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Around the Web: Would the rise of a Mercury Dynasty Help Elevate the WNBA’s Profile?

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It seems ironic that there is suddenly talk of a Phoenix Mercury dynasty at the end of a 2009 WNBA season that has been noted for its parity.

Yet when one professional sports franchise wins a championship twice in three years, dynasty talk is logical, if not inevitable.

Celebrating a Phoenix basketball championship| Valley of the Suns

Yes, a lighting fast, top-notch shooting basketball team won a championship last night in Phoenix, and that of course was the Phoenix Mercury, who may be on their way to a WNBA dynasty after winning their second title in three years.

Fans went berserk all around me, and it was kind of a shock to see fans get so excited over anything that happens in the WNBA. The crowd was loud, the fans around me were living and dying with every shot, and dare I say it, Game 5 of the WNBA Finals was one exciting basketball game.

With attendance, television ratings, and interest from male NBA fans on the rise, you have to wonder if adding the rise of a dynasty to the mix would create the perfect storm to elevate the WNBA to prominence. It could help people find a narrative to latch onto and become emotionally invested in rooting for the dynasty or waiting for its demise.

One could argue that a similar dynamic – the revival of an East-West rivalry – helped the NBA’s growth in the 1980’s.

Mercury 94, Fever 86 - For Mercury’s Taurasi, Trying Season Ends in Triumph -
These finals captured women’s basketball in the most flattering light. The series between the high-scoring Mercury and the defense-minded Fever was pixie dust for the league — the women’s equivalent of the N.B.A. finals in the 1980s between the Lakers and the Celtics, with Taurasi of the Mercury playing Magic Johnson to the Fever’s Tamika Catchings playing Larry Bird.

Of course, the NBA's renaissance coincided with a lot of new developments at once -- a change in leadership, which led to a change in marketing strategies to bring the world face to face with a set of charismatic (and anti-charismatic) personalities. It was a time of enormous contrast and, like it or not, people like conflict.

League-wide business aside, dynasties fundamentally depend on assembling good players.

Mercury Rising: Phoenix Wins Second WNBA Championship in Three Years -- NBA FanHouse
Eight months is a long time until the next season, the longest offseason in pro sports. As its players disperse to their overseas teams, Phoenix management can start to ponder its plan for a repeat, a plan that includes finding another big body inside, according to coach Corey Gaines. Taurasi, whose offseason is going to include the legal fallout of her drunk-driving arrest in July, said re-signing Australian forward Penny Taylor should be the No. 1 priority. "Repeating is hard," said Taurasi, who has been able to do it both at Connecticut and as an Olympic gold medalist. "Expectations, that us-against-the-world mentality, which obviously, we didn't have last summer (when the Mercury missed the postseason after their 2007 title). But now we can look back on that experience and not let it happen again."

One obvious thing the Mercury has going for them is that their four player core -- from this season and 2007 -- should remain intact.

Mercury have chance to go back-to-back
A team that finished 30-15 overall and has the same core of players - Diana Taurasi, Cappie Pondexter, Tangela Smith and Penny Taylor - when it won it all in 2007. It's a team that should have its core intact for another title run next season.

Keeping to the present though, this is a pretty special time for the WNBA and women's sports.

Rutgers' Pondexter Earns Second WNBA Championship
"I hoped we showed how competitive we are as women and that it’s not about flashiness and not being able to play above the rim but (showed) our heart and determination," said Pondexter in the post-game press conference.

Perhaps the most important thing for the league right now is that people are starting to acknowledge that the women's game is a similar, yet different entity than the men's game and can be appreciated as such.

Celebrating a Phoenix basketball championship| Valley of the Suns
In recent weeks, I’ve made the connection about the Mercury proving that a basketball team can win a championship in Seven Seconds or Less, so to speak, but now I wonder if that’s the difference between the men’s and women’s games. Speed and skill is the name of the game in women’s basketball, winning over size and muscle. As the Suns have found out in recent years, that’s not exactly the case in the NBA. Still, I was overly impressed with the Mercury tonight. They made a play on offense every time they needed to, and Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter are stars’ stars. I do certainly wonder if this year’s WNBA playoffs and WNBA Finals will spark a bit of a revival in the game. Let’s be honest, the WNBA has been more than an afterthought pretty much since its inception to all but the most diehard of fans. But after seeing the Mercury sell out Game 5 (with a little help from the Suns’ captains) and Indiana’s fans come out in full force, it feels like the perception of the game is changing little by little.

However, the other side of that coin is coaching the players as players, not patronizing them as women.

Taurasi finishes 'up and down' season in triumph |
"When I first started coaching in the WNBA coach Westhead, who is my mentor — who we owe this championship to as much as him being here right now — he told me, 'We're going to coach the players as players, not women, ball players'" Gaines said. "And it's funny how they embraced it because they enjoyed being treated that way. Instead of being treated as women basketball players, we treat them as ball players."

The television ratings for the WNBA Finals would seem to imply that people are coming to appreciate them as ball players as well. However, Thomas Umstead makes an interesting point about sports television ratings.

Sports Gets Ratings Game On - Picture This | Blog on Multichannel News
During a recent industry luncheon, I overheard a lively discussion between two cable-sports executives regarding the reasons behind the knockout ratings live sports telecasts have generated for cable so far this fall. One exec said sports, unlike any other genre, provides unique, unscripted and in-your-face home-entertainment value to consumers looking to maximize their leisure dollars in a still-weak economic environment. His counterpart pointed to the unique value of live sports in what has become a very time-shifted, digital-video-recorder-heavy TV environment. While their reasons differed, there’s no debating that sports programming is a hot commodity with cable viewers.

If sports television ratings are up across the board, then what does that really say for the WNBA? Is it growing in popularity or is this just fools gold, destined to come back down to normal at some point?

With the amount of positivity surrounding the WNBA right now, it seems unlikely to be a mirage. But we'll see how things go next season.