October 1, 2021
The Phoenix Mercury can’t play in their home arena, and here’s why
Complicated factors at work, but change is possible
When the Phoenix Mercury take the floor as the home team for Game 3 of the WNBA Semifinals on Sunday, they’ll be doing so once again at a Phoenix-area arena that is not their usual downtown home.
The Mercury will play Game 3 of the WNBA Semifinals on Oct. 3 at Arizona State’s Desert Financial Arena because the Footprint Center, their usual downtown home, is hosting the final day of four days of Disney on Ice shows. And as one of two Mercury players who has been in this position multiple times before, Brittney Griner definitely is feeling some exasperation.
“Yeah, it’s very fucking frustrating, honestly,” Griner said. “Why can we not play in our own arena? Did we think that we weren’t going to make playoffs? Why is that concert that more important than the Phoenix Mercury playing on our home court in our arena? You know, that’s sad.”
And with the win in Game 2 of the WNBA Semifinals on Thursday, it evens the series at one and guarantees the Mercury will host Game 4 of the semifinals, something they hadn’t been able to know was going to happen ahead of Game 3 in their three previous trips to the semifinals in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
That puts a whole bunch of extra logistics for the Mercury front office and staffers to work through, but Mercury president Vince Kozar said they’re ready for that.
“We welcome the challenge, right? It’s not coming home down 0-2. Having tied up series, knowing we’re going to have our guaranteed two home games in this round, that’s all we could ask for,” Kozar said. “So they did their job; now it’s time for us to do ours.”
But the Mercury would have had to play Game 4 away from downtown, too, until a preseason NBA game between the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers was moved to 3 p.m. Pacific Time. Absent that, Game 4 would have been at ASU’s Desert Financial Arena on Wednesday.
The league’s official schedule of playoff dates, times and venues did not specify where Game 4 would take place, and sources tell The Next that the complication is due, in large part, to the Lakers’ unwilling to move the preseason game they plan on televising on their Spectrum Sportsnet channel. The Lakers had not replied to a request for comment at the time of publication.
Phoenix’s history of venue issues
In the first 19 years of the WNBA, when the playoffs were broken up into best-of-three conference semifinals and finals before a best-of-five WNBA Finals, every single Mercury playoff home game was played in their downtown arena.
Since the switch to the single-elimination first and second rounds before best-of-five semifinals and finals, though, this has become a near annual issue.
In 2016, the Mercury’s only home playoff game was a loss on their home floor to the Minnesota Lynx, which ended the series in a Minnesota sweep. Had the Mercury forced a Game 4, that game would have been played at Grand Canyon University Arena because of a Sia concert downtown.
But that ended up foreshadowing the issues they’d consistently face going forward. In both 2017 and 2018, the Mercury hosted first-round games at Arizona State’s gymnasium, then called Wells Fargo Arena, because of concert conflicts downtown. When they reached the semifinals in both years, they played back in downtown, too.
But after losing their one playoff game on the road in 2019 and playing neutral-site playoff games in the bubble in 2020, 2021 has brought arena issues back to the front of everyone’s mind in and around Phoenix. The Mercury’s first-round playoff game in 2021 was moved to GCU Arena on Sept. 23 because of a concert by Colombian pop singer Maluma. And now, Game 3 of the semifinals is being moved for Disney on Ice.
“I think this year is sort of just a confluence of a bunch of events that have made this made this even more prevalent than it’s ever been for us before,” Kozar said.
In total, Sunday’s game will be the seventh playoff home game that the Mercury will have hosted in Phoenix in the last five years, but it will be the fourth game they will be playing away from the Footprint Center. That means that for Diana Taurasi and Griner, the two longest-tenured Mercury players, they will have played in more playoff home games in the Phoenix area away from their normal home arena than actually in the arena — and Wednesday’s Game 4 would have made that 5-for-8.
But to Kozar, the change to the playoff format is, by far, the biggest factor that has impacted arena scheduling. While the format has allowed for excitement throughout the entire regular season, it hampers the ability for arenas to block out dates and times, uncertain of whether they will host a first-round game in a few days, a second-round game or the beginning of the semifinals — and this can change up until the final day of the season, as it almost did for Phoenix this year.
“it’d be easy to say the biggest issue is that the challenge is choosing between Event A — a concert or a family show or whatever — and the Mercury game,” Kozar said. “But the bigger challenge, I think, is a lot of times it’s worth the choices between those events, and perhaps nothing, because the of the playoff setup. We’re not guaranteed to play those games, so that it really does become a challenge in the scheduling piece.”
This season, the Mercury were still technically alive for a double bye all the way to the WNBA Semifinals until the third-to-last day of the regular season and would have had a single bye to the second round if they had beaten the Storm in Seattle on Sept. 17. Had the Mercury won that game, they had the Footprint Center reserved and ready for a home second-round playoff game.
And the impending Disney on Ice show that is sending the Mercury to a new venue for Sunday is one that’s been booked since December 2019 and was only shifted to this date because of the coronavirus pandemic. For the organization, which has a longstanding working relationship with Disney on Ice, a weekend with Disney on Ice typically means multiple shows per weekend day, and this year they’re squeezing seven shows out of four days: one Thursday and Friday, three on Saturday and two on Sunday.
It surely isn’t ideal, but it is understandable, in this specific season.
“This year in particular has been a combination of a lot of factors — the challenging schedule, COVID. But it’s also just been some unfortunate luck.”
The players understand the business side of things, too, with Taurasi saying, “I know it’s about the money. Business is business. I get it.”
Phoenix players frustrated but ready for the challenge
The Mercury players completely understand this themselves, too, and Griner pointed out that the structure of seeding the teams in the WNBA playoffs allows for the best teams to play their way out of needing the arena in the early rounds.
“We can blame the format and we can blame all that, but we did this to ourselves,” Griner said on Sept. 23 prior to the first-round game. “We’re in the single elimination. We could be sitting at home, waiting to play. So now we have to fight and we have to do it on GCU’s campus. It’s a nice campus, a nice arena and thank you for having us, GCU. I appreciate that. But I wish we could play at home.”
Of course, playing the first-round game at GCU Arena and its capacity of 7,000 allowed for it to feel much fuller than Phoenix gets in the 18,422 capacity Footprint Center. But the Mercury have consistently filled the lower bowl of the Footprint Center for years and are one of three teams (Los Angeles and Minnesota) to have multiple seasons of an average attendance above 10,000 fans.
At a time when other teams around the WNBA are finding smaller, more intimate environments to play in, the Mercury’s raucous X-factor fan base makes the large Footprint Center frequently feel like a small gym. And that’s something the players really appreciate — and, from her experience as an opponent in these matchups, Diggins-Smith knows it can head to a different arena in the Valley of the Sun, too.
“Did they think we were going to make the playoffs? But I get how businesses work; I’m a businesswoman as well,” Diggins-Smith said on Sept. 28. “Unfortunately, it sucks that we can’t play in our brand-new facility, but it is what it is. You’ve got to control the controllables in this league, and there’s so many factors that come into play.
“For me, I don’t give a damn where we play. I know the X-factor is going to show up and show out for us, so I’m looking forward to that.”
Taurasi added, “I mean, it’s disappointing. We take this very serious. To have to go and basically play in a visiting arena again, it’s disappointing, it’s frustrating. And at the same time, it’s a challenge. To be able to go to GCU and embrace that fan base that came out, which was the X-factor with some Grand Canyon Antelopes, that was fun at the same time. At ASU, we’ve had that great support from their student body that comes to the games. It gives it a different flavor.
“But to have a brand-new arena sitting there and we can’t play in it, that’s disappointing.”
Perhaps the most intriguing statistic for the Mercury is that the team is undefeated so far in games played at other Phoenix venues. They’ve won all three of the first-round games they hosted at either ASU or GCU, though in all three, they were the fifth-seeded team hosting the eighth seed in all three contests — and barely escaped with a 1-point win over New York this year.
The one negative that’s occurred each time they’ve changed venues? The crowd attending the Mercury game is significantly smaller than what the Mercury averaged for that season downtown. Perhaps that’s been tied to other issues, like the quick turnaround from the final regular season game to a midweek first-round game, but the drop-off was significant each time.
Perhaps a Sunday afternoon game with bring a big crowd, even to a different arena than usual. But in their four WNBA semifinal games they’ve played at home since 2016, they’ve average 11,249 fans per game, highlighted by 15,185 people showing up for Game 3 of the 2018 semifinals to see a 20-point Mercury win over the Storm. Desert Financial Arena’s capacity is 14,100.
For this Sunday in particular, Kozar said he fully expects to have a full lower bowl at Desert Financial Arena and believes that the Mercury’s excellent play in Game 2 will inspire fans to come spend their Sunday afternoon watching the game.
“Anyone who watched last night’s game — actually the first two games, but definitely last night’s game — sees that this is a series that you want to see that you want to watch in person and that our team is a team that you want to come out and support,” Kozar said.
How to fix this in the future
Now, arena issues aren’t uncommon around the WNBA. But given that the Mercury are co-owned and co-operated with the Phoenix Suns, 2021 has proven to be a stark contrast in how the two basketball teams are treated when it comes to games.
This year, the Mercury had two regular-season home games get shifted by a day to accommodate the Suns’ playoff games, and the second shift (moving the July 2 game against Minnesota to July 3) was done for a potential Game 7 in the NBA’s Western Conference Finals that was not needed in the end.
When asked if there was an added level of frustration over the differences between the two teams or if her time with the organization made those differences make sense to her, Griner acknowledged that is something she’s accepted as part of the status quo.
“We’re going to be the ones they have to move around. It’s our season, we got to do the moving. That’s just us,” Griner said. “It’s sad to say, but unless you’ve got something between your legs, you’re not high priority. They wouldn’t move the fucking Suns to GCU for a playoff game. They’d figure out a way to move that concert. You know?”
As much as that can irritate players and fans, these instances are actually built directly into the WNBA schedule for teams that share venues with NBA teams. According to Kozar, when the WNBA schedule is released, the teams who share buildings with NBA counterparts — the Indiana Fever, Los Angeles Sparks, New York Liberty and Phoenix — have a contingency date automatically attached to the WNBA game.
“We knew before our season even started, before the Suns playoffs even started, if there was a game that day, we knew exactly where our game was going to move to, we knew exactly the time and our building was reserved for that for exactly that reason,” Kozar said.
When hearing that, the immediate question I had for Kozar: Can that work to do for the WNBA schedule, too? Kozar thinks things like that are absolutely on the table for the WNBA playoffs going forward.
“Part of improvement in the long haul is recognizing challenges and finding ways to improve from that,” Kozar said. “What we all see is that the W has grown, and the platform and stature of the W has grown. It’s represented in the playoffs, having every game on national TV. What that is going to mean for us is maybe the status quo, or how we’ve always approached it, maybe isn’t going to be the best way to approach it going forward.
“That doesn’t mean we’re ever going to be able to say, for an entire four-to-six week period, no other event can be scheduled at our arena. But what it does mean is that perhaps we can be a little more strategic with single events, and we can continue to try to get us more lead time with the playoff dates and hold as many as we can.”
There are, clearly, so many things that appear to impact these situations. Kozar points out that the Olympics and FIBA World Championships allow for extremely little consistency on the WNBA schedule year-by-year, making some playoffs feel extremely accelerated and some end up being spread out a little more. Kozar made note that the Mercury won their third WNBA championship back in 2014 on Sept. 12 — a date that passed this year with a week of the regular season left to go.
As the league finishes its 25th season, there has been plenty of chatter about changing the league’s playoff format in some way, shape or form, and expansion appears to be a “when, not if” situation for the league soon.
But for arena operators like the Phoenix front office, who need to schedule events over a year in advance, there are times when trying to block off nights for WNBA playoff games can be like playing an extremely difficult game of darts — where you’re throwing at a dartboard that isn’t marked and you’re not exactly sure where to aim your dart. You think you know where to aim, but the board isn’t always in the same place.
“That is the shifting calendar is a difficult proposition,” Kozar said. “But again, it’s not something that we can’t get better.”