UNCASVILLE, Conn. >> It’s been 15 years since the Connecticut Sun joined the WNBA, and right from the start, Mitchell Etess knew the team could be prosperous on and off the court.
With the backing of the Mohegan Sun Casino, the team has flourished and been a model for independently owned franchises.
“We were the first non-NBA-owned team and we were the first to make money,” said Etess, who is the team’s president and CEO, in a phone interview. “We knew it would be successful. We didn’t go into it with any questions in our mind.”
While there might have been some concern with a casino owning a franchise, the WNBA didn’t have too many reservations since there was no sports book where you could bet on the league.
“We were able to manage the gambling concern because of the unavailability to bet on site for our sport,” former WNBA President Val Ackerman said. “The other factors were so overwhelming to let them be the first independent team.”
The Sun have turned a profit each of the past six seasons, impressive since the team has struggled a bit on the court lately, failing to make the playoffs since 2012.
“I think the business metrics from the beginning were solid,” Ackerman said. “The ability to draw the UConn fan helped. Even when they didn’t have former Huskies on the team, the same fan would enjoy coming to see players roll through when they played for other teams.”
It helps having a self-contained venue that has parking, dining and an arena all in one place, as well as good marketing.
“They didn’t have to start from scratch building a support structure. To me it was the perfect combination,” Ackerman said. “To this day, it’s still unique in the sport marketplace.”
Etess said there was some initial pushback, but that NBA Commissioner David Stern handled it.
“The commissioner took the bullet,” he said.
There haven’t been any other casinos that have owned a sports team in any of the four major sports. That may change in the future as pro teams have started to move to Las Vegas with the city getting an NFL and NHL franchise this past year. A few other WNBA teams have had sponsorship deals with casinos, including Phoenix and New York, but none are owned by them.
“It’s got to be the right model clearly for other sports and a few things would have to change for that to happen,” Etess said.
Connecticut has a natural fan base because of the success of the Huskies. The Sun have hosted the All-Star Game numerous times, as well as the WNBA draft. Both of those events were extremely meaningful to Etess.
On Thursday, the Sun will honor their 15th season with former players Katie Douglas and Nykesha Sales coming to the game and answering questions at halftime. The team will give away commemorative T-shirts with the names of the 2003 roster.
Rebecca Lobo, who was on that inaugural team that moved up from Orlando, will call Thursday’s game on national TV. She had fond memories of her one year with the Sun.
“When I found out they were getting a franchise, my first thought was, ‘Could my life turn out so perfectly that I’d get to play there?’” Lobo said. “A lot of us were thrilled to play for a franchise that wanted to do things the right way. They just didn’t have the time or the know-how right away.”
That first season was put together in amazing fashion as the team, which was previously in Orlando, was approved in January and the season started in April. Etess and his group had to find a coach, players and a practice facility very quickly.
In stepped Mike Thibault as the coach — his first time in the WNBA.
“I remember Day One sitting in the arena after my press conference and saying what had I just done,” Thibault recalled laughing. “I hadn’t met any of the players, they had no basketballs, no uniforms and no confirmed practice site. I had a long list of what needed to be done, and we just start knocking them off.”
The team surprisingly made the playoffs. Connecticut made the finals the next two years, losing both times. They made the playoffs the first six years they were in Connecticut and then twice more, but still are looking for their first title.
“That’s the one thing that is missing, but hopefully we can compete for one soon,” Etess said.