HARTFORD, Conn. – A tribal casino in Connecticut is bidding to host the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments for the new American Athletic Conference.
Chris Sienko, vice-president for the Mohegan Sun, which includes a 9,500-seat arena that is home to the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun, said the resort is interested in hosting one or both tournaments.
“We have no insight as to whether we’ll be chosen or be a finalist,” said Sienko, who also serves as general manager for the WNBA team. “We’re just going through the same process that everyone else is going through to be vetted out by the AAC.”
Conference officials confirm the venue is in the running, but said the sites for each tournament will be chosen separately by the presidents and athletic directors of the member schools, with input from coaches. The topic will be discussed at the upcoming conference meetings, which begin May 20.
The conference is also considering cities such as Louisville, Cincinnati, Memphis and Hartford to host the men’s tournament. It is also looking at venues for the women’s tournament in places such as central Florida. Hartford’s XL Center, where the Big East has held its tournament since 2004, also remains in the mix, officials said.
“Due to the powerful fan base in Connecticut and the past success of our championship over the past 10 years in Connecticut, consideration of multiple venues in that state makes sense as we work to consider a group of venues across our footprint and secure our future direction,” said Danielle Donehew, the Big East’s associate commissioner for women’s basketball who will continue with the AAC.
The decision comes at the same time the XL Center is changing management. Chris Lawrence, the building’s new general manager, said they are also hopeful they can bring one or both tournaments to Hartford.
“It’s something new for them and an opportunity for them to get out and see what else is out there, but we’re going to go out and put our foot forward and see how things shake out,” he said. “That track record of proven success here, I think speaks for itself. It’s kind of up to us to make sure we’re engaged with the league and in constant communication with them.”
Big East spokesman Chuck Sullivan said the AAC hopes to make its decisions in the next 60 days.
The casino, which is owned by the Mohegan tribe, has made pitches in the past to host the Big East women’s tournament. But the idea was rejected by presidents of several Catholic schools, who objected to playing at a gambling venue.
Those schools have split off to form their own conference, which is keeping the Big East name. Sienko said they are hopeful the current AAC institutions, which will include UConn, will be more receptive.
“With so many tournaments now being played in Las Vegas, we think that a lot of conferences are now understanding that you need to go someplace where it’s more viable for your conference to showcase itself and what it has to offer,” Sienko said.
The Pac-12 this year held its men’s tournament at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, one of four conference tournaments held in that city. Atlantic City, N.J., has also hosted the Atlantic 10 tournament in Boardwalk Hall, which sits among a strip of casinos.
The Sun currently hosts the annual Hall of Fame Tip Off tournament, has hosted other NCAA games and serves as the site for the state high school basketball championships.
Sienko said his resort offers the conference amenities few other venues can match, including a hotel and box office on site, 30 restaurants, retail shops and 13,000 free parking spaces.
UConn’s athletic director, Warde Manuel, said he doesn’t see gambling as an issue, especially because the Mohegan Sun does not have a sports book.
“I think we’re past the idea that having a tournament in an arena attached to a casino, that in some type of way we’re influencing people to gamble,” he said. “I don’t see that tie.”
UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma said it makes sense to put the tournaments in Connecticut, where UConn with its eight NCAA women’s titles and three men’s titles is the conference’s biggest name.
“Given the fact that the league is so new and we are kind of geographically challenged, so to speak, in terms of finding someplace in the middle, I would hope that this is viewed the same way Madison Square Garden was viewed by the Big East,” he said.