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"Let the Games Begin:" Mohegans launch major pro sports venture

Hold on sports fans, the "Connecticut Sun" has hit the hardwood. The what? Last July, we at Indian Country Today suggested the time was right for one of the more successful gaming tribes to diversify - to expand the entertainment value of its holdings and move into professional sports. We targeted the Buffalo Sabres, a National Hockey League team then for sale.

While the Sabres are no longer on the market, one gaming tribe has made a gamble that looks to be a good bet. The Mohegan Indian Tribe of Connecticut is now the proud owner of a professional women's basketball team, the Connecticut Sun, which began play in late May in the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA).

Here comes the Sun

Last January, the Mohegans acquired the WNBA's Orlando franchise for an undisclosed price and relocated the team to its Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., which opened last year. While building such a facility without the guarantee of a major tenant like a basketball team was itself a risky proposition, the Mohegans have hosted exhibition basketball games, boxing matches, concerts and other events at the Arena, proving its viability as an entertainment and sports facility.

Indeed, by owning its own sports franchise and home arena, the tribe has positioned itself as few other major league team owners have. (Two that immediately come to mind are George Steinbrenner, owner of Yankee Stadium and the New York Yankees baseball team, and Abe Pollin, owner of MCI Arena and the NBA's Washington Wizards.) The Sun does not have to rent an arena to play in, and the tribe reaps all the concession and parking revenue from team games as well. There is talk of playing a limited number of home games at the 16,000-seat Hartford Civic Center.

Of lingering concern in some quarters is the proximity of and association with the tribe's Mohegan Sun Casino. Sports organizations have long been wary of close association with gambling in any form, as "fixing" games will obviously compromise a league's credibility and drive fans away. Others worry that families might stay away from the arena for fear of exposing their children to the casino, or that people who generally oppose gambling will stay away.

As the Arena is accessible by a separate set of entrances than the casino, people who want to avoid the gaming floor will have no problem doing so. There is also no sports-book gambling at Mohegan Sun, which allayed the league's concerns.

"It doesn't present a problem for us," league commissioner Val Ackerman told the AP in late January. "What we felt we had here was an extraordinary package of amenities that included a wonderful arena, a great management team with experience in promoting sports events. We felt that women's professional basketball could very well thrive in the kind of setting that Mohegan Sun is providing for us."

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Let the Sun shine

The former Orlando Miracle, the team acquired by the Mohegans, joined the league in 1999, but became an afterthought for its owners, who also ran the NBA's Orlando Magic. Now situated in eastern Connecticut, the Sun plays on the border of two thriving basketball markets in New York and Boston. Without a Boston club to root for, New England fans are more likely to cheer for the Sun rather than the WNBA team from New York City.

The Mohegan Tribe and the WNBA will both capitalize on and benefit from the popularity of women's basketball in Connecticut.

The University of Connecticut's powerhouse women's basketball team, the Huskies, has captured three national championships in the last seven years. The Sun already has two former UConn All-America players on its roster in Nykesha Sales and Rebecca Lobo, which will certainly help get fans interested. A dozen or so former UConn players currently play in the WNBA.

Between 1996 and 1998, a women's pro team called the New England Blizzard played its American Basketball League (ABL) games in nearby Hartford, drawing over 15,000 to some of its games at the Civic Center. Unfortunately for the ABL, the WNBA, along with its NBA backing and television money, arrived on the scene in 1997, eventually forcing the older league out of business.

The WNBA, which just started its seventh season, is an offshoot of the National Basketball Association; the NBA has used its considerable clout to put teams in the larger television markets in order to secure national TV exposure for the women's league and its players. But the league has had problems: WNBA teams in Miami and Portland, Ore. recently folded, while the start of the current season was jeopardized by a labor dispute, eventually resolved, between players and league management.

In an effort to stabilize itself, the league has changed its business model. Until this season, all of the WNBA teams (there are currently 14) were owned by and co-located with an existing NBA team, which generally provided marketing, promotional and front office support. But this model apparently needed revamping as WNBA teams often play to half-empty arenas and the league appears to be surviving largely on television revenue.

By operating their team in Connecticut, the Mohegans are in essence striking out on their own - they are the league's first independent owners and will not co-exist with an established NBA club. The Sun is the first team to buck the league's original formula and, if the tribal owners play their cards right, may well end up being one of its more successful franchises. While the other WNBA teams sometimes seem like an afterthought of their NBA parents, the Sun will likely receive much more attention from its ownership than do its rivals, which will hopefully translate into a better team on the floor and a better draw at the gate.

Through early June, the Sun has won two of its first three games and drew a sellout crowd of 9,341 to its opening home contest on May 24. (The WNBA averaged just over 9,200 fans per game in 2002.) It's way too early to tell whether the team will be a success on the court or at the cash register. But initial indications look as though the Sun are a fine addition to the entertainment package at the Mohegan Sun Casino and could set a precedent for future Indian ownership of pro sports franchises.