By PAT EATON-ROBB,  Associated Press

UNCASVILLE, Conn. (AP) _ When new WNBA president Laurel Richie
makes her first round of team visits this summer, she plans to
spend some time in Connecticut talking to management about what has
made the Sun the league’s biggest financial success.

Connecticut ended last season as the first and only team in the
15-year history of the WNBA to show a profit.

“I think the league, as well as the teams themselves, are
always looking for best practices and successes that can be
replicated,” Richie said in a recent interview with The Associated
Press. “One of the lessons that I take from Connecticut that it’s
important having a good venue that attracts a lot of people, that
is easy to fill, that is easy to get to.”

The Connecticut Sun was the first team to break the original
model of the WNBA when it moved from Orlando in 2003. They are not
owned by an NBA franchise, and they don’t play in an NBA city.

Instead, they play at the Mohegan Sun, a resort-casino just off
Interstate 395 in southeastern Connecticut owned by the Mohegan
Indian tribe, which also owns the team.

“We don’t charge the team rent. The team pays expenses such as
catering and security, things of that nature,” said Mitchell
Etess, the Mohegan Sun’s chief executive. “Where you play is a
very important thing, and that is critical to what makes us

The Sun’s 10,000-seat arena also is about 30 miles from the
University of Connecticut, which has won seven NCAA women’s
basketball championships and helped give the Sun a ready-made
audience for the pro game. Team officials acknowledge that has been
an advantage. With the addition last week of former UConn center
Jessica Moore, there are five former Huskies on the 11-player

“We didn’t have to sell the sport of women’s basketball to our
fan base, but conversely, we’re competing with a team where two
losses in a year is a bad season,” Etess said. “We could have two
losses in the same week and still have a good season. So fans have
had to adjust to that.”

It helps, he said, that basketball isn’t the only draw. Fans get
to park for free at the casino complex, and can earn discounts at
its restaurants and shops, which are located just outside the arena
and next to slot machines and gaming tables.

Dave King and his wife, Eleanor, travel from Clinton to the
games. They had dinner before Saturday’s season opener at Geno’s
Fast Break, a restaurant in the casino complex owned by UConn
women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma. They received 15 percent
off because they are Sun season ticket holders.

“It’s affordable,” Dave King, 69, said. “I don’t think we
spent $20, and it was a good dinner.”

Sun guard Kara Lawson, who played for the WNBA champion
Sacramento Monarch in 2005 and then saw the franchise fold four
years later, said things are done differently in Connecticut.

“Our fans have something else to look forward to when they are
coming to the games, whether it’s going out to eat, whether it’s
being able to come early, they are very familiar with this
destination,” she said.

“When I was playing out in Sacramento, it cost $10 to $15 just
to park. So this is an affordable outlet.”

Sun general manager Chris Sienko said it helps not to be tied to
an NBA team.

“It lets people in the organization focus more and more on this
particular brand year-round,” he said. “With teams part or fully
owned by the NBA team, the organizations would concentrate on the
NBA franchise for eight months of the year, and the WNBA was an

Etess said the NBA-affiliated franchises that are left, are the
ones clearly committed to the women’s league, but he expects more
movement of franchises.

Etess won’t reveal how much the team made last year ago, but he
said that season ticket sales are at a nice solid level and added
that interest and sponsorship has picked up over the years as the
team has become a fabric of society in the region.

“We put people in the building, and you can’t escape that,” he

Some have questioned whether the rest of the league can
duplicate that success, especially next year, when many marquee
players will be spending much, if not all of the season, with their
national teams in preparation for the 2012 Olympics. But Sun coach
Mike Thibault isn’t worried.

“I’ve heard this will be the league’s last year thing for eight
years now,” he said. “I think when we are 30 years into this
league we’ll be hearing the same thing. I don’t buy it. There are
too many people that have invested time and money into this league,
I don’t see it going away.”

The WNBA hired Richie to be its president in the offseason to
help market the league. She has more than three decades of
experience in consumer marketing, corporate branding, public
relations and corporate management. She has worked for Ogilvy and
Mather, an international advertising company, and served most
recently as senior vice president and chief marketing officer for
Girl Scouts of the USA.

She plans to visit every arena in the league this season, and
will be in Connecticut on June 19.

“We have plenty of basketball people in this league,” Etess
said. “Having someone who is a seasoned marketer and has
experience developing brands, I think is very good for this

Five teams have major sponsorship deals, that put advertisers
names on their jerseys. The New York Liberty are sponsored by the
Mohegan Sun’s rival in Connecticut, the Foxwoods Resort Casino.
Others include Phoenix (LifeLock), Seattle (Bing), Los Angeles
(Farmers Insurance) and Washington (Ivona Health).

“Group sales are ahead of a year ago, and the majority of our
teams are experiencing double-digit growth,” Richie said. “We’ve
had the highest renewal rate for season ticket holders across the
league. Those are the kinds of key business indicators that we look

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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