What was billed by the Mercury as the "biggest news in franchise history" has turned out to be a sponsorship deal with a Tempe, AZ based identity theft protection company that will net the team at least $1 million per year according to the New York Times.
The "Mercury" across the front of the jersey will reportedly be replaced by the corporate sponsor's name.
This deal can only be good for the Mercury and the WNBA who like most sports teams are expected see a decline in sponsorship and ticket revenues with this down economy. Potentially more impactful if this catches on, could be the funding increase needed to elevate the WNBA to the premier women's basketball league.
Most WNBA players, including Mercury stars Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter, currently play in the "off season" for European or Asian teams where they are able to make significantly more money then the $97,500 max player salary in the U.S.
American fans aren't used to having their leagues play second fiddle, but that is exactly the case here as the higher salaries attract the best players even if it means spending 7 months in Moscow.
The difference isn't fan interest or ticket sales either as most of the European leagues average about 3,000 fans while the Mercury's attendance last year was over 8,000 per game. The difference is the corporate sponsorships for those teams.
Sports is entertainment and it is business. We have a notion in this country that is somehow "pure" (at least outside of NASCAR) and like to pretend that there is a connection between the professional game and our experiences on youth teams or playground pick up games. That is like comparing a 4th grade school play to a Hollywood movie.
Professional sports is a business and if it can be more successful by selling jersey sponsorships then why not. I would only hope that at some point they use the additional revenue to pay the women better which will increase the quality of the
Suns CEO Rick Welts in the NY Time article seems to see it this way.
"The rest of the world considers this business as usual and assumes this is the way professional sports teams market," Welts said. He said he was not worried about critics of LifeLock's name on the Mercury's jerseys. "I'm sure some unenlightened 50-year-old white male sports-talk radio host will think this is a sign of the apocalypse," he said.
It is worth noting that the salary for the entire Mercury roster is capped at $803k for 2009 so this deal pays all the players salaries and then some.
For the Phoenix Suns, who own the Mercury, this will surely help alleviate at least a small portion of the financial stress that the team is facing. Unless a significant roster move is made, the Suns will pay about $10m in luxury tax and like most teams are facing a decline in season ticket renewals.
To put the size of this 3 year sponsorship agreement in perspective, Shaquille O'Neal will make $21 million next season. Perhaps he should consider paying to have his name across the front of a WNBA team's jersey.
The question now is, what's next.
For the WNBA and other "non-major" leagues this is a win-win for fans and athletes alike. For the big three men's leagues who already operate with huge budgets that allow many marginal players to get ginormous contracts the prospect of even more money seems to be a step back.
If more corporate sponsorship at the NBA lead to an increase in support for the D-league and the expansion of opportunity for players outside the top tier then I am all for it. If plastering the logo of a company across the front of an NBA team only leads to more $35m contracts for Ricky Davis then forget it.