WNBA hoping to take lessons from Sun's profit

By Pat Eaton-Robb
Uncasville, Connecticut (AP) June 2011

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 profitable.”

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 roster.

“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 the 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 add-in.”

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 said.

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 league.”

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 at.”