On Tuesday morning, Mitchell Etess, chief executive officer of the Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino, convenes his first staff meeting to discuss the promotion and execution of the newest sporting event on his campus.
The American Athletic Conference’s inaugural postseason women’s basketball tournament will be held at the Mohegan Sun Arena in March 2014.
For years, Etess had tried to lure the event from Hartford’s XL Center, the host venue since 2004. Not until last year’s breakup of the Big East Conference resulted in the birth of The American’s new conference dynamic was the casino able to prevail for 2014 and likely 2015, although the conference holds the option for the second year.
South Florida women’s basketball coach Jose Fernandez, the president of the Big East’s coaches association for the last two years, is looking forward to it.
“It [moving] has been something the coaches have wanted for a long time,” Fernandez said. “For the last four years we have asked the athletic directors to consider the Mohegan Sun.
“Look, Hartford treated the Big East very, very well over the last nine years. But we thought it was in our best interest as a league [to move]. There were multiple places we could have considered, but it would have been very difficult to ignore that Connecticut possesses an incredible amount of women’s basketball fans.
“Mohegan was the best option for us now. It’s going to be great. It’s the home of a WNBA team [the Connecticut Sun]. It’s a destination that fans want to visit and enjoy. It was a logical move.”
The moving delay brought about by the stern objections of many of the presidents representing the old Big East, the majority of them Catholic institutions who felt the casino setting was unsavory.
“From a conference perspective, the idea is to represent the goals and aspirations of the membership as a whole,” said Danielle Donehew, the American’s associate commissioner for women’s basketball, who served in the same position for the former Big East.
“The discussion was an important one. The event is one of the major assets we manage for the membership. Discussion about [where to host] needs to happen every few years to make sure membership is happy with the way things are going and offer the chance to continue or change things.
“Our past group was not comfortable with considering a casino site, but the new members at the table know that other national conferences are already hosting at casino sites. It’s a different time now and our members have now decided it was a decision [to move to Mohegan] they were comfortable making.”
The American coaches and athletic directors feel the Mohegan Sun, with its wealth of on-site housing and entertainment options, will give more fans incentive to travel.
Conference demographic studies show few out-of-state fans, outside of close family, traditionally traveled to Hartford despite aggressive marketing initiatives.
“We also provide other ancillary benefits that help make all the events we have here successful; free parking, easy access to restaurants and so forth,” Etess said. “I would think The American is thinking, ‘We can enhance our revenue by selling more tickets and reduce our overhead because it’s cheaper to operate here [than in Hartford].”
But the decision also came down to money – big money. According to sources, the old Big East wasn’t making enough of it in Hartford.
“We have always felt, even from the previous time when we weren’t accepted by the Big East, that it was unlikely the XL Center could have provided a better financial package than us,” Etess said.
Etess would not say what specific financial incentives were offered to The American. But its arena’s overhead is relatively small; its operating company owns the arena and employs all the security and staff that cares and protects it. The XL Center relies on union employees and comparatively expensive city police and fire protection.
The Mohegan Sun also does not charge for patron parking. Sites around Hartford were charging up to $15 a day, almost matching the package ticket price ($99) the Big East was charging for the entire five-day tournament.
The casino can also assist The American promote with its multi-million advertising and marketing initiatives.
“I think the teams [in the American] are going to find fans interested in coming here,” Etess said. “We don’t make bad [financial] decisions for us and it [the casino’s deal] was appealing to them. I would call it “competitive.”
“We don’t look at this as we would a convention. We look at this as a major event.”
The effort of the XL Center to retain the tournament was somewhat hampered by the timing of the shift in management to Global Spectrum, which was awarded control of the building and Rentschler Field in February. The company is still in the process of setting up shop.
“As a result, it was difficult for us to try to project what our expenses might be, or to even to present an accurate proposal for consideration,” said Chris Lawrence, who will manage XL Center for Global. “We put an aggressive bid together and The American, sensing they were in a little bit of a transition period as well, made the decision to try something new and see how it works out.
“When the contract comes around again we’ll certainly be as aggressive as we possibly can to bring the women and the men. We couldn’t worry about that. Our focus was entirely on what Hartford had to offer and we feel it has a lot to offer.”
Lawrence also wouldn’t specify what the XL Center was charging or would charge the conference to hold the event. But public records about what UConn pays to operate at the XL Center and Rentlschler provide a window to the bottom line.
For men’s and women’s basketball games last season, UConn paid AEG Management $48,000 per event, but a sliding scale was in place for that would have increased the rental to $55,000 had UConn cut back its schedule of Hartford games. For football, the cost was $170,000 per game.
“What’s been misconstrued is there is a tremendous economic benefit to having the tournament [at Mohegan] that just doesn’t benefit us,” Etess said. “The prosperity and money the tournament brought to Hartford will bring the same to businesses that surround us.
“Not everyone will stay here [at the Mohegan Sun hotel]. We don’t have enough rooms. And not everyone wants to stay here. Hotels and restaurants in this county will be doing big business because of the tournament.
“When I hear the loss of the tournament is costing Hartford something like $2 million, I understand that. But it’s not revenue that is leaving the state. It’s far better the tournament is here than in Memphis or elsewhere.”