When Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter go against San Antonio in an opening round WNBA playoff game Thursday, you won't see "Phoenix" or "Mercury" on their uniform jersey tops, except for the small team logo. Instead, you'll see "LifeLock."
Going into the playoffs, the Mercury and stars Taurasi and Pondexter are entering as the team to beat. The pair are the league's top two scorers, leading the club to the WNBA's best regular season record at 23-11. As the games tip off on ESPN2 -- the Washington Mystics made it and will host Indiana Thursday night at 7 -- the playoffs again will give the WNBA a much needed boost of television exposure after playing its regular during idle summer months.
Since June, Mercury uniforms have been adorned with the LifeLock name, a Tempe, AZ identity theft prevention company. The Mercury are even selling the jerseys that way at the WNBA online store, part of a multi-year marketing partnership with LifeLock. To boot, when existing jerseys with the Mercury name on the front are sold out, only those LifeLock ones will be available.
No other American sports team has gone so far as to actually place the name of a sponsor on its uniform instead of the team name.
Agreed, in an age where sponsorships provide key operating revenue to sports franchises, no league needs the money more than the WNBA. And today they name stadiums after companies, such as M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore and the Washington Redskins' FedEx Field. The Wizards in the NBA and the Mystics, of course, play at DC's Verizon Center. Look at the sponsors plastered on the racing attire of NASCAR drivers.
But on the jersey of an American professional sports team? Call it old-fashioned, but such is hard to fathom for some sports fans. The Mercury-LifeLock deal gives all WNBA season ticket holders a one-year complimentary membership valued at $110, among other benefits. Is that a win-win?
NBA Commissioner David Stern praised the deal as "groundbreaking" for the cash-strapped WNBA, signaling we can see others. But would Stern allow LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal to wear "Campbell's Soup Cavaliers" jerseys?
Why not go ahead and put the "Comfort Inn Cowboys" on the front of Tony Romo's America's Team jersey. Shucks, before Oprah Winfrey became a billionaire, she worked in television in the Baltimore media market. She has as much cash as some major corporations. How about the "Oprah Orioles." Why not the "Radio Shack Redskins"?
In justifying the deal, Mercury officials noted that European sports clubs regularly put the names of sponsors on uniforms. (Weak argument. This is America.) It is one thing to put a sponsor's name, logo or likeness on banners, courtside chairs, warm ups or gym bags, but it seems a stretch for the jersey top worn during competition. The uniform should be sacrosanct.
Sports still is supposed to be about the purity of the competition. Professional sports, too. Isn't that why Pete Rose is banned from the Hall of Fame and Shoeless Joe Jackson is one of sports' most infamous figures?
How about some what ifs? If a sponsor has a bad financial quarter, would the sponsor try to influence the competition on the court for "corporate reasons"? And what lengths would a money-hungry franchise go to to keep the sponsor's name on the jersey?
Photo: Diana Taurasi Life-Lock jersey, http://store.nba.com