by Ben York / @bjyork

In June of 2009, a landmark partnership was made between the Phoenix Mercury and LifeLock leading to the first-ever branded jersey in WNBA and NBA history – and I’ve been a staunch supporter of the deal from the beginning.

The move was met with harsh criticism from the “purists” of both the NBA and WNBA. Detractors said this would lead to low jersey sales, to a saturated corporate marketing campaign, Phoenix Mercury practice jerseyand ultimately to the disintegration of a team’s identity.

With the incredible success the Phoenix Mercury had in 2009, I feel comfortable saying many of said skeptics are singing a different tune today.

When the joint venture was announced, your opinion of the partnership was undeniably predicated on the way you view the WNBA in general. If you want the league to succeed and thrive then you probably were excited about the unprecedented move. If you aren’t a supporter of the WNBA, then you most likely saw the partnership as desperate and reaching. It should be noted that although there were some initial reservations from a select group of fans, the deal was met with overwhelming support from the WNBA community and its players. Almost instantly, WNBA fans felt a sense of security and support for their cherished league that they’ve been missing for so long. After all, the sponsorship validated what they have been saying for over a decade – the WNBA product is both valuable and sustainable.

Now, if your glass is half empty, you might have felt a bit perturbed that it took a deal of this magnitude to demonstrate such notable support. If it’s half full, surely you were excited about the progress the league has made in 13 short years. Still, the vast majority of the controversy did not come from fans or players in the WNBA.

Due to the initial success of the Mercury/LifeLock deal, more partnerships followed such as the Los Angeles Sparks and Farmers Insurance. In fact, with the Mercury’s sensational 2009 season, the initial projections and return on investment for LifeLock were blown out of the water and far exceeded sponsorship costs. The LifeLock name even graced the cover of the Wheaties box with the Mercury’s championship victory over the Indiana Fever; something that certainly couldn’t have been predicted when the partnership talks began.

Almost a year has passed since that initial announcement and my question to you is this — whether you agree or disagree with jersey sponsorships, do you still feel the same way you did when the partnership was announced? Maybe you disagreed with the move at first, but how do you feel now?

Surely, more WNBA teams will (and should) acquire exclusive sponsors. It’s not a question of if, but when?

On March 16, the Phoenix Mercury and LifeLock finalized another agreement to expand their ground-breaking partnership with the exclusive placement of the LifeLock logo on their practice jerseys for the 2010 season. “It’s a privilege to work with LifeLock and continue to develop this pioneering venture for both organizations,” said Mercury President and COO, Jay Parry. “The partnership has been a huge success in its first season and has broadened both organizations’ reach in the community, to WNBA fans and the basketball community as a whole.”

With the expansion now to practice jerseys, there is little doubt that other WNBA teams will come up with creative ways to feature their sponsors or potential sponsors. This fresh approach to the WNBA (a.k.a. creativity) is what smart, savvy organizations need to possess if they want to be successful in such a harsh economic climate. We’ve seen what has happened to other WNBA teams and preventing the dissolution of a franchise takes a proactive approach to running the business. The Phoenix Mercury certainly has a phenomenal group of leaders who are doing everything in their power to showcase their beloved team. What other WNBA organizations will step up to the plate?

Perhaps more important than anything for the growth and expansion of the game, the LifeLock announcement showed the world the WNBA isn’t going anywhere. Why would a company spend millions of dollars in a stale product? Why would they invest in something that wasn’t sustainable or didn’t have the legitimate potential to reap the rewards? The example the Mercury/LifeLock deal set for fellow WNBA franchises is not only exciting, but vital toward the future of the league as a whole.

The bulk of the criticism dealt with the notion that the move would lead to a loss of identity for the sponsored team. At the time, I felt this criticism would blow over and it appears that it indeed has. If so, then what (if anything) isn’t beneficial of having a jersey sponsor? Obviously, WNBA teams probably wouldn’t want a company like Enron gracing their jerseys, but that’s why there are people smarter than myself developing these partnerships.

Looking back, it’s hard even for the naysayers to deny the positive far outweighs the negative with jersey sponsors thus far, especially in the WNBA.