UNCASVILLE, Conn. - "It started out as a business venture," said Mohegan Tribal Chairman Mark Brown, "but now we want to win."
He was talking about the Mohegan-owned Connecticut Sun of the Woman's National Basketball Association, the first major-league professional sport team to be owned by an Indian tribe. It was early July, and the Sun had just played the worst game of what was until then a disappointing season. The team lost by 26 points to the dominating New York Liberty in Manhattan's Madison Square Garden, and even Coach Mike Thibault said his players did badly.
But Brown was upbeat. "We're doing about what we thought we would be," he said while chatting with several staff in the no-frills tribal offices, "and maybe even a little better. We figured we'd need about 6,000 seats (in attendance) to be a success and we've done better than that several times."
For players as well as the tribe, the figures to watch are the ticket sales, not the score, but soon after Brown spoke both numbers showed signs of a turnaround. The Sun snapped a losing streak in a home game in the 10,000-seat Mohegan Sun arena, beating the Cleveland Rockers, its companion in the cellar, 64 to 57.
The win appeared to energize players. For the rest of the month, the team put together winning streaks and climbed in the rankings. A local sports writer reported in wonder, "They didn't shoot poorly in the half. They didn't have to scramble to come back." By the end of July one headline could report, at least momentarily, "Sun climb into second-place tie in the East." The team is now looking for a second- or third-place seed in the eastern play-offs next month.
Attendance climbed too, but more erratically. The July 2 win over the Rockers drew 4,169, leaving bare the upper reaches of the vertiginous arena. By the July 23 win over the Minnesota Lynx, when the sportswriters started talking about Sun consistency, the clearly happy crowd exceeded 7,000. The figures are still lowest in the league, however. Even the last-place Washington Mystics can pull in over 13,000 in sports-starved D.C.
But the team brings other benefits to the Mohegans. Connecticut often makes political targets of its two super-rich casino tribes and the more numerous, very unrich contenders for federal recognition, but woman's basketball is the state religion. The University of Connecticut woman's team was widely regard as the weakest in years, but it continued the second-longest winning streak in national basketball history, finished the regular season undefeated and won the national championship.
Ten former UConn superstars now play in the WNBA, including two on the Sun. The chance to see former UConn heroes continue their careers is widely considered one of the big selling points for the Sun. It also generates very positive public relations for the Mohegans.
This was very evident on the night of the Sun - Rocker game as the tribe hosted a pre-game reception in its Sky Box for local politicians. Among the town leaders from the region was none other than Robert Congdon, first selectman and state representative from neighboring Preston, who has made a name throughout the state and even nationally as a leading critic of Indian casinos.
Congdon chatted affably with Mohegan leaders and after the game told Indian Country Today, "Not all of the casino impacts are bad. Some of the events you have here, like the Sun, we would not have in southeast Connecticut if it were not for the casinos."
The still unfinished Sky Box, with its dizzying view of the arena, gives proof of the Mohegans' commitment to the team. Chairman Brown talked about investing $10 million to divide the gallery into four compartments for corporate lease, using the decorator who designed the lavish high-roller suites in the Mohegan Sun hotel.
The UConn coattails haven't given the Sun a free ride, however. The comparison might even have hurt, after the first enthusiasm of a sold-out opening game, since Connecticut fans aren't used to seeing their basketball teams lose. Geography and the season might also have depressed attendance. The team appeals to a different audience than the crowds that throng the dazzling Mohegan Sun casino complex. In fact, people under 21 are required to take a bank of elevators from the parking garage that keeps them away from the gaming floor. Without the added draw of gaming, the underage fans might have lacked the incentive to drive to a far corner of the state. Turnout at the one game in more centrally located Hartford was also disappointing, however. The teenage girls who dote on the UConn team proved harder to attract than expected during summer vacation.
Yet the team promoters hadn't given up trying. At nearly every break in the play in the Rockers game, a cheerleading team of young teenage girls rushed on the court, led by an announcer dressed somewhat like Shaggy in the "Scooby-Doo" cartoons. They stirred up cheers from the normally staid Nutmeg State types by pitting one side of the court against the other and throwing rolled up Sun t-shirts into the winning stands.
The crowds in the lower tier of seats responded although they cheered even more when the Sun kept its lead to the closing horn.
"The fans are fine," observed Jennifer Rizzotti, another former UConn star who played with her trademarked nervous energy for the Rockers. "They just want there to be more of them."