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Mohegan Sun Officially Gets American Athletic Conference Women's Basketball Tournament


June 10, 2013

The American Athletic Conference has reached an agreement with the Mohegan Sun Arena to play its inaugural postseason women's basketball tournament at the casino in March, which is good news for the state, but a blow to Hartford.

City officials knew this outcome was likely after last month's conference meetings.

The tournament will be held March 7-10. The deal is for one year with a conference option for the 2015 championship.

"We look forward to this partnership," said conference commissioner Mike Aresco. "Mohegan Sun Arena offers our student-athletes, coaches and fans the best of many things — a world-class facility, a great destination and committed management. We feel that being at Mohegan Sun will enhance an already very successful women's tournament experience."

The 16,294-seat XL Center in Hartford has hosted the Big East Conference women's tournament since 2004 and the loss of the tournament will negatively impact the city. The Connecticut Convention & Sports Bureau estimated that it generated $2.1 million for the local economy while attracting 40,000 visitors this year.

"Certainly we are disappointed," said Chris Lawrence, recently named general manager of the XL Center by Global Spectrum. "We put together an aggressive model that we thought would work."

Lawrence said Global Spectrum might have been handicapped because it has not officially taken over management of the XL Center, though it has been selected for a 10-year contract. Global will take over management of the Hartford venue later this summer.

Over the years, coaches have begun to lobby, publicly and privately, for the conference to move the event to Mohegan, which provides free parking and multiple entertainment and dining options in one spot.

"We could not be more pleased to have been selected as the site of the American Athletic Conference women's basketball championship," said Mitchell Etess, CEO of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority. "We believe we are the absolute best location for this tournament."

The breakup of the Big East and reconfiguration of the remaining conference teams — UConn, Louisville, Rutgers, South Florida and Cincinnati — led to the new philosophy that will bring the event to the home of the WNBA's Connecticut Sun.

"I'm very excited about playing the conference tournament at the Mohegan Sun," said Louisville coach Jeff Walz, whose team lost to UConn in last season's national championship game. "It will provide an exciting environment for both the student-athlete and the fans."

The 9,518-seat arena figures to be a cozier setting than the XL Center, which seats 16,241 and rarely was close to sold out during its Big East tournament run.

The Mohegan Sun will also host the WNBA's All-Star Game in July and has been the site of many men's college basketball and high school tournaments.

"The decision was based on its reputation as a world-class venue," said Danielle Donehew, associate commissioner of The American. "Its management is committed to women's basketball and to our event."

UConn's relationship with the XL Center will continue during the regular season in men's and women's basketball. The XL Center was a longshot contender for The American's first men's tournament, but it appears Memphis will be the host, and an announcement could come Tuesday.

"The XL Center in Hartford has been an incredible host of the Big East tournament for the past nine years," said UConn athletic director Warde Manuel. "The event became the most attended conference tournament in the country. UConn athletic events will continue to have a strong presence at the XL Center, including the debut of Hockey East games in 2014-15."

Lawrence said the XL Center will continue to keep the dialogue alive for future women's tournaments.

"These conversations won't stop," Lawrence said. "We'll see how we can improve, and we'll be aggressive when the time comes again next year. We're going to do everything to get it back."

For UConn coach Geno Auriemma, the relocation is good for business. Geno's Fast Break restaurant is located in the facility.

"Mohegan Sun Arena also has a great reputation and an extensive track record of hosting first-class events," Auriemma said. "I know this venue will provide an enjoyable experience for the teams and fans alike."

Since there will be only 10 teams in The American this season – SMU, Houston, Temple, Central Florida and Memphis will join – the postseason tournament will last just four days and begin with a first-round doubleheader March 7 with the No. 10 seed playing the No. 7 seed and the No. 8 seed playing No. 9. The quarterfinals will begin the next day. The semifinals will be televised by ESPNU. The championship game will be March 10 and televised by either ESPN or ESPN2, which are available to many more subscribers than ESPNU.

Michael Van Parys, president of the Connecticut Convention & Sports Bureau, called it a sad day but said: "It's at least a positive for Connecticut that it is staying here. Hartford has had a great run."

He wasn't alone.

"We all know the casinos are a great thing for the state, but that often comes at the expense of Hartford," said Conor Geary, manager of City Steam Brewery Café on Main Street. "As good as it for them, this is sad for Hartford."

Geary said the days of the tournament provide more than a bump in business: they are a "full house."

"It feels like a Saturday, even if it's a Tuesday," Geary said. "It's not just the event. We rely on the residual and repeat business. We depend on that."

The Mohegan Sun Arena has expressed a desire to host future NCAA Division I sub-regional and regional tournaments to build on the momentum it will receive from this association. But the NCAA said in May that it would not allow the venue to bid on either 2014 or future postseason events it sponsors because of the the association's stance against casino sites.

"That decision rests in the hands of the women's basketball committee," Donehew said. "I would think the discussion would be ongoing. However, I am sure the committee considers many different factors when it contemplates what sites to grant tournament games."

The conference will officially become the American Athletic Conference in July. The conference will comprise UConn, Cincinnati, South Florida, Central Florida, Southern Methodist, Houston, Memphis and, for one year, Louisville and Rutgers. Tulane, East Carolina and Tulsa will join next year.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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