Unique is an understatement. The trip to a Connecticut Sun game starts with a pilgrimage of sorts. It’s not that the Mohegan Sun is too difficult to get to, but when it comes to the professional sports landscape, it’s in the middle of nowhere. The journey falls somewhere between the trek to Lambeau Field for a Packers game and the quick hop out of Boston to see the Patriots.
Off the beaten path from any of the surrounding cities, the entertainment destination sits on the Mohegan Indian Reservation in rural Connecticut. Part casino, part shopping mall, part multipurpose arena, the setup is unique to the Connecticut Sun of the WNBA and the New England Black Wolves of the National Lacrosse League, two franchises operating out of the same front office. Following a near two-hour drive from Boston, an hour from Hartford, hour and a half from Providence, and really a nice little jaunt from just about anywhere in New England, fans follow a winding path through the densely wooded highway to the sight of the gleaming hotel peeking above the property, accented by a gorgeous backdrop of rolling hills and the Thames River. Signs direct fans, casino goers and all others to an abundance of free parking options, all pretty equal in distance from the court. Once through the main doors, it becomes a near labyrinth of slot machines, betting games, dining options, arcades, nightclubs and shopping selections comparable to any high-end mall in the country. You pass through it all to find the pearl of the property: the arena itself.
Fans who really want to make the best of the weekend games can book rooms at the attached hotel, making it a matter of steps from courtside seats to a plush leather chair surrounding blackjack tables, a booth in dozens of dining options or a lounger by the pool, then another few paces to the elevator to call it a day. From an early pregame through keeping the party rolling into the night, the Mohegan Sun provides a one-stop experience that makes the trip worth the effort. If only the changing of the trees aligned with the WNBA season, it would truly be a basketball Mecca.
Of course, the real highlight of it all is the game. Fans who were in the building on Friday, June 21st were treated to a growing rivalry between the Atlanta Dream and the Sun. Last year, the series belonged to Atlanta, but as Connecticut catches fire through 2019, it’s already claimed half the matchups, owning this one 86 to 76. Red-hot off a seven-game winning streak, the Sun moved to 9-1 by the end of the night in front of their avid supporters. The crowd swelled beyond my expectation for the location of the contest. The entire lower bowl of the stadium was shoulder to shoulder orange-clad fans, knowledgeable of their beloved Sun and ready to erupt in protest over a missed call or to their feet over another Shekinna Stricklen made three-pointer.
“It’s good basketball and in the backyard,” Ron Terranova from Gales Ferry, Connecticut, explained to me while sporting a UConn hat and Sun #1 Fan t-shirt. “My wife comes with me. We go to as many games as we can, maybe six or seven [per season].”
On the hardwood, the Sun are an example of when things are just working. The vibe around the team is contagious; smiles are shared, no one too serious. Coach Curt Miller is starting to really show trust in the entire bench. For the first half he stayed glued to his seat, contrasting his former assistant, the ever-squatting Nicki Collen steering the opposing ship. Miller remained shouting from his chair before coming to his feet when the Dream got a run going and pulled with three points in the third frame. With growing minutes among the bench and exciting performances from Rachel Banham and Shekinna Stricklen, player efforts were rewarding Coach’s longer leashes. Minutes are balancing out and players are responding to shifting roles with enthusiasm instead of trepidation.
When it’s time for a pick-me-up, it’s all eyes on Courtney Williams. The 25-year-old guard from Georgia is a four-year vet, self proclaimed “one of the flyest in the league” and when it’s game time she becomes hype in human form. Pregame dance moves, bench celebrations, exaggerated facial expressions and exuberant energy are all part of her aura.
I crossed paths with a shy young fan from Milford, Massachusetts, named Zachary Sulkis. A three-year season ticket holder, Sulkis is taking in the most successful season yet. The passion from the players claims his allegiance, but Williams in particular has his attention.
“I really like watching Courtney Williams every game. She’s definitely my favorite player,” Sulkis told me, contrasting the overwhelming response of Bahamian-raised Jonquel Jones as a current fan favorite. “I like how she plays and how she acts.”
The fans feed off these interactions. It’s apparent that these women loving to go to work every day and the passion is what packs the building. The players wear it all on their sleeves, and eventually the Mohegan Sun matched the tempo.
I had a short conversation with a local who has stuck with the Sun from inception. Fran Poris of Ledyard, Connecticut, was excited to share her opinion on the difference in the experience from year one to now while munching on her recently acquired salted pretzel.
“A lot more enthusiasm, a lot more fans,” she reflected. “Just the feeling, the whole thing is amazing. This year especially with the support for the women and the Burn It Down [campaign]. It’s fabulous and I love the dancers; they have all shapes of women [and men], not just tall slim blondes.”
Poris’ excitement for the evolution of game day is her bait for hooking new Sun fans. Whether it’s community members or family visiting from her native New York, she’s always trying to be an ambassador for her favorite team.
While it’s expected that a few curious folks on a weekend getaway will wonder in to see what the commotion is about, the Mohegan Sun was packed with folks proudly donning t-shirts and jerseys from across the decades, featuring near countless slogans, promotions and player support. When I got to talking with fans around the concourse, I was hard pressed to find anyone at a Sun game for the first time. Season ticket holders return for each contest from New York to New Hampshire. Some folks, like Sulkis, spend well over an hour in the car for each game, while others like Poris and Terranova live just five minutes up the road. The Mohegan Sun is pretty much all there is as far as commercial entertainment goes in the surrounding communities, so it’s a no-brainer that fans spend their summers getting an incredible bang-for-your-buck experience in the comfort of the A/C. For others, it was a passion for UConn women’s basketball, about a 45-minute drive to campus, that got them curious about, and eventually hooked on, the Sun. For all, it’s the complete package for the family to get away and when they get their first tastes they instantly become repeat customers.
For those hitting the dusty trail after the final buzzer, it was far from a nightmare getting back on the highway. It seems like a chunk of the crowd remained to call the Mohegan Sun home for the night, while a steady stream flowed toward the on-ramps. Young basketball lovers and hardcore supporters stuck around to meet the heroes of the night, finding autographs from those they just cheered on. Despite a swelling crowd of 6,608 faithfuls, getting around and out of the isolated venue seemed to be anxiety free for all. Winding back out of the flashing lights, the chance to grab one last ice cream cone or a Krispy Kreme doughnut presents itself for a little sugar rush to aid the drive home.
The journey, action and facility made the fan experience was nearly incomparable to anything I’ve experienced in North America. Hospitality shown by the Sun staff and fanbase made me a fan for life. From basketball faithful to those trying to entertain the family on a budget, a Connecticut Sun home game is a win for everyone.