The presence of Griner, Delle Donne and Diggins — and the considerable attention they accumulated during illustrious college careers — also helped persuade ESPN in March to extend its contract with the WNBA through 2022 for $12 million annually. The network televised the league’s draft lottery for the first time last fall and moved the 2013 draft into prime time in April.
But skeptics remain, especially because six of the WNBA’s 12 teams saw attendance drop by double-digit percentages last year. Griner’s recent appearances in Minnesota, Indiana and Tulsa had a negligible impact on attendance, and the Mystics are not expecting a larger-than-average crowd Thursday night at Verizon Center.
“These players have to deliver now. They’ve got the public eye, the spotlight is on them, and now they just have to step up and perform,” former WNBA president Val Ackerman said. “If they turn out to be ordinary players, then this kind of fanfare won’t last.
“In the end, it’s about the stars. These were college stars. The question is will they be pro stars.”
Griner’s acclimation to the WNBA has featured some obstacles, including a sore knee that limited her playing time early this season. She was averaging 15.3 points, six rebounds and 2.9 blocks in seven games entering Tuesday night’s game in San Antonio.
Since the season began, the Mercury (4-4 entering Tuesday) has also scaled back her obligations and turned its promotional focus more toward veteran guard Diana Taurasi — a five-time WNBA all-star — and the rest of Griner’s teammates. Though there is a 75-foot banner of Griner hanging over the recently renamed Griner Street outside U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix, Cox was quick to point out, “This is Diana’s team.”
That seems to suit Griner just fine. With her “media circus” over, she can admit that saving the WNBA was never really in her plans.
“I think I can help add on to the game, just bring maybe a different element playing above the rim. The dunking that I do and the blocked shots that I get, it brings excitement,” Griner said. “I don’t look at it as me changing the game or changing the league, but adding on excitement.”