CIAC, Mohegan Sun agree partnership continues to remain beneficial

Photo of Joe Morelli

For the first time, there will be 10 CIAC state championship basketball finals held at the Mohegan Sun Arena this weekend: five boys and five girls games, five games each day.

For the first time in three years, the CIAC will actually get to host state finals after the last two years were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The players, the coaches and the fans get to step back into the arena.

“They (the CIAC) are part of our sports and entertainment family here. We are happy to have them back,” said Tom Cantone, the president of sports and entertainment for Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment. “These are memories and moments to remember for the rest of your life.”

Cantone likes for the Mohegan “to be a great community partner” for any events that are held there. The Mohegan Sun has hosted the CIAC state finals since 2009 and the CIAC and both sides have enjoyed the agreement.

The CIAC has long seen the 10,000-seat Mohegan Sun Arena as a destination, what is now called “The Run to the Sun.” After a two-year absence, that will bring even more meaning to the 20 teams that advance to this weekend.

“We are very happy with the Mohegan Sun. They have been a tremendous partner,” CIAC Executive Director Glenn Lungarini said. “We’re thrilled to bring kids there and give them the experience of playing in the arena. We are not interested in going anywhere else at this point and time.”

Lungarini confirmed that the CIAC has a contract with the Mohegan Sun to hold the state basketball finals there through 2024. He said once the CIAC’s seasons limitations committee meets soon to set dates through 2027, then the two sides can extend the partnership further.

“We map out (seasons limitations) years in advance. When we have the dates for 2025, 2026 and 2027, we can sit down with Mohegan and work on those years,” Lungarini said.

According to publications Pollstar and VenuesNow, Mohegan Sun is rated the No. 1 indoor arena based on ticket sales among arenas with seating capacities between 5,001and 10,000

Cantone was not the president of sports and entertainment at Mohegan when the CIAC was exploring the idea of playing its championships there, but said he was involved in the discussions. After a long stretch at Central Connecticut State University’s Kaiser Hall, then UConn’s Gampel Pavilion for two seasons (2007 and 2008), another venue was in need.

The one big issue at the time was having high school student-athletes walking through a casino to get to the arena. But the former CIAC regime was able to receive a walk-through where the athletes would never actually step foot in the casino after the buses dropped them off.

“I remember it well. We were talking to them (the CIAC) many years ago and the only hurdle was that,” Cantone said. “They saw first-hand there is more than a casino here. There are other non-gaming amenities. They kept coming back and renewing their agreement and commitment to us. We are more than a casino operation. We provide a family experience.”

The tickets are still $10 per session. What was once a Friday/Saturday weekend is now held on Saturday and Sunday, which began in 2014.

There will be no social distancing or mask requirements. Cantone said Mohegan returned to pre-pandemic levels at the end of July in 2021. And even with new college venues being built in state, he still feels Mohegan has the most to offer.

“We have free parking and restaurants. Our amenities dwarf a single venue sitting somewhere,” Cantone said. “Then you leave the venue to find a place to eat, to find parking. There are a lot of unknowns. Having a world-class resort, there is more to offer than the venue itself.”

Cantone also mentioned the guest services the staff provides as teams arrive and throughout time spent there among other people affiliated with the weekend.

“I think what makes Mohegan special is Tom Cantone and his team want us to be there. They are about experiences for kids and they are willing to go above and beyond to give the kids those memories,” Lungarini said. “When you have people there who care about kids and are willing to look at the events through the lens of the student-athlete experience, that makes it easier to have a successful event, and Mohegan does it as well as anybody.”

Cantone said he does plan to attend some of the championship weekend. He was at the ECC championship boys finals on March 1. Mohegan also hosted the ECC girls basketball finals in late February and a high school doubleheader that featured top-10 programs Bristol Central and East Catholic last Dec. 20, a Monday night.

Would Cantone be interested in, let’s say, having the Division I semifinals held there in the future if the CIAC was willing?

“The door is always open for the right event,” Cantone said. “Our commitment to the local community and giving back is really important to us. … They are playing in an WNBA venue (the Connecticut Sun). The NBA has played here. The biggest legends in basketball have played here.”; @nhrJoeMorelli