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Indian casino buys, moves WNBA team

By Mike Adams
The Baltimore Sun

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Breaking a longtime taboo, a WNBA team Tuesday became the first major professional sports organization owned by a casino.

The Mohegan Sun, an Indian casino that grosses about $1 billion annually, bought the Orlando Miracle for a price reported to be between $5 million and $10 million. This summer, the rechristened Women’s National Basketball Association team — the Connecticut Sun — will play in a 10,000-seat arena adjacent to the Mohegan tribe’s hotel and casino, one of the world’s largest with 300,000 square feet of gambling space.

Historically, professional sports teams have tried to distance themselves from gamblers and the gambling industry, especially after the Black Sox scandal that tainted the 1919 baseball World Series.

But the deal between the Mohegan Sun and the financially shaky WNBA, which saw two franchises fold after last season, shows that the distance is shrinking as teams look for profits.

Professional teams, including Major League Baseball’s San Diego Padres, have begun taking ads from Indian casinos as long as they do not explicitly promote gambling and the casino doesn't operate a sports book, enabling gamblers to bet on games.

Joe and Gavin Maloof — the owners of the National Basketball Association’s Sacramento Kings, and its affiliated WNBA franchise, the Monarchs — own a Las Vegas casino, the Palms, whose profits help cover losses generated by the sports teams.

At a glitzy news conference Monday at the Mohegan Sun casino, attended by some of the league’s biggest stars, WNBA president Val Ackerman pointedly noted that the casino does not accept any wagering on sports. “It’s not a problem,” she said.

“From the Mohegan tribe’s perspective, if you notice the way this place (the arena) is designed, it’s designed not to force you to the gaming floor, the other aspect is that this is not just a gaming destination, this is an entertainment destination,” said Mark Brown, the tribal chairman.

The casino’s arena opened on Nov. 26, 2001, when Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards played the Boston Celtics in an NBA preseason game. Since then, it has hosted college basketball, professional tennis, arena football, and professional boxing. Jordan, who has reputation as a high-rolling gambler, has a steakhouse at the casino.

Jim Kilby, Boyd Professor of Gaming at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said the WNBA’s alliance with a casino sends a muddled message.

“I see nothing wrong with it,” he said. “Gaming is a legal industry. Sometimes I wonder if professional sports understands that.”

About nine years ago, the Mashantucket Pequots, the owners of another Connecticut gambling enterprise, Foxwoods Resort Casino, tried to buy the NFL’s New England Patriots. Foxwoods, located about 10 miles from the Mohegan Sun, is the world’s most profitable casino, grossing more than $1 billion annually.

The tribe, led by then-tribal chairman Richard “Skip” Hayward, wanted to move the team from Massachusetts to Connecticut. But the deal did not get the NFL’s blessing because the tribe owned a casino.

Southeastern Connecticut is a hotbed for women’s basketball. The University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team is a powerhouse and a financial success, one of the few NCAA women’s teams to earn a profit. The Huskies have won 57 straight games — a collegiate women’s record — and have won three national championships in the past seven years. Their games, televised on an in-state network, routinely sell out.

The new Connecticut Sun franchise is clearly hoping to capture some of the college team’s success. About 250 noisy women’s basketball fans turned out to welcome the new team, which includes former Huskies star, Nykesha Sales. As Aretha Franklin’s hit, “Respect,” played loudly, they were treated to free hot dogs, popcorn and T-shirts.

The University of Connecticut has 11 active players in the WNBA, more than any other college. Several former Huskies including Sue Bird and Swin Cash, who now play in the WNBA, showed up for the festivities.

Connecticut does not have a major professional sports team, which helps to boost the popularity of women’s basketball. The Hartford-based New England Blizzard in the now defunct American Basketball League was the last, and set attendance records.

The WNBA underwent a reorganization this year. After six years of control by the NBA’s Board of Governors, the WNBA was given the freedom to restructure. The Mohegan Sun is the first non-NBA owner of a WNBA team.