With Many Other Options, XL Center Continues To Lose

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UNCASVILLE — Mohegan Sun will do a great job with the American Athletic Conference women's basketball tournament. Whether it's the WNBA All-Star Game or the CIAC state basketball tournament, Mohegan Sun always does a great job with events at its arena.

And when the tournament is finished in March here's one bet — no, make that a guarantee — most everyone will agree that Mohegan Sun Arena is a perfect place for the AAC tournament.

If that's not a wake-up call for Hartford and the XL Center, well, how about this?

As the months pass, if Hartford fails to get its act together in a creative and unified manner, here's one bet the AAC women's basketball tournament will never return to the XL Center. More than that, I foresee more and more UConn basketball games leaking out of the state's largest arena to other state venues in future seasons.

Oh, go ahead. Push me off. Pshaw me. Pooh-pooh me. Point out there is a number of great concerts at the XL Center this month and the Wolf Pack is saved and, Jacobs, you just wait until UConn hockey gets going. Point out those 16,000 available seats. And if all else fails, call on Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to use his bully pulpit to strong-arm UConn to play downtown.

Still, if you don't see the loss of the AAC women's tournament as a blow to the city, if you don't see the move to put a couple of UConn games this season in Bridgeport as a harbinger of things to come, well, you fail to understand the importance of what UConn means to the capital region.

Louisville is playing North Carolina in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off in a premier men's college game in late November in our state. It's at Mohegan Sun. Big deal, right? Who cares?

After a few years of real success, crowds of more than 14,000 and 15,000 in the previous two exhibition appearances at the XL Center, the Celtics and Knicks played twice this month in where else? Providence and Manchester. Big deal, right? Who cares? (XL Center general manager Chris Lawrence did say Global Spectrum, which took over control of the building this summer, has started the process to get a 2014 date).

I'm also hearing from inside UConn that the school couldn't be more frustrated with the chewed-up field conditions at Global-managed Rentschler Field to the point of concerns over player safety and game officials commenting about it to UConn people. Who cares, right? UConn football stinks.

Ten years ago, who would have guessed this tournament, formerly known as the Big East, would be played at Mohegan?

"In the beginning, when the Sun wasn't here yet, I'm sure everyone had questions," said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who owns a restaurant at the casino-hotel complex. "What are you going to do? Turn it into a sideshow? Do you know how to run basketball events? Or is this just going to be another way to entertain the people that you feel you owe entertainment?

"But after you saw what a great job people here did with the Sun, once I saw how that operation was run, I thought if they could do it for them, why can't they do it for us?"

The AAC has a one-year deal with Mohegan and the option for a second year on the tournament. Mohegan CEO Mitchell Etess described a revenue-sharing deal arrangement. It is, AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said, "a financial deal that is very advantageous to us."

No, the arena geographically is not in the center of the state, but it offers free parking and easy access. The arena, with a capacity of nearly 10,000, seems perfectly configured for the tournament. Aresco said there will be buses from the Hartford area to take people to and from the tournament.

"We had 'moral' issues with playing in a casino," Auriemma said. "But then the high schools played here and they did as good a job as they did for the Sun. Now, as each barrier gets broken down you start to go, 'Really, are we opposing this on moral grounds? Then why are we selling beer at events? Why are we taking money from beer companies? Why is Mohegan Sun allowed to advertise at Gampel or the XL Center, but we can't play at their place?' You can't be fake about it."

Aresco, who took over last year, heard about the resistance on the casino venue from some of the past presidents.

"There was none among our current group," Aresco said. "There are tournaments in Las Vegas [Pac-12, Mountain West, etc] now, even tournaments at casino hotels. There's the Atlantis event in the Bahamas.

"With the Catholic 7 leaving, I honestly can't tell you exactly how much opposition there might have been. There's no sports book here. That was a big factor. The casino and arena are separated. We just don't think it's an issue anymore."

I agree. I'm not going to lie. I initially took a yellow-light approach to sporting events at Mohegan Sun. I wanted to see how sports and gambling can remain separate under one roof, wanted to see the integrity of the operators. After a decade, I am satisfied.

"Don't get me wrong," Auriemma said. "If there's another place around our league that will do a better job we ought to look at it. I'm not saying it has to be at Mohegan forever. Let's see who has the most to offer and keep an open mind."

"There will be another chance to bid," Aresco said. "Everyone knows it. The XL Center will have its chance."

As part of its winning XL management bid, Global Spectrum is making $2.5 million in improvements. A more substantial $35 million second phase, backed by the legislature and Malloy, needs State Bond Commission approval. That will go for loge seating, locker room, restrooms.

Still, look at Louisville. Look at Memphis, which got the AAC men's tournament. Big-time modern arenas. Let's be honest, teams come into the XL Center, take a look and they don't go, "This is the Taj Mahal!" The harsh phrase "dump" has been used by the unnamed. Still, so few people want to hear the argument. So many want to avoid it. Yet in the Capital Region Development Authority findings on the XL Center is a study to help determine whether the building has viability beyond the 10-year deal with Global Spectrum. I think I know the answer.

"It's a competitive business," Auriemma said. "We recruit against other universities. Mohegan is competing against the XL Center and they did a pretty good job of recruiting the conference office and presidents.

"I would think there are enough smart people at the XL Center to say, OK, how do we improve our position to recruit any tournament? And what can we do during the regular season to enhance every game there? The fact is it's only a one-year and option contract. The door is still open for other places."

Keep the restaurants open. Make parking affordable. Do everything to make downtown vibrant. Look at places like Tulsa, Omaha, Louisville, the days of entitlement for Hartford and XL Center are gone, even within the state.

When Diana Taurasi was a senior, $600,000 was supposedly made on the Big East tournament. Last year, it was $25,000. The XL Center was said to have charged the league $450,000. The XL Center charged UConn $50,000 a game under its previous deal.

UConn's new deal with the XL Center is only for this season. Besides potentially more games at Gampel, if the XL Center isn't smart and creative and Bridgeport and Mohegan Sun step forward, well, you can see what direction the dominoes will fall. And what happens if UConn, at some point, pushes for an improved and new multipurpose arena for hoops and hockey on campus? And if the Islanders take their farm team from Bridgeport to Nassau Coliseum, will the Rangers angle to leave for Bridgeport?

Yes, it is a diverse number of questions. Call me a prophet. Call me a fool. But it all comes down to this: What's Hartford going to do to preserve what it already is losing?

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