PHOENIX – Home is even more fun when it takes a while to get there.
After playing every post-season game outside of their usual arena, today the Phoenix Mercury is poised to play the nighttime end of an unprecedented doubleheader with the Phoenix Suns at Footprint Center. The Mercury, who took a 2-1 lead against the Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA’s best-of-five semifinals, can advance to the championship round with a win.
The rare double with the Suns comes after a series of events and circumstances sparked debate over the fairness of planning in the WNBA and the treatment of the Mercury in particular.
The Mercury played their first playoff game — a single-elimination game against the New York Liberty — at the Grand Canyon University arena on Sept. 23 as a concert was previously scheduled for the same night at Footprint, the team’s downtown home. . Over a week later, the Mercury Game 2 of the semifinals against the Aces at Desert Financial Arena in Tempe hosted Footprint having booked a conflicting Disney on Ice event.
Mercury president Vince Kozar knows the optics are bad, but it was clear that the scheduling issues and location changes weren’t meant to disappoint the team.
“The WNBA playoffs create a very unique schedule challenge because the first two rounds are a single elimination,” said Kozar. “If you want to plan something like a play-off game, you’re not talking about simply choosing one event over another, you’re weighing the risk of choosing no event over another.
“If you combine that challenge with what time on the calendar we can get those (play-off) dates, (and) how far in advance concerts, events and family shows are scheduled, which is 15 to 18 months in a normal year, and in a COVID year we are talking about rescheduling events that have been planned for two years or more, it just created a perfect firestorm where what would have been our first two playoff games had conflict in our arena.”
The Mercury was unable to move playoff dates because the WNBA playoffs are broadcast nationally on ESPN. Timeslots for national television are immovable, as ESPN has other programs to consider.
“If you try to shift one live show, you affect other live shows. It’s just not realistic,” Kozar said. “It’s like throwing darts at a dartboard to figure out exactly what dates to plan. We’re really just trying to save Windows.”
The idea of reserving playoff date windows is a guessing game at best. For example, if the Mercury defeated the Seattle Storm on September 17, the team would have won a first-round bye and would not have played its first playoff game until September 26.
There was no scheduling conflict at Footprint that day.
Kozar said the post-season situation for the Mercury is not ideal and will present numerous challenges, but the organization is willing to move forward and discuss changes to be made after the season.
“I think in the future we’ll probably try to avoid giving up a week-long period of dates (for events like Disney on Ice). That could definitely help,” he says. “We also continue to look at the possibilities of getting data as early as possible, storing a range of data. Not meeting the challenges of rescheduling concerts due to COVID will certainly help too.
“And then look, maybe there should be a discussion about the play-off format itself. We’ve been in this league for 25 seasons, we’ve made the playoffs dozens of times, and we never had to move a game until the playoff format changed. We certainly can’t promise it will never happen again. But we can very consciously try to avoid it in the future.”
‘It means the world to us’
The WNBA changed the format of the playoffs for the 2016 season. The team had no problems scheduling the first season, but did in the next two playoff runs.
In 2017 and 2018, Mercury hosted first-round games at ASU’s arena, then known as Wells Fargo Arena, due to concerts scheduled at the team’s downtown home. The Mercury lost on the road in 2019 and played in a neutral bubble in 2020, so this postseason is the first in three seasons where scheduling conflicts arose and sparked debate among WNBA fans.
Wednesday will be a full day at Footprint Center, with the Suns’ preseason game against the Los Angeles Lakers at 3 p.m. MST. Four hours later, the Mercury face the Aces in Game 4, with a chance to score a ticket to the Finals.
This setup is what Kozar called a “very unique, very unprecedented doubleheader”.
Brianna Turner, the Mercury forward who became the third player in franchise history to rack up at least 20 points and 15 rebounds in a playoff game on Sunday, said the Mercury should play the later game on Wednesday.
“It kind of makes sense. They’re in the preseason and we’re in the playoffs,” Turner said. “It just makes sense. That’s how it should be.”
The organizations, which are both owned by Robert Sarver, always intended to play a doubleheader if Mercury’s playoff games coincided with a Suns preseason game, Kozar said.
“To be honest, this has always been the intention. A few years ago, the Mercury just didn’t win enough races in those seasons to make it come alive,” Kozar said. “It took a lot of people to come to the table to make sacrifices and make this compromise. But what was really heartwarming is that everyone wanted to take us where we needed to be. Everyone wanted to make sure that if the Mercury played a semi-final at home, we were playing on our own home floor in our own home arena.
Mercury observatory Diana Taurasi said Tuesday it means a lot to the team to take the Suns’ game to the next level.
“It’s all about care, right? You can talk about money and business, but if someone cares about something, they are willing to do something to turn the tide,” Taurasi said. “It’s one thing to be caring and actually take action. It means the world to us. It really does.”
The Suns’ support for the Mercury is evident and extends from ownership and executives to star players like Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Jae Crowder and JaVale McGee, all of whom took to the field on Sunday in the Mercury’s victory.
“When they say they support us, when they say they believe in this, when they say they want to show up for our athletes, just like our athletes showed up for them in the playoffs. That’s authentic. That’s real,’ Kozar said.
Kozar added that the organization expects most, if not all, of the Suns players on Wednesday, as well as some Lakers players.
In addition to the players, Kozar expects many fans to continue following the Suns’ game to support the Mercury. Kozar said the organization has made tickets available to Suns fans as a thank you for their support, and those tickets have “flown off the shelves.”
Is there a group that will definitely be there? The X-Factor, Mercury’s superfan base that never seems to waver in its support. Even with the location changes, the super fans have still made their presence felt.
“That doesn’t stop them from sitting in their seats, arriving early, waving their rally towel and being as hard as possible for their team. That’s just how they are. They’ve always been like that,’ Kozar said. “They are family to this organization. They are the lifeblood of this organization. They are the reason we have been around for 25 years.”