Mohegan Sun offers world-class entertainment

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UNCASVILLE, Conn. – Upon entering Mohegan Sun, visitors are first struck by the seven-story indoor waterfall and the amazing Wombi Rock, a glowing crystal mountain made of imported stone that is the focal point of the Casino of the Sky.

Mohegan Sun was established in 1996 by the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut. Considered one of the top destinations in the world, the mammoth site offers fine dining, a 1,200-room luxury hotel and day spa, retail shopping, a convention center and meeting facility featuring the Northeast’s largest ballroom, plus more than 300,000 square feet of gaming facilities. There are some smoke-free areas within the casino, although asthmatics may have to wade through a lot of smoke to get to these special smoke-free havens.

Plan to stay as long as possible, since every turn will lead to a new adventure. Mohegan Sun brings in top names in both live concerts and sporting events. In addition, it is host to the fabulous Kids Quest/Cyber Quest family amusement facility, a 10,000-square-foot indoor pool and what’s billed as the world’s largest planetarium dome.

Paul Munick is Mohegan Sun’s senior vice president of sports and entertainment, and president of the Women’s National Basketball Association team, the Connecticut Sun. Munick came to these positions after nearly two decades in a similar position at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Said Munick: “Our magnificent planetarium was built by a German engineer. There is none other like it in the world. This is wonderful in many ways: but try getting parts for it! There was a time when something went wrong and we had to fly in the German fellow who built it to fix it.”

The ever-changing parts of the Mohegan Sun that keep luring newcomers and repeat visitors alike are its three major entertainment venues with seating from 300 to 10,000. Major sporting events held in the sports area include Connecticut Sun games.

All sporting events held at the Mohegan Sun must be sanctioned by the Mohegan Tribal Athletic Commission. For example, if a boxing promoter wants to put a boxer on a fight card who has questionable medical records or a history of unfair practices, the commission won’t let him fight.

The MTAC operates like any other athletic commission. If, to look at another example, the Mohegan Sun considered holding Ultimate Fighting Championship events there, the commission would go out to look at other UFC events in other cities to see how they were run. Should the commission find anything that doesn’t look or feel right, they won’t allow it to be brought into the Mohegan Sun.

While not all of the MTAC commissioners are tribal members, the executive director of the Department of Athletic Regulation reports directly to the chairman of Mohegan Tribe.

The Wolf Den, an intimate 300-seat nightclub, is located in the middle of the Casino of the Earth, which was part of the Phase I of construction. “The Wolf Den has been around as long as I’ve been on the scene,” said Munick. “That’s where we offer free concerts by such name talent as Kansas, Toto, [and] Taylor Dayne, The Village People and Bamboleo, a Latin/Salsa band, on Mondays.

“Wolf Den is booked 365 days a year. We have different themes every night of the week, so our guests come to know that routine. If they want to hear Latin, they know they should come on Monday.” Tuesdays offer country music, Wednesday is for pop music fans and Thursdays are all about rhythm and blues.

Check the Web site at www.mohegansun.com to find out which top names are heading to the Wolf Den this summer, like Southside Johnny, J. Black & the Americas, John Cafferty, Taylor Dayne and America. Munick said there’s always a crowd that gathers around the Wolf Den every day and night.

For more traditional musical entertainment and comedy, the Cabaret Theatre seats 350. “Michael Buble grew up here in the Cabaret,” said Munick, “plus Toby Keith and Rascal Flats. Now every one of those fellows will fill the 10,000-seat arena.”

According to Munick, singer Tony Bennett opened the Cabaret as its very first act. “We only have shows there Wednesday through Sunday; we generally do two shows on a Saturday.” Other top names that have performed in the Cabaret include vocalist Linda Eder, some of whose performances have been televised there. Wanda Sykes and Debbie Reynolds are also on the Cabaret’s roster of talent.

“Interestingly enough, some of the best Las Vegas acts might not necessarily do that well here,” said Munick. “I was at Madison Square Garden for 18 years, and knew Patti LaPone from ‘Evita’ and other shows. I was amazed that her show didn’t do well here. But you want to hear something funny? We did five days of darts on TV in the Cabaret for ESPN!”

As far as entertainment in the arena, Munick said they can seat as many as 10,300. The grand opening was slated to be Faith Hill but pregnancy put her out of commission at the time, so Munick took her husband, Tim McGraw, instead. The following night, Gloria Estefan shone at the Sun. Also during the grand opening week, the Boston Celtics played the first NBA game ever held in a casino. Best of all, that particular game featured Michael Jordan’s comeback game with Washington.

Munick knows that booking entertainment and sports is all about timing and connections, which is why he’s happy with his own team. “For music, I’m lucky enough to have Laurie Diorio, who’s been here since the beginning 10 years ago. Laurie knows most of the talent agents and does a great job getting the people we want in our venues. Then there’s Bob Yalen, who has a general sports booking background from working at ESPN. I hired him for that and his TV contacts. Bob brought creativity to the party, which is hard to do in sports – he has a dog show, and even paintball, coming here for ESPN. He’s also set up events for Showtime and regional sports networks. Another example is table tennis, featuring the U.S. versus [the] Chinese.”

Yalen put together another “creative” project, enticing NBC’s top live rodeo tour out of Las Vegas. Munick said, “We sell three days, bring in dirt and bulls and you’d think we were out West!”

Other entertainment acts that have filled the arena include Aerosmith, Phil Collins, Marc Anthony (who did a CBS prime time special there), Cher and Hall & Oates. Korn performed there, too. “It was an interesting night,” Munick mused. “It was not necessarily our demographic, but we had fun.”

Upcoming dates in the arena include Nickelback on March 29 and Coldplay on April 4. Watch the Web site for the Cars, Todd Rundgren, Journey, Willie Nelson and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Larry the Cable Guy, and the Beach Boys.

Said Munick, “Whenever I talk to an act or sporting event that’s considering playing here, I always tell them, ‘We can talk on the phone forever, but you really have to come here to experience this place. Then you can see what I’m talking about.’”

In women’s tennis, The Davis Cup used to be sponsored by Virginia Slims, but it eventually became obvious that a cigarette company was not a good fit for an athletic tournament. Then Chemical Bank merged with Chase. Munick gave them his best pitch, and now it’s the Chase Championships. He cut the seven-figure deal. “I knew the state of women’s tennis. Now it’s three to four days on ESPN. I told them, ‘You’ve gotta come out here.’ Just look – anyone major – they’ve been here. We’re a non-union building; we treat the artists very well. We’re basically plug ’n’ play, so we treat the road crews well, too. Our reputation has grown over the years.”

What enticed Paul Munick to leave Madison Square Garden? He said, “It was the culture, the way they acted, and what was in front of them in terms of Phase II. A billion-dollar company with 10,000 employees. It is run by the tribe, but they lean on us [an executive committee of seven] to run the business side of this.

“If you work in sports and entertainment and you can’t have fun, where can you? We’re averaging 30,000 to 35,000 people per day. We were the second-largest casino in the world before Phase II; now the hotel is bursting at the seams with a 1,200 room hotel.”