MASHANTUCKET, Conn. - From boxing to billiards, from Texas hold'em poker to
Davis cup tennis, special TV events are giving tribal casinos widespread
publicity and name recognition.
Cable outlets from Showtime to the Travel Channel broadcast regularly from
sites like Foxwoods Casino Resort in Connecticut, owned by the Mashantucket
Pequot Tribal Nation, or the Chumash Casino in California, or the Seminole
Tribe's Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla. Although the name
recognition is subtle, sometimes consisting of a banner behind a boxing
ring, it is part of a calculated attempt to "brand" Indian gaming as a
source of upscale entertainment and has almost certainly contributed to the
continued rapid growth of the industry, both in dollars and market share.
Tribal casinos are attracting television producers for at least two
behind-the-scenes reasons. Their facilities are almost all less than 10
years old and often feature state-of-the-art connections for TV equipment.
And they are non-union.
Even though the casinos offer competitive wages and benefits, as a
non-union worksite they are free of costly and some say inefficient work
rules often imposed by collective bargaining contracts. According to Chris
Sienko, general manager of the Mohegan-owned Connecticut Sun, the
difference in the union environment makes a TV broadcast much less
expensive from the Mohegan Sun Arena than from New York City's Madison
Square Garden, even though New York is a world center for television.
It remains to be seen whether this advantage would survive the recent
attempt of the National Labor Relations Board to assert jurisdiction over
tribal commercial enterprises, even if located on reservation. If the
2-to-1 ruling stands, it could have major implications for all aspects of
tribal economies, and their future as television venues could be one of the
For the moment, however, the tribes are all over the cable box. In early
August alone, Showtime will broadcast major boxing events from the
Seminole's Hard Rock Hotel and Casino and the Foxwoods Resort Casino. ESPN2
will cover fight cards from the Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula,
Calif. and the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. (HBO, however, has no
The Showtime card from Foxwoods on Aug. 7 is a heavily promoted double
championship, between Acelino Freitas and Diego Corrales for the WBO
Lightweight title and between Yodsanan Nanthachai and Steve Forbes for the
WBA Junior Lightweight belt. '
Boxing has long been a mainstay of tribal arenas. The Mohegans, like many
others, used to promote matches in their old bingo hall, said Sienko. But
Indian gaming has given the sport a major boost. Tribal boxing commissions
have a steadily increasing role as regulators, and reservations hosted up
to 20 percent of last year's cards.
But the special TV events go far beyond the ring. Viewers of ESPN2 were
entranced recently by its broadcast of several Womens' Professional
Billiards Association championships held this March at the Viejas Casino,
in Alpine, Calif., and last November at the Chinook Winds Casino in Lincoln
City, Ore. ESPN2 seems to think it has a good thing by the tail, since it
will continue to air past WPBA tournaments through the rest of August,
including the 1999 championship held at the Soaring Eagle Casino in Mount
Tribes are cashing in on the surprising popularity of televised poker.
Foxwoods is a charter member of the World Poker Tour, which has given the
Travel Channel a big boost in ratings. It hosted the World Poker Final last
November. Travel Channel, an affiliate of the Discovery Channel, broadcast
the episode Aug. 4, with replays on Aug. 5 and 7. The Foxwoods poker room,
which actually plays the Omaha hold'em variant, is now running tournaments
as a buildup to the World Poker Finals, Oct. 25 - Nov. 17.
The Fox Sports Net exceeded its expectations when it brought its American
Poker Championship to a new venue, Turning Stone Casino in Verona, N.Y.
(Turning Stone is an enterprise of the Oneida Indian Nation, which also
owns Four Directions Media, publisher of Indian Country Today.) The ratings
for its live telecast of the final hour of play, July 14, doubled its
guarantee to its advertisers.
Televised poker has also made media celebrities of Connecticut players such
as Greg "Fossilman" Raymer, winner of the 2004 World Series of Poker, who
make their base at the Foxwoods Casino. Raymer actually moved to North
Stonington to be near the Mashantucket Pequot reservation. But the Mohegan
Sun is passing up this road to fame. It recently closed its poker room to
make space for high-limit slots. (It did, however, host a televised
championship blackjack tournament in its Wolf's Den performance space.)
Instead, said Mitchell Etess, vice president for marketing, the Mohegans
have brought in events designed to attract a new class of clientele. In
February, it turned the Mohegan Sun Arena into a tennis court for the World
Group First Round match of Davis Cup tennis. The series between the U.S.
and Austria drew 15,000 fans and international coverage. And the Mohegans
are enjoying steadily increasing television exposure from their ownership
of the Women's National Basketball Association team the Connecticut Sun. So
far this year, Sun games have appeared on ABC, ESPN2 and Oxygen.