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A Casino Finds Its Place in the Sun

Gaming Establishment Owns WNBA Franchise in a Successful Partnership

By Jeff Goodman
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 13, 2003; Page D01

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- When Katie Douglas and her teammates first heard that the Mohegan Sun casino was going to be issuing their paychecks, they had no clue what to expect.

"I guess I was naive, but I didn't realize the arena was in the casino," 36-year-old Connecticut Sun guard Debbie Black said. "I thought it was next to it."

The Sun is the casino's newest attraction in this women's basketball-mad part of southern New England. (AP)

_____Mystics At Sun_____
Mystics At Sun

When: 7 p.m.

Where: Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Conn.

Radio: WRC-1260.

_____2003 Preview_____
A team-by-team look at how the 2003 WNBA season breaks down.
_____Mystics Basics_____
Mystics Section

"It was hard to imagine," added Douglas, a former Purdue star in her third season in the WNBA. "It's unlike any other arena in the league or in pro sports for that matter."

Not far from the clanking of slot machines and a few hundred yards removed from rooms full of gamblers playing blackjack and craps, the Sun is the casino's newest attraction in this women's basketball-mad part of southern New England.

They opened the season last month in front of a sellout crowd of 9,341, losing to the defending champion Los Angeles Sparks. Chaka Khan performed at halftime, local dancers strutted their stuff during timeouts, Thunderstix were swung by nearly all in attendance and the vocal crowd was full of kids and adults of all ages. Once the patrons were inside the arena, the WNBA experience really wasn't much different from any other.

But there is one big difference. The Mohegan Sun became the first independent owner of a WNBA team when it purchased the Orlando Miracle for $10 million and moved the team to this small town in Connecticut, about an hour outside of Hartford. Before the Sun, every franchise in the 14-team league had been owned by an NBA team and had played in that team's arena. This also marks the first time that a WNBA team makes a home in a non-NBA market.

"This will not be the last non-NBA city to own a franchise," said WNBA President Val Ackerman, whose league is in its seventh season. "We are exploring options for 2004 and beyond."

One of the primary reasons this sale was approved was the overwhelming support that the four-time national champion University of Connecticut Huskies women's basketball team receives in the area. It also helped that sports betting is not allowed at the casino.

Major League Baseball and the NFL have long been reluctant to get involved with casinos because of the unseemly reputation gambling can have on the sports' integrity (dating as far back as the 1919 Black Sox scandal). The NFL has a longstanding policy that prevents team owners from having any ownership interest in casinos and frowns upon its players gambling (a concern that draws its precedent from 1963, when stars Paul Hornung and Alex Karras were suspended for the season for placing bets on their own team and others in the league).

In the early 1990s, there was talk of nearby Foxwoods Casino backing a bid to fund the New England Patriots' new stadium but nothing came to fruition. "It never came up formally," Patriots spokesman Stacey James said. "The NFL wouldn't allow that, anyway."

The NBA has been a little more lenient. Its anti-gambling policy came under scrutiny about 10 years ago when Michael Jordan's gambling debts became public. Commissioner David Stern publicly upbraided Jordan at the time, but when Jordan came out of retirement as a player for the Washington Wizards in 2001, the team played preseason games at Mohegan Sun and the NBA legend was at the tables afterward.

Meantime, the NHL's Calgary Flames, who have been rumored to be relocated on several occasions, have applied for a casino license in order to bring in revenue that would allow the franchise to remain in Calgary.

"We're looking to put a casino right on our grounds and next to our facility," Flames director of communications Peter Hanlon said. "We're early in the application process, but if we are approved, there would be major renovations. It would be a self-contained area so that if you came to a hockey game and didn't want to see gambling, you wouldn't have to."

At Mohegan Sun, there are entrances and exits to avoid the sight of gambling. The hope is that the fans will come to watch the basketball. If they want to gamble afterward, the casino views it as an added bonus.

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