Commentary

Griner's popularity reels in fans

Updated: June 26, 2013, 11:08 AM ET
By Michelle Smith | espnW.com

PHOENIX -- It's more than two hours before tipoff at U.S. Airways Center on Memorial Day, and a Phoenix Mercury staff member is erecting a banner of Brittney Griner that shows the exact physical dimensions of her height and wingspan and the size of her hands and feet.

Immediately after he is done, a group of kids rush over and put their hands and feet up against the banner to compare.

The big girl is a big deal here.

[+] EnlargeBrittney Griner
Barry Gossage/Getty ImagesBrittney Griner's ability to dunk is just one of the reasons fans are drawn to her game.

Go outside to the corner on East Jefferson Street in front of the arena, and there are signs over the existing street signs that read "Griner Street," and her likeness is dangled on a 75-foot banner off the side of the nearby Hotel Palomar.

Inside the arena, workers have the power tools out as players begin pregame warm-ups, installing another row of courtside seats to meet ticket demand. Meanwhile, Griner is taking pictures with more than half a dozen groups that bought blocks of tickets for the season opener against the Chicago Sky.

Let's just call it the "Griner Effect."

"She smiled, she talked to people, and it was a lot, much more than we usually ask the players to do," Mercury public relations director Rebecca Clark said. "And she was happy to do it. There are times I feel bad asking her to do one more thing, and she just rolls with it."

The moment the Mercury drafted the 6-foot-8 phenomenon with the most heralded No. 1 pick in WNBA history, there was a seismic shift, not only in Phoenix, but around the league. Griner's presence has spiked interest, ticket sales, media requests and excitement, putting large demands on the 22-year-old Texan.

"It's probably been more than I imagined," Griner said. "I didn't really know what to expect, honest, but everything has been great."

The Mercury and the WNBA would probably agree on this point.

"We all know there's a very bright spotlight on her and there's a lot expected of her," Mercury team president Amber Cox said. "But when she steps out on the court, we want her to know that she doesn't have to do it all."

As Phoenix prepares to play its first home game since Memorial Day -- against Los Angeles on Friday -- the points of impact can already be quantified.

•  Phoenix's full season ticket sales are up 39 percent over 2012, and ticket package revenue is already above what it was in 2010, the season after the Mercury won their second title.

[+] EnlargeGriner guys
Michelle SmithBrittney Griner is bringing more fans, of both genders, to the WNBA.

•  All of the front-row sideline and press-row courtside seats are sold out.

•  Group ticket sales are 33 percent ahead of last year.

•  Single-game tickets for the season opener produced the largest revenue for a regular-season game since 1998.

•  On the Web, during the week of the WNBA draft, traffic on PhoenixMercury.com was greater than 10 NBA teams and the highest since the 2007 WNBA Finals.

•  In the 36 hours after the draft, time spent on the team website was equivalent to one person being on the site for 24 hours for 72 straight days.

•  The season opener versus Chicago had the highest viewership for a WNBA regular-season game on ESPN2 since July 11, 2004.

•  The week of the draft, the Mercury and Griner totaled more than 250 million media impressions.

•  On the day of the season opener, the team issued more media credentials than it had since the 2009 WNBA Finals.

Outside of Phoenix, the ripples are also being felt. Teams around the league are marketing their games with the Phoenix Mercury with extra fervor and generating interest from fans and media. Griner's trip around the WNBA will play out like a rock star on tour.

Since the moment she was drafted in April, Griner has been on a public-relations whirlwind, first through New York, attending a game at Yankee Stadium, and then in Phoenix. She played in a charity softball game held by Arizona Cardinals star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald on one of her first days in town. A late add to the celebrity roster, she received some of the loudest cheers.

"I think it was Brittney, Larry and Snoop Dog," Clark said. "People have been so excited to see her. I walked to a car with her on the street last week, and she was surrounded by people who wanted pictures and autographs. People stop her all the time as she's walking around. It's crazy, but it's exciting."

The demands on Griner have slowed since the season started as the team looks to give its rookie a chance to adjust to life as a professional basketball player.

"I'm still keeping pretty busy, but now I get to play ball, so that makes everything a little bit better," Griner said. "Not that it was bad before, but I'm happy to be hooping now."

Clark, Cox and media relations director Bret Burchard are monitoring the requests from newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet closely, stemming the constant flow by sometimes saying no.

"We've told her that communication is key," Cox said. "I've told her that she needs to tell us when too much is too much. We have turned down some things locally, keeping focused on the things that will have the biggest impact. We are all still figuring out what makes the most sense."

Griner, for her part, remains perpetually willing. In the early days of her pro career, she has put herself out in the public eye, openly discussing her sexuality and pledging her commitment to anti-bullying efforts.

Meanwhile, though a sprained knee kept her out of Saturday's game versus Indiana, she is acclimating to WNBA basketball and her new teammates. Her teammates understand the attention Griner is getting and will continue to be supportive, Cox said.

"Diana Taurasi gets it," said Mercury vice president Ann Meyers Drysdale, who had her own experience with hype has a young player, first during her All-American career at UCLA and then in her historic tryout with the Indiana Pacers. "The veterans who have been around understand how important this is to the league that we bring in new fans and interest."

The Mercury and the WNBA certainly hope people will come to see Griner, and then stay for high-quality basketball.

"It's an opportunity for all of us to bring in a new fan base," Cox said. "I believe that's going to be her biggest impact."

Michelle Smith

Contributor, espnW.com

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