Mohegan Sun Brand Rises with Sienko Leading the Way

UConn alum Chris Sienko is vice president of Mohegan Sun and manager of the Connecticut Sun.

Chris Sienko '88 (SFA), vice president and general manager of the Connecticut Sun, at the Mohegan Sun on May 16, 2011.

Chris Sienko '88 (SFA), vice president and general manager of the Connecticut Sun, at the Mohegan Sun on May 16, 2011. Photo by Peter Morenus

<p>Chris Sienko '88 (SFA), vice president and general manager of the Connecticut Sun, at the Mohegan Sun on May 16, 2011. Photo by Peter Morenus</p>
Chris Sienko '88 SFA, vice president of Mohegan Sun and general manager of the Connecticut Sun. Photo by Peter Morenus

Although he initially wanted to work in the arts, either as a commercial artist or graphic designer, Chris Sienko, a 1988 graduate of the School of Fine Arts, decided after operating his own small advertising and marketing agency to follow his interest in sports – to the Arena Football League, which arrived in Hartford in the form of the Connecticut Coyotes.

“I was intrigued by a professional sports team,” he says. “I was young enough to take a risk and go a different direction.”

Sienko has continued to explore new and different opportunities, later helping to organize the Connecticut franchise of the American Basketball League (ABL), the New England Blizzard, a women’s basketball league that started just before the WNBA. When the ABL folded after three years, he helped launch a dot com, then returned to advertising and marketing agency work until nine years ago, when a new challenge presented itself – bringing world class sporting events to Mohegan Sun, in Uncasville, Conn.

At the time, Mohegan Sun was beginning to expand the entertainment portion of its business with the recently-completed Mohegan Sun Arena. Today, the facility is rated among the top five venues of its size in the world, according to Billboard Magazine, based on overall revenue and tickets sold, encompassing a wide range of concerts and sporting events.

First independently-owned WNBA team

Soon after he began in Uncasville, the WNBA voted to allow independent ownership of its franchises. The Mohegan Tribe purchased the Orlando Miracle and relocated it to the northeast, renaming it the Connecticut Sun. The franchise became the first independently-owned WNBA team, and the only Native American-owned professional sports operation in the world. Sienko added the title of Sun General Manager to his business card. Now, as a vice president of Mohegan Sun, Sienko has oversight for expanding the casino’s brand through regional marketing initiatives and growing partnerships and sponsorships for the property.

“That was a very exciting proposition for us,” Sienko says. “The model really worked. More and more independent teams have since come to be, and you can really see marked results because teams weren’t tied to the budgets of their NBA counterparts and teams weren’t sharing NBA staff in the off-season. Now, you can have your own people focusing on this product year-round, which is what the league deserves.”

Wearing his Connecticut Sun hat, Sienko guides the day-to-day business and basketball operations, including ticket sales, marketing, public relations, and overall personnel management. On the Mohegan Sun side, he manages sponsorships and regional marketing for the casino, the operation’s expanding property interests, and sponsorship opportunities for the Tribe’s smaller casino, Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Pennsylvania.

The Connecticut Sun has become one of the most successful franchises in the WNBA, leading the league in a number of statistical and financial categories, including average attendance. This year, however, Sienko was able to guide his team to profitability – the first team to do so in WNBA history. Since the Mohegan Tribe took over the team, several WNBA franchises also have found success by following the Connecticut Sun model.

“Chris is the glue that holds the team together,” says Lynn Malerba, chief of the Mohegan Tribe, who holds a master’s degree in public affairs from UConn. “If you walk around on a game day, you will see just how successful he has been by the number of people attending the games, the number of people wearing Connecticut Sun apparel, and the positive energy of our patrons. We are most appreciative of the relationships he has built and the work he does.”

Sienko says keeping the Connecticut Sun and the Mohegan Sun brands in front of the public throughout the year is a primary objective. Establishing the Connecticut Sun Foundation in 2007 is one of the efforts Sienko helped to develop. The mission of the foundation is to improve the lives of youngsters in the state by supporting athletic and educational endeavors, including providing scholarships to high school seniors and grants used for the refurbishment of basketball courts and equipment.

“We are very active in the community,” says Sienko. “Without their support, we would cease to exist, so we do our part to give back. We try to create visible opportunities, though there are many initiatives that we take on behind the scenes. We’ll do as much as possible to be a good neighbor and supporting basketball activities.”

One of the challenges in keeping the year-round presence of the team through its players is the fact that many WNBA players head overseas to play in the more lucrative European leagues in the fall and winter. “You can become obscure in the off-season, especially when you have a powerhouse like UConn women’s basketball in your backyard,” says Sienko. “But the reality is that together, we are always keeping women’s basketball in the forefront.”

The UConn connection

<p>Connecticut Sun players Asjha Jones ’02 (BUS), left,  Renee Montgomery ’09 (CLAS), Kalana Greene ’10 (CLAS),  Tina Charles ’10 (CLAS) at the Mohegan Sun Arena on May 16, 2011. Photo by Peter Morenus</p>
Connecticut Sun players Asjha Jones ’02 BUS, left, Renee Montgomery ’09 CLAS, Kalana Greene ’10 CLAS, and Tina Charles ’10 CLAS at the Mohegan Sun Arena. Photo by Peter Morenus

From its inception, the Connecticut Sun has tried to extend the state’s affection for UConn women’s basketball to the WNBA team. Former Husky Nykesha Sales arrived back in her home state with the former Orlando team, and Sienko also acquired Rebecca Lobo before its first season as the Sun. Over the years, several former Huskies have worn the Connecticut Sun uniform, but not because of where they attended college.

“We’re a business,” says Sienko. “We’re not here necessarily to please the fans from a UConn perspective, but the reality is Geno Auriemma gets the very best players to play for his squad so when they graduate they likely are among the best athletes coming out of women’s college basketball. When we have an opportunity like last year to make a trade to get the best player in the sport, it was for Tina Charles. She just happens to come from UConn. Geno creates winners. He knows how to find the right athletes. He puts them in the best possible position from a mental and physical perspective to win. Those things are factors for us when we’re drafting and trying to find the best players who will give us a chance to win.”

The current Sun roster includes Charles, last year’s WNBA Rookie of the Year; Jones; Renee Montgomery; and Kalana Greene. Other former Huskies who played for the Sun over the years include Sales, Lobo, Ketia Swanier, Barbara Turner, Tamika Williams Raymond, and Svetlana Abrosimova.

Like UConn, the Connecticut Sun has the same goal each year – to win a championship. Sienko says the initial goal was to win the WNBA title within five years of taking over the team. The Sun reached the finals twice in its first three years but did not win.

“It’s hard to get back. We are always making moves to find the right combination to do that,” he says. “Every team wants to win. That’s your ultimate goal. We want our fans to be happy. We want them to enjoy the experience of the game and the entertainment we’re offering, but ultimately you’re judged in the end by how many championships you’ve won, so that’s our priority – to make sure we have the players in place to win those championships.”

Even as he keeps his focus on winning a WNBA title, Sienko continues to work on helping to expand Mohegan Sun’s visibility and business interests. The Arena attracts world-class entertainers and events, new restaurants, shopping outlets, and patrons from throughout the nation.

“Mohegan Sun is an amazing place. There’s so much here,” says Sienko. “I love its growth. For me, the Connecticut Sun is one of those pieces that can help it grow and bring attention to our brand.”

The Connecticut Sun opens play in the 2011 WNBA season against the Washington Mystics on Saturday, June 4, at Mohegan Sun Arena.