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Mercury faces unique challenge with Taurasi opting out of season

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story said Vince Kozar is the Mercury’s vice president of marketing operations. The correct title for Kozar is vice president of operations. The story below has been revised to reflect the correct information.

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Most championship teams expect a bump in attendance the year following a title run but the Phoenix Mercury face a possible drop after winning the 2014 WNBA Championship.

That’s because the Mercury will be without their franchise player, WNBA Finals MVP Diana Taurasi, who is sitting out the 2015 WNBA season. UMMC Ekaterinburg of the Russian Premier League, Taurasi’s winter club, has offered to pay the guard to rest for an offseason for the first time in her 11-year career.

Between her professional contracts and playing for USA Basketball, Taurasi has played year-round since beginning her WNBA career in 2004.

Phoenix led the WNBA in attendance at 9,557 per game while league-average attendance was 7,578.

Vince Kozar, the Mercury’s vice president of operations, has a solid backup plan to keep the turnstiles moving at US Airways Center.

“If Diana is the most marketable face in the game, we have the second-most marketable face in the game, too,” Kozar said.

He is referring to third-year center Brittney Griner, the top overall pick in 2013 and possibly the best center in the league.

She’s the only WNBA player to dunk twice in a game and is also known as one of the most visible openly gay athletes in the sports world.

“(Griner) brings people who like the way she plays because she does things a lot of female athletes can’t do,” Kozar said, adding, “She’s a big advocate of anti-bullying and obviously equality in a lot of different ways.”

Pamela Stewart, an avid Mercury fan, didn’t consider giving up her season tickets because she supports the team and league.

“I’m a fan of the WNBA and the Mercury for reasons that maybe some people aren’t,” Stewart said. “For me, this is also about issues of equality.”

W.P. Carey School of Business professor John Eaton is the faculty advisor for Arizona State’s Sports Business Association. He’s also attended a handful of Mercury games and said the experience was different from NBA games, which Eaton believes are more focused on individual stars.

“The WNBA seems to be more of a social gathering, more connective,” he said. “This type of move might be more impactful in the NBA.”

Taurasi’s salary with the Mercury is near the WNBA maximum of $109,500 but that’s nowhere near the reported $1.5 million she makes from UMMC Ekaterinburg.

She’s not alone in cashing in abroad; ESPN the Magazine reports Griner makes $600,000 in China while her contract for the Mercury is under $50,000.

Sports consultant Marc Ganis believes the league will persevere with its support from the more lucrative NBA.

“I don’t view this as any sort of mortal blow for the WNBA,” he said, but added, “When you lose the best player, it’ll reduce the quality of competition.”

Eaton, however, thinks this could be an issue for the WNBA.

““That can’t be a long-term business model if international teams are willing to pay above market value for the players to sit out,” he said.

The WNBA may be under the NBA’s umbrella but teams are also dependent on local sponsorships. Eaton said the Mercury may have to restructure some of those sponsorships because Taurasi’s absence is not injury-related.

Arizona Public Service electric company is one sponsor steadfast in its support.

“We wish Diana Taurasi nothing but the best this year and we look forward to being a part of all the excitement the Mercury will bring this season and in the future,” APS spokesperson Anna Haberlein said in a statement.

Soccer and women’s basketball are the two most-widely played sports in the United States that offer more lucrative options abroad. Though soccer has its own unique inter-league loan market, the idea of a player holding contracts with two teams simultaneous is distinct to women’s basketball.

Even if the WNBA wanted to make changes to keep its players, that’d be difficult. The league and WNBPA negotiated the current collective bargaining agreement prior to the 2014 season. It runs through 2021.

If this move works for Taurasi, more players could follow suit, said Eaton, and potentially take multiple summers off throughout their basketball-packed careers.

“What a great gig to have somebody pay you not to play,” he said.