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The 2009 WNBA Finals were what every sport's championship series aims to be: a back-and-forth, suspense-soaked battle between equals. This one featured the best offensive team (the Phoenix Mercury) against the best defensive team (the Indiana Fever), the league MVP (Phoenix's Diana Taurasi) and the Defensive Player of the Year (Indiana's Tamika Catchings), and tight, high-scoring games.
(The opener, which the Mercury won 120--116 in overtime, set a scoring record.) It also had celebrity sightings, record crowds and drama that never let up: With 38 seconds to play in Game 5 of the best-of-five series, Phoenix's lead was just two points. Behind Taurasi and forward Cappie Pondexter (who had 26 and 24 points, respectively), the host Mercury held on to win 94--86 and hoisted the trophy for the second time in three years. But the Fever, a Finals newbie, gained something just as valuable: a flock of new fans.
Before the season Indiana co-owner Herb Simon had warned that his team would need to double its attendance and sponsors to survive. Slowly at first, and then all at once, the community responded. During an 11-game winning streak, the local media started paying closer attention and fans followed suit, boosting attendance (and helping bring in new sponsors). Another catalyst came before Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against Detroit when Pacers executive Larry Bird bought out the 9,000-seat upper bowl of Conseco Fieldhouse and gave away the tickets, which were snapped up in two hours. People liked what they saw: For Games 3 and 4 of the Finals, all 18,165 seats at Conseco were sold, none of them as giveaways. Suns execs and players countered by buying all 7,000 seats in the upper deck of U.S. Airways Center for Games 1, 2 and 5. "For anyone who doubts the WNBA level of play, this is an opportunity to see for yourselves," said Suns general manager Steve Kerr.
WNBA president Donna Orender sees the people who took up that challenge, the presence at the Finals of stars like Peyton Manning and Larry Fitzgerald, a third consecutive season of higher leaguewide attendance and a second straight year of increased TV ratings as evidence that the WNBA is on a roll. "We have a chance to ride this wave of enthusiasm, so we have to go out and proselytize," says Orender.
Indiana, meanwhile, has two tasks for the off-season: acquire one more big-time player and stay connected to its new fans. If the Fever's return to Indianapolis last Saturday is any indication, the latter task may be easier. Five local TV news crews and 300 fans, many of them gushing about the 2010 season tickets they'd already purchased, were at the airport to greet the runners-up. "Even though we didn't win, we opened the eyes of a lot of people," says Catchings. "That's a pretty big prize by itself."
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For a photo gallery of top moments from the WNBA Finals, go to SI.com/bonus