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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Caitlin Clark’s Pro Debut: Inside the Connecticut Casino Pressure Cooker

  • Her first game was played in the league’s smallest market, but the region is known for its obsession with women’s basketball.
  • Clark drew a sellout crowd in her first WNBA game, which didn’t go quite as she’d hoped.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — A handful of middle-aged women wearing Iowa hats sat around a blackjack table as they waited for Caitlin Clark’s WNBA debut. The entrance to Mohegan Sun Arena, home of the Connecticut Sun, is inside the same massive complex as bars, restaurants, shops, hotel rooms, and a casino, which is located just steps from the metal detectors to enter the game. Another blackjack player wore Togethxr’s “Everyone Watches Women’s Sports” sweatshirt as throngs of kids in both Iowa Hawkeyes and Indiana Fever No. 22 T-shirts strolled past slot machines on their way to the game.

To fans picking up the WNBA game for the first time because they adored Clark, a suburban casino might have seemed like an odd place to start her pro career. But the Sun, owned by Connecticut’s Mohegan Tribe—which also owns and operates the casino complex—have played there since 2003. The team has a storied WNBA history, having made it to the league semifinals or finals each of the last five seasons, and making it that far in 10 of their 21 years in Connecticut. And yet, it was the first home opener to sell out since the initial one two decades ago, when the franchise moved here from Florida.

Make no mistake: That’s because of Caitlin Clark.

Demand for the season opener was the highest it’s ever been, Mohegan Sun president and general manager Jeff Hamilton told Front Office Sports. Some 1,600 hotel rooms sold out, as did the game itself, and reservations booked up at the roughly 30 bars and restaurants. It was the same level of demand Hamilton saw when Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed at the arena in April.

“From a revenue and from a fiscal perspective, this is the best Connecticut Sun game that we’ve had since we started ownership,” Hamilton said, referring to when the Mohegan Tribe became the first Native American tribe to own a professional sports team, in 2003.

Located about 40 minutes from small airports in both Hartford and Providence, the Sun play in the league’s smallest market, and one of the league’s hardest to travel to. The Sun poked fun at the Clark diehards who made that punishing trip—and local fans who have joined her army of followers—with a special in-game “Bandwagon Cam” spotlighting certain attendees on the jumbotron. “Loyal Fever Fan Since 2024,” the display joked.

“All of these longtime, lifetime, generational Fever fans,” deadpanned the Sun’s in-game host. “It’s the bandwagon convention here tonight in Mohegan Sun Arena!”

Those fans—who made up a sizable minority of the crowd—had to be a little uncomfortable when Clark was pressing out of the gate. She was quickly benched after picking up two fouls in the first half of the first quarter and didn’t get her first bucket until midway through the second quarter. In total, she collected 10 turnovers on the night. The 92–71 blowout loss was something like the reality check the league’s battle-scarred veterans had promised in the narrow window between Clark’s sensational March Madness run and her pro debut. Yet even on a frustrating night, Clark still showed signs of generational talent and basketball IQ with perfectly placed passes.

And off the court, there was no doubting Clark’s impact. Nearly 9,000 fans—the first of what are expected to be many sellout crowds in the Fever’s 40-game summer slate—packed an Uncasville, Conn., casino, and they met the moment. Connecticut has long been the capital of women’s basketball, and the local fans cheered UConn head coach Geno Auriemma and his former star player Jennifer Rizzotti, now president of the Sun. But those fans seemed more than willing to forgive Clark for her role in a heartbreaking Huskies loss in the Final Four just over a month ago. The building erupted for Clark on several occasions, including when she first ran out, when she was introduced, and when she made her first professional three-pointer.

“I think it’s been special,” Clark said when asked about elevating the league. “I think coming in as a rookie, and women’s basketball across the board being at an all-time high, how lucky are we that we get to come in and be in this moment with everybody else? You can’t really script it any better, and for me, I just feel fortunate, and hopefully we can continue to move it forward, and continue to show the world how great women’s basketball is.”

Most fans who wore Clark’s merch were in T-shirts (either Iowa or Indiana), which isn’t surprising given that the draft wasn’t even a month before the first game and only a small portion of fans have gotten their hands on a jersey. It appeared that every single piece of Fever apparel in the arena was Clark-themed. But it seemed that the majority of fans were dressed to support the home team, who drew a large crowd of older fans using walkers, wheelchairs, and canes. No matter which team or star player brought fans into the building, a range of companies loaded up marketing stunts to grab their attention, from Dunkin’ and Walgreens to one that builds submarines. Several members of the New England Patriots even showed up for the game.

Both teams’ coaches said beforehand how excited they were for the WNBA to finally reach this level of popularity. They each noted how important it is for games to be available nationally, to grow the fan base—the game aired on ESPN2, was the first live sporting event on Disney+, and drew a large group of media members—while Clark noted that national broadcasts improve the way players are treated.

“Had we been more visible sooner, maybe it wouldn’t have been today that this was happening,” said Fever coach Christie Sides. “I will take it, though.”

As Indiana fell in a blowout, Clark’s statline finished at 20 points, three assists, and two steals. She contributed 10 of the team’s 25 turnovers, the most a Fever player has ever committed, according to ESPN. The toughest part: The team gets only one day off—or plays back-to-back—for its next six matchups, which include another bout with the Sun and three with the teams from last year’s WNBA Finals, the New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces. Plus, it isn’t guaranteed they’ll be on charter flights, like the one they took to Connecticut for those games. Things aren’t about to get any easier for the Fever, and they won’t have much time in the gym to work through it.

“Connecticut came in and they punched us in the mouth tonight. And we don’t have a lot of practice time for our next one,” Sides said after the game. “So we’ll be in the gym tomorrow watching a lot of video, trying to figure out how not to turn the ball over 25 times.”

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