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How the Phoenix Mercury built a model WNBA franchise over 25 years

Diana Taurasi puts up shots at the Mercury’s new training facility shared with the Suns. (Phoenix Mercury)

By the time Robert Sarver officially became majority owner of the Phoenix Mercury and Phoenix Suns in 2004, Diana Taurasi was a couple of months into her first pro season. The No. 1 pick of the Mercury in that year’s WNBA Draft, she would go on to finish sixth in the league in scoring and be named Rookie of the Year.

It was just the start of Taurasi’s WNBA career, one of the most storied in the league’s 25-year history. And for Sarver, a first-time sports team owner, Taurasi’s arrival that year was fortuitous.

“That was just luck on my part,” Sarver told Just Women’s Sports. “It’s likely I won’t ever have another player like that on my team. She is not only great for our franchise, but great for the sport.”

Lucky as it may have been, what Sarver set out to accomplish from there was purely intentional.

The Mercury, one of four remaining original WNBA franchises, captivated Sarver from the beginning. A lifelong Arizona resident and businessman, he says he went to games and got to know the players over the years, inviting them over to his house for cookouts.

So, when Sarver started looking into buying the NBA’s Suns from owner Jerry Colangelo, he also saw a unique opportunity for growth with the Mercury.

The organization had a tradition of success, having reached the playoffs in three of its first four seasons under coach Cheryl Miller. Building championship-level teams from that foundation, Sarver believed, would help grow the game for girls and women in the community. And Taurasi, a franchise-changing talent, would lead them there.

“We were able to use the entire weight behind the Suns’ organization to help develop the Mercury and take it to another level,” Sarver said. “I would say we kind of over-sized the allocation of resources in order to help build up the team and the organization because it was like a new business, the WNBA. It’s still relatively new for professional sports leagues, but back then it was only seven years old.”

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Robert Sarver presents Taurasi with her 2014 championship ring. (Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images)

With Sarver’s backing, the Mercury were the first WNBA team to sign a marquee jersey sponsorship deal with Lifelock in 2009. They’ve had jersey sponsorships every year since then, including a badge deal with PayPal starting in 2019.

Last November, the organization unveiled a $50 million, state-of-the-art training facility that the Suns and Mercury share. Funded by Sarver, the Verizon 5G Performance Center includes a gym, weight training, performance analytics and biometrics, a rest and recovery zone and nutritional services. Taurasi spent this past offseason training at the facility rather than playing another season overseas, as many WNBA players do to supplement their salaries.

“I feel like we’re on par with the Suns and how they treat us professionally on the business side of things,” Taurasi said. “I think we have that business support that a lot of teams don’t have in the WNBA. And you can tell when you come to our arena and you drive around the city of Phoenix, we’re a presence in the community.”

Taurasi signed a two-year extension with the Mercury in February and says she’ll keep playing as long as she still feels a drive to compete. The 38-year-old has won three WNBA championships and two Finals MVPs in Phoenix, but still wants to add to her legacy.

It helps that the Mercury have been able to recruit and retain stars like Brittney Griner, their No. 1 draft pick in 2013, and Skylar Diggins-Smith, who signed with Phoenix last offseason. All three players are making the WNBA’s maximum salary this season and next, before Taurasi and Griner become unrestricted free agents in 2023. The Mercury also traded for All-Star Kia Nurse in February and have developed 2019 first-round pick Brianna Turner into a frontcourt mainstay.

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Skylar Diggins-Smith (Phoenix Mercury)

Between the roster continuity and on-court product, the Mercury have built one of the most loyal fan bases in the WNBA. They’ve finished in the top three for average fan attendance every year since 2013, per data from Across the Timeline, and they retained 96 percent of their season-ticket holders through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They’re hardcore, too,” Taurasi said of the fan base. “Some seasons have been rough and they’ll let you know about it, but there’s nothing like having fans that are invested emotionally and want their team to win.”

This year, Phoenix fans will get to enjoy the championship game of the WNBA’s inaugural Commissioner’s Cup, an in-season competition that awards $500,000 in prize money to the winning team. The final game will be held at Phoenix Suns Arena on Aug. 12 and streamed on Amazon Prime as part of the league’s new multi-year partnership with the platform.

To WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, having Phoenix host the first Cup championship is fitting as the league celebrates its 25th year.

Engelbert has been asked repeatedly about the possibility of expanding the WNBA beyond its current 12 teams to create more room for talented players. An organization like the Mercury, she says, represents the standards of success the league would be looking for in future teams.

“If you’re going to expand, you have to find markets where women’s basketball will be supported, where you can build a loyal fan base and, with appropriate investment, you can make it a very successful franchise,” Engelbert said. “That’s how we think about using the Mercury as a role model for how to build a franchise and sustain it for, now for them, 25 years.”

Taurasi has been an integral part of both the investment and the payoff during her 17 years in Phoenix. And for now, as the Mercury get set for their home opener against the Connecticut Sun on Friday night, she doesn’t see herself finishing her career anywhere else.

“I just think it’s a special place to be,” Taurasi said. “This organization is committed to the Mercury and to winning, and those are two things that I value very strongly, that loyalty.”

New Washington Spirit Head Coach Jonatan Giráldez Arrivin DC

head coach Jonatan Giráldez
Jonatan Giráldez joins the NWSL from FC Barcelona Femení. (Ramsey Cardy/UEFA via Getty Images)

Five months after announcing that the Washington Spirit had hired Barcelona Femení coach Jonatan Giráldez as the team's new head coach, Giráldez has joined the club in Washington, DC.

Giráldez is coming off of a successful season with the Spanish side, having won UEFA Women's Champions League, Copa de la Reina, Supercopa, and Liga F in his final season to complete a lauded Quadruple.

While Giráldez was finishing out his tenure in Europe, Adrián González filled in as Spirit interim head coach. González has also seen success, leading the team to its third-place standing with a 9-3-1 record through 13 games.

“I’m thrilled to join the Spirit and begin this next chapter with the club,” Giráldez said in an official team statement. “To be part of the vision Michele Kang has for the Spirit and women’s soccer globally is an exciting opportunity.”

Giráldez has worked at Barcelona since 2019, initially coming on as an assistant coach before moving up to head coach in 2021. The team went 30-0-0 on the season under Giráldez during his first year as manager.

He brings along with him Andrés González and Toni Gordo, who will serve as the Spirit's Fitness Coach and Club Analyst, respectively.

US Track & Field Olympic Trials Touch Down in Oregon

Sha’Carri Richardson competes in the women’s 200-meter preliminary round during the USATF Outdoor Championships
Sha’Carri Richardson will have some competition this week as athletes vie for an Olympic berth. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Track & Field Trials begin on June 21st, kicking off a 10-day quest to determine who will represent the US in Paris this summer.

The crucial meet will take place in Eugene, Oregon, where the top three finishers in each event will punch their ticket to the 2024 Olympics. As with this past week's US Swimming Trials, even the most decorated athletes must work to earn their spot — and one bad performance could undermine four years of preparation.

Reigning 100-meter World Champion Sha'Carri Richardson headlines this year's field, as the 24-year-old looks to qualify for her second Olympic Games and compete in her first. Richardson is a world champion in both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprint, but missed the Tokyo Olympics due to testing positive for THC shortly after the last US Olympic Trials.

Other standouts include 400-meter Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who's currently the most decorated athlete in the active women's US Track & Field pool. McLaughlin-Levrone qualified to run in the 200-meter and 400-meter flat races alongside the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials, but opted to focus solely on her signature event.

800-meter specialist Athing Mu will also be a huge draw this week, as the Olympic gold medalist looks to shake off a lingering hamstring injury while pursuing her second Summer Games. Gold medal-winning pole vaulter Katie Moon will also attempt to qualify for her second-straight Olympic Games.

Ole Miss star McKenzie Long could be Richardson's greatest competition in the 100-meter and 200-meter events, as well as Richardson's Worlds teammate Gabby Thomas in the 200-meter. In field events, watch for Oregon senior Jaida Ross going head-to-head with reigning world champion Chase Jackson in the shot put, as both push for their first Olympic team berth.

Regardless of why you tune in, the US Olympic Trials are a perpetually thrilling and sometimes brutal qualification process. If you're able to make your way to the head of the pack, a shot at Olympic glory might just be waiting at the finish line.

Fans can catch live coverage throughout the Trials via NBC, USA, and Peacock.

Top Teams Square Off in NWSL Weekend Slate

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda
Orlando Pride, led by forward Barbra Banda, will take on Utah in this weekend's NWSL action. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As the NWSL season continues, a few top-performing clubs will have a chance to boost their standings this weekend.

First-place Kansas City will travel to Providence Park to take on fifth-place Portland, as the Current look to keep their unbeaten streak intact. And in New Jersey, third-place Washington will take on fourth-place Gotham FC, with both teams attempting to extend multi-game unbeaten streaks.

A six-point gap has opened between the fifth and sixth spot on the NWSL table — with just six points also separating the league's top five. Kansas City, Orlando, Washington, Gotham, and Portland have recently proven themselves to be a cut above the rest of the competition. With eight postseason spots up for grabs and half the season behind us, a pattern is forming that indicates the playoff race could come down to spots six through eight on the NWSL table.

Of those top five teams, only Orlando faces an opponent in the bottom half of the league this weekend: The Pride will take on 14th-place Utah, who nonetheless are coming off a win — just their second of the season — over Bay FC last weekend.

But despite Kansas City and Orlando having yet to lose a game, Gotham might be the squad coming into the weekend with the most momentum.

Clutch goals from Rose Lavelle and rookie Maycee Bell gave the Bats a 2-0 midweek win over San Diego on Wednesday, in a rematch of the 2024 Challenge Cup. Gotham's unbeaten streak dates all the way back to April, as rising availability and sharpened form have honed this year's superteam into a contender.

Bottom line? As the NWSL season passes the halfway mark, some matches might begin to feel more like playoff previews than mere regular season battles.

Chelsea Gray Returns From Injury in Aces Win Over Seattle

las vegas aces chelsea gray and kelsey plum celebrate a win over the seattle storm
Gray has been sidelined with a foot injury since the 2023 WNBA Finals. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Chelsea Gray made her return to the basketball court on Wednesday, helping the Aces to a 94-83 win over the Seattle Storm. 

The lauded point guard missed the first 12 games of the season, having been injured in last year’s WNBA Finals. The left foot injury caused her to miss Game 4 of the championship series, and she’s continued to rehab it through the beginning of the 2024 season. 

Her return on Wednesday was capitalized by the fact that she needed just 20 seconds to make an impact and record her first assist. While she finished with just one point, she had seven assists, four rebounds, and two blocks to go alongside it in 15:30 minutes. Gray's contributions on the night brought her career assist record up to 1,500.

"I probably went through every emotion leading up to today," Gray said after the game. "I was a little anxious all day. It's been a long time since I've been out on that court. But the fans were amazing from the time I came out to warm up to the time I checked in the game. It was a rush and a feeling I missed a lot."

It’s been a roller coaster of a season so far for Las Vegas, who have lost five of their last seven games. Gray, who averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in 2023, has proven herself a much-needed addition to the team’s lineup.

"Felt like my heart," Aces coach Becky Hammon said when asked how she felt hearing the crowd erupt for Gray's return. "She's the leader of our team. I thought she did a wonderful job too."

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