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Old 08-10-2004, 11:58 AM   #1
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Mohegan-owned basketball team builds fan base

Mohegan-owned basketball team builds fan base

Posted: August 10, 2004 - 9:35am EST
by: Jim Adams / Associate Editor / Indian Country Today

UNCASVILLE, Conn. - Star forward Nykesha Sales called the losing home game July 9 a "reality check."

After a six-game winning streak brought the Connecticut Sun to the top of the Women’s National Basketball Association Eastern division, the lower-ranked Sacramento Monarchs, near the bottom of the West, smothered its play in the closing minutes to win by 15 points, 85 - 70.

It was a reality check as well for the Mohegan Indian Tribe, the first American Indian nation to own a major-league sports team, and the reality turned out to be pretty good. The game attracted a healthy turnout of 6,771 to the Mohegan Sun Arena, "including 1,500 walk-ups" noted team media director Bill Tavares.

The trend continued upward July 24, in the last home game before a month-long break for the Olympics. Attendance topped 7,200, filling much of the upper tier as well as packing the lower stands, and the Oxygen network carried the game live.

The only problem was the play. Although the Sun beat the San Antonio Silver Stars 69 to 55, the normally mild-mannered coach Michael Thibault erupted over the Sun’s sloppy play in the last half and gave the team a post-game scolding.

"If we were a mediocre team, he might not have been so angry," said Debbie Black, the energetic 5-foot 3-inch guard who often inspires team play on the court. "But he thinks we could be a very good team."

High expectations prevail among the team’s business executives, too. "We’re ahead of last year," said Mitchell Etess, chief executive officer of the team and vice president of marketing for the Mohegan Sun, "and about where we want to be."

Mohegan Tribal Chairman Mark Brown said last year the economic break-even point would be a gate of 6,000, an average the Sun narrowly passed by the end of the season. The average home attendance so far is around 5,800. The season started with a bang, an arena sell-out of 9,341 at the May 22 opening game, but the average was hammered by a year-low turnout of 3,646 at the next game, three days later. The drop came on a Tuesday, a school night, when the team’s core fans, teenage and younger girls, were busy with the end of the academic year.

Tavares said the pattern throughout the WNBA was for attendance to build steadily toward the end of the season.

The team’s front office has been working hard all year on promotions, bringing in groups, selling seasons tickets and generating the hype that surrounds a professional team. The team now has a mascot named Blaze, a tall biped with orange and yellow fur who rides a scooter on the court during time-outs and gives sunflowers to the officials. With ultimate political correctness, even the creature’s species is undetermined.

"What is it supposed to be?" Tavares is asked. "It’s supposed to be cuddly," he said.

Stacey Dengler, director of marketing, said that with the WNBA’s family and youngster fan base, the team wanted the mascot to be "fun, friendly and approachable."

"I think we’ve been able to do that," she said.

She said the front office started planning from the end of the season last October, designing not only the mascot but also ticket packages, advertising and half-time entertainment. The arena even has new LED (light-emitting diode) display boards along the front of the balcony, flashing the team logo in bright orange and yellow, in between sponsor’s names, team players and admonitions to "Make Noise."

"One thing about the WNBA," said Dengler. "We might not be able to control play on the floor, but we can control the environment.

"We want the fans to be entertained from the time they enter the arena to the time they leave the building."

One point of criticism, however, is that the team has made very little outreach to Indian country, which regularly produces state championship high school basketball teams, both men and women. Dengler said the team had given programs for Mohegan children but not for any other tribes. She said there had been some discussion about including more Mohegan heritage in the program, and that its drum group might perform during a half-time later in the season.

The promotion effort is a kind of catch-up, said Etess. "The fact is these are a lot of things we didn’t have time to do last year." The Mohegans announced the purchase of the team from the Orlando, Fla., NBA franchise on Jan. 28, 2003, just 95 days before its opening game. It immediately entered an uncertain period as tense league-wide negotiations with the players threatened to break down and cancel the entire season.

Team play was shaky at first, disappointing Connecticut fans who had grown used to undefeated teams at the state university. (Both the men and women’s basketball teams at the University of Connecticut were national champions this year.) But the team suddenly gelled in mid-season and to everyone’s surprise made it to the post-season semi-finals.

Chairman Brown often observes with amusement that the business office originally treated the team as an investment but halfway through the first season turned into rabid fans. When asked how the Sun was doing, the first words from Etess were, "the team is playing very well."

The wild card this year will be the Summer Olympics. "It’s kind of a plus and minus," said Etess. The entire WNBA will take a break though August as its star players compete for the basketball teams of their home countries. But Etess thinks the international attention will spur interest in the league. In September, he said, "We’ll start over again." This article can be found at
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