’t be improved.
The Mercury has made 14 playoff appearances in the past 16 seasons, including the last 10. If the Sun and Mercury stay together, it will provide the continuity that Mercury flourishes since 1997. This did not happen for all WNBA teams whose NBA brethren were sold or transferred.
The Charlotte Sting was also an original WNBA franchise, owned by the Charlotte Hornets of the NBA. But when the Hornets relocated to New Orleans, Sting remained in Charlotte, known as Robert L. Johnson, the principal owner of the Expansion Bobcats, which were moving to that North Carolina town. But the Sting was disbanded after the 2006 WNBA season, when the Bobcats no longer wanted to own the team, citing low attendance.
Ramona Shelburne lists potential new owners of the Sons after Robert Sarver announced his intention to sell the franchise.
When Clay Bennett bought the Seattle SuperSonics in 2006, he also bought the Storm of the WNBA and owned them for the 2007 season. When a new arena was not built in Seattle, Bennett relocated to the Sonics in 2008 to become the Thunder in Oklahoma City. The Storm was sold to a local ownership group, Force 10 Hoops LLC, which kept the WNBA team in Seattle and still owns it. Under independent ownership the Hurricanes have been very successful, winning three of their four championships for the Force 10.
Detroit Pistons and Shock owner Bill Davidson died in March 2009, and later that year the Shock was sold to owners in Tulsa. The Pistons went on sale in 2010, and were sold in 2011 to owner Tom Gores, who housed them in Detroit. The Shock played in Tulsa from 2010–2015, and then moved to Dallas in 2016 to become the Wings.
The Sacramento Monarchs, one of the WNBA’s original eight franchises, folded in late 2009 after the then owners of the Kings, the Maloof family, decided not to run the WNBA team and could not find a second buyer. The Maloofs eventually sold the Kings in 2013, and despite attempts to move them to Seattle, they remained in Sacramento.
All of these situations occurred during 2006–2009, during the global financial crisis, when the Houston Comets also disbanded and the WNBA faced its greatest challenges. While the value of the WNBA franchise has not grown the way the NBA franchise has, the WNBA and its teams are now in a stronger position financially and have grown their audiences.
This makes Mercury a valuable asset—not “and” or “also” in extortion—with the Sun, and new ownership should carry that mindset.