Mohegan Sun must make arena shine
BRIDGEPORT — “Exclusive!” “Exciting!”
Those were the words that Mohegan Sun, one of two casinos in the state’s southeastern section, and the Sound Tigers, the hockey team which operates the city-owned entertainment arena, used in announcing a partnership.
The joint press release offered few details about what, exactly, the “exclusive” three-year deal — which covers the remainder of the Tigers current contract with Bridgeport — means for the underutilized arena other than “concerts, sporting events and sponsorships.”
“We just saw a copy of the announcement. We were not involved in any of this,” said Thomas Gill, Bridgeport’s economic development chief. “It looks like they’ve joined forces to enhance (the arena’s) entertainment. ... Anything that’s going to increase entertainment is a positive as far as we’re concerned.”
Mohegan Sun President Ray Pineault in an email to Hearst Connecticut Media clarified that the casino “will not be co-managing Webster Bank Arena” with the Tigers.
“The three-year partnership involves Mohegan Sun booking some entertainment acts and sporting events (and) includes sponsorship and promotional presence in the venue,” Pineault wrote.
Asked what types of events, Pineault wrote, “It’s hard to say at the moment the exact type of concerts or events that will be brought over as bookings are always subject to the touring schedules of the entertainers and the availability of the venues.”
“However,” Pineault continued, “With our combined forces working together we are confident that the amount and variety of shows that will be brought to Connecticut will be greatly enhanced.”
Pineault also clarified that Mohegan Sun was not promising new jobs in Bridgeport. Rather, he said, partnering with the arena would “enhance tourism revenue to the state.”
And also the city, which this year began levying an admissions tax on arena tickets and which is always trying to lure event goers to dine downtown.
‘A’ list acts
The Mohegan Sun name might have some local music fans thinking big: Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.
While such so-called A list talent has played the casino’s 10,000 seat arena, which is about the same size as Bridgeport’s, it is harder for Bridgeport to afford those acts. Mohegan Sun makes money not just off of the tickets, but off of concert goers who also eat, shop, gamble and sleep at its casino property.
“So the profit margin for performers seemed to be lower here (in Bridgeport),” said Scott Burns, a former city councilman who, in that role and as a Sound Tigers fan.
“A mid-size arena, across the United States, is incredibly challenged to host ‘A’ level acts because of the costs of the acts,” said Howard Saffan, who until 2015 was the Tigers’ owner and managed the arena. “There’s just not enough seats in the arena to pay for the cost of the acts.”
Saffan recently reached a deal with Bridgeport to convert the city’s empty minor league baseball park adjacent to the arena into a warm-weather concert amphitheater. Saffan said having Mohegan Sun as a partner “provides credibility to the arena because Mohegan is a very large marketing arm in the state.”
More importantly, Saffan said, the relationship between the casino and the arena would seem to address another competitive disadvantage for the latter.
“Mohegan has in their (concert) contracts a 75 mile radius clause,” Saffan said. Such clauses prevent musical acts from performing in other areas within that radius. Saffan said Bridgeport’s arena is within 72 miles of the casino.
“Mohegan, hopefully, in the spirit of partnership will let the arena slide” on that radius, Saffan said.
Not mentioned in Mohegan’s and the arena’s announcement, but understood to be involved, is concert promotion giant Live Nation.
Live Nation has brought some acts to the arena, but, Gill noted, “Mohegan concerts are supplied through Live Nation.” And Live Nation is also Saffan’s partner in his Bridgeport amphitheater project — a development the Tigers alleged would compete with the arena and violate the hockey team’s contract with the city.
City Hall and the Sound Tigers are trying to settle that and other disputes related to rent payment and arena infrastructure.
Pineault said that Mohegan Sun and the Sound Tigers “are in discussions with Live Nation regarding what their role may be.”
Saffan and Gill hoped that having Live Nation more involved at the arena would alleviate any outstanding concerns about the amphitheater’s impact on its neighboring venue.
“The goal is this truly becomes an entertainment district and we work collaboratively so we all do well,” Saffan said.
Gill said he was uncertain what prompted Mohegan Sun’s sudden interest in Bridgeport and the arena.
Mohegan’s announcement comes as the Mohegan Tribe and the Mashantucket Pequots which run the Foxwoods casino battle with MGM Resorts International over building a third gambling resort in Connecticut.
The tribes earlier this year were authorized by state lawmakers to break ground on a joint venture in East Windsor to compete with MGM’s new casino in Springfield, Mass. But with federal approval of the East Windsor project in question, the tribes this week said they would consider building in Bridgeport — where MGM just so happened to propose a casino in September.
And MGM’s Bridgeport casino also just so happened to rely on bringing top musical acts to the city’s arena, rather than MGM reinventing the wheel and building another large concert venue .
“They made it clear, to my understanding, with the city fathers that they will assist the venues there to help them book acts,” said Robert Christoph, the developer who has partnered with MGM on its Bridgeport proposal.
Christoph said he did not know enough about the details of Mohegan Sun’s arrangement with the Sound Tigers to speculate on its impact on MGM’s casino proposal: “At this point there’s enough ‘ifs’ and ‘what ifs’ and ‘where ifs’ and ‘how ifs’.”
But he did add that all of the development focus on Bridgeport is “a huge win” for the city.
“I think it’s in Bridgeport’s best interests to say, ‘The more the merrier and we’ll capitalize on any help you can give us’,” Christoph said.