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Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

A tribe in southern Arizona is expanding its branding into professional basketball, and the move includes an NBA first.

Gila River Hotels and Casinos, the tribal gaming enterprise of the Gila River Indian Community, has partnered with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. The partnership includes a newly renovated courtside property called “Club Gila River” inside PHX Arena, the downtown Phoenix home to both teams.

In a first, according to the NBA, Gila River has introduced gaming chips and gaming table felts adorned with the logos of the Suns and Mercury at its gaming properties. The partnership also includes team branding on select hotel rooms owned by the tribe. Gila River owns three casinos on the southern edge of the Phoenix Valley.

“As our organization grows, we are honored to have a partner with shared values and celebrated principles,” Dominic Orozco, chief strategic marketing officer for the casinos, said in a statement. “Gila River Hotels and Casinos’ and Gila River Indian Community’s love for sports, and the Valley, certifies our synergy and will be a win for Arizona and beyond.”

Club Gila River inside PHX Arena, home to the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury. (Photo courtesy of the NBA)

Gila River already has naming rights to the Gila River Arena west of Phoenix in Glendale, home of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes and concert venue. That partnership began in 2014.

Still, even as the Suns prepare to open a new season in late December, it’s unclear when fans will be allowed back into the newly renovated PHX Arena, formerly known as the Talking Stick Resort Arena. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the NBA to suspend play in March. However, the league did complete its season in the late summer in Florida at a location known as the “bubble.”

Only potential playoff teams were invited to the bubble. The Suns were one of the teams invited and went undefeated in regular season play (8-0), barely missing the playoffs.

The relationship with Gila River comes as the Suns grow in popularity with budding superstar Devin Booker and future hall of famer Chris Paul, and after nearly a decade of missing the postseason.

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The Phoenix Mercury, led by star Diana Taurasi, have been highly competitive for years and have won three WNBA titles since 2007. The Mercury, which were set to play this past season in the old Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, ended up playing in Florida as well at a separate location from the NBA.

Meanwhile, back in Phoenix, the basketball arena was under a $230 million renovation project as the pandemic set in. Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver also opened a $45 million practice facility separate from the PHX Arena location.

Gila River Hotels and Casinos and the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury have a new partnership that includes team branding at the casino hotels. (Photo courtesy of the NBA)

Gila River isn’t the first tribe to bet on the NBA.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians sponsor the Los Angeles Clippers’ minor league team, Agua Caliente Clippers of Ontario. The Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians has hosted Los Angeles Lakers preseason practices and basketball camps.

Salt River, a sister tribe of Gila River, also had a connection to the Suns and Mercury. Salt River’s gaming enterprise is called Talking Stick Resort, and the casino had naming rights to Talking Stick Resort Arena, now PHX Arena, a non-sponsored name for the arena.

In November, Salt River decided not to renew its naming rights agreement with the arena, ending a five-year relationship. Talks for a possible extension started earlier this year and before the pandemic, but the tribe decided to go in another direction, according to a Talking Stick Resort news release.

Salt River sits east of Phoenix in Scottsdale and has two casinos.

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker Walker is based in Phoenix and enjoys Arizona winters.

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