UNCASVILLE, Conn. - Breaking a longtime taboo, a WNBA team 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 yesterday 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 does not 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 yesterday 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, who said he had taken his children to a Christmas ball in the arena.
The casino's arena opened on Nov. 26, 2001, with Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards playing the Boston Celtics in an NBA preseason game. Since then, it has played host to college basketball, professional tennis, arena football and pro 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."
On the other hand, he said that other professional sports - particularly baseball and the National Football League - have generally disdained gamblers and gambling. In 1983, baseball banned former stars Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle from serving as spring training instructors because they had promoted Atlantic City casinos.
"Maybe women's basketball has looser standards - there's no way the NFL would allow that to happen," Kilby said.
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 its then-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.
More recently, the NFL sparked outrage among Las Vegas officials when it refused to air a commercial promoting "Sin City" during the Super Bowl. The NFL's decision to nix the commercial drew an angry outburst from Mayor Oscar Goodman, who said the league had the most "deviant" athletes in the sports world.
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 captured 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 old 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 Sales, Sue Bird and Swin Cash, who now play in the WNBA, showed up for the festivities.