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Connecticut’s WNBA Team Is More (and Less) Tied to UConn Than You Might Think

UConn women's basketball looms large in the state.

The American Athletic Conference women’s basketball tournament tips off this week. It brings together a college program and a professional franchise that have revolutionized the sport: the UConn women’s basketball team and the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun.

UConn enters the tournament at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut in search of its third straight conference title. It's a stepping stone to the NCAA tournament and, with any luck, a fourth consecutive national championship later this month.

But as UConn continues its skyward trajectory under head coach Geno Auriemma, the Sun look toward the 2016 season -- the WNBA’s 20th -- facing an uphill climb, and a clear goal to strengthen its place in the state’s women’s basketball market after a run of disappointing seasons.

The best way to do that? Win.

“For us, it’s going to come down to: how do we legitimize ourselves?” said Chris Sienko, the Sun’s vice president and general manager. “People know who we are. We’ve done great things. We have to win a championship. I think that’s when people start putting us in the same conversation with UConn.”

The Sun made waves in December when it hired Curt Miller -- a 47-year-old assistant coach for the league’s Los Angeles franchise who rose through the women’s college basketball ranks -- to replace former head coach Anne Donovan, who resigned in October.

Credit Connecticut Sun
Connecticut Sun CEO Mitchell Etess (left), head coach Curt Miller (middle) and vice president Chris Sienko take questions during Miller's introductory press conference last December.
A team having more losses than wins is -- for Connecticut women's basketball fans -- something of a strange concept.

Miller is gay, making him the first publicly out man to coach a professional sports team.

Donovan’s resignation marked the end of a rocky three-year tenure, during which she led the team to 38 wins and 64 losses. Poor on-court performances led to dwindling attendance figures at Mohegan Sun Arena. Last year was the worst for attendance in franchise history, with an average of 5,557 fans attending per game. That’s down from 7,486 just five seasons ago.

“It just never clicked,” said John Altavilla, who covers the Sun and UConn women’s basketball for The Hartford Courant. “They had three losing seasons. They were riddled with injuries. This often happens to teams, they had a significant amount of injuries, especially last year to important players. But there always seemed to be some sort of a missing link, some sort of a missing dynamic, and they actually regressed in that three-year period.”

A team having more losses than wins is -- for Connecticut women’s basketball fans -- something of a strange concept. UConn’s women’s basketball program, which has fervent support across the state, is the best in the country, hasn’t lost a game in over a year, and routinely wins games by double digits.

But a lack of on-court success is also strange for the Sun, one of the league’s few examples of a franchise achieving both competitive and financial success. The team was the WNBA’s first to turn a profit, and has made money each of the last seven years. It’s reached the playoffs eight times -- most recently in 2012 -- and the finals twice, but a WNBA title remains elusive.

Mitchell Etess, the Sun’s chief executive officer, said while UConn’s presence in the state has helped cultivate a knowledgeable, passionate fan base, the nature of the WNBA has forced some fans to adjust their expectations.

“It’s different,” Etess said. “The WNBA is different, and people’s perspective of what a game was like would be, ‘You have a game, win by 40, you go onto the next game and win by 40.’ There’s no Cincinnati games in the W. Every game is a struggle. So getting people to see that it’s different has always been interesting.”

Despite maintaining a respectful distance, the Sun’s UConn ties run deep. Sienko graduated from UConn in the late ’80s, and also serves on USA Basketball's player selection committee for the women's national team. The team's head coach? Auriemma.

The Sun have had UConn players come and go on its roster since the franchise’s relocation from Orlando, Florida, to Connecticut in 2003. The list is a who's who of UConn women's basketball legends, including Rebecca Lobo, Svetlana Abrosimova, Nykesha Sales, and Asjha Jones. The latest player to join that group is Kelly Faris, whom the Sun drafted in 2013 after she won two titles at UConn.

Here's a map of WNBA teams across the country showing UConn players most recently on team rosters:

Miller, the man charged with leading the Sun’s renaissance, has a strong connection with Auriemma, whom he coached against during his time as an assistant coach at Syracuse University in the 1990s.

The spark that led to the WNBA’s very formation came largely out of UConn’s 1995 national title run, Altavilla said.

“I think the national attention that that team drew, the celebrity of Rebecca Lobo, the popularity of Geno Auriemma, the whole Cinderella aspect of how UConn beat Tennessee in January of that year, and then rolled to the undefeated national championship season, I think kind of fired the imagination of women’s basketball fans in a way that hadn’t been seen in the 25 years before that,” he said.

Auriemma himself was the first person to mention Miller to the Sun’s front office staff as a potential head coaching candidate, Etess said.

“I looked up, as a male coaching, to him as a role model, and then watching his teams even more up close and personal, just respected the little things their program stood for,” Miller said of Auriemma. “They played the game the right way… They’re the gold star that we all look to, and would like to run things the way they do.”

Becca Herman, a self-described women's basketball "superfan," said she got hooked on the game when she was living in Washington and attended her first Seattle Storm game. Sue Bird, a former UConn star who has been with the Storm since 2002, was her favorite player.

Herman now lives in Manchester after moving to Connecticut in 2010 to take a job with UConn's Student Activities office, a career move she credited "almost entirely" to women's basketball.

"I was job searching, and I was just searching around one day while I was watching the WNBA finals, and thinking, I guess I could live anywhere with a women's basketball team," Herman said.

Herman, who attends a handful of Sun and UConn women's basketball games each year, said she has noticed a clear link between the two teams' fan demographic.

"The fans at Sun games are mainly UConn fans, at least from my perspective sitting there listening to them all around me," Herman said. "First of all, they’re the same age demographic. They’re usually older women who are UConn women’s fans, and then they go to Sun games. And it’s honestly hard for me to tell if they’re really Sun fans, or if they’re only there to cheer on each individual UConn alum who is on a different team."

Etess and Sienko said while they recognize the unavoidable overlap that UConn and the Sun have had in establishing the state's women's basketball culture, the Sun is also intent on carving out a unique place for the franchise that is distinct from Auriemma’s program and legacy.

“It’s impossible in professional sports to do what they’re doing [at UConn],” Etess said. “It’s impossible, because it’s professional sports and it’s different. But people respect the quality of basketball, they know it’s the highest level of basketball. It’s a different experience.”

Etess said regardless of the level of play, Connecticut remains the torchbearer of women’s basketball nationally.

“I think that we both have, give or take the fact that they’ve got all those banners all over the gym, we have the respect of the basketball world in a different way,” Etess said. “If you ask anybody in the WNBA, I’m very confident if you ask them, ‘What is the model franchise?’ or ‘Name me the three model franchises,’ they would tell you Connecticut.”

Tucker Ives contributed to this report. Jackson Mitchell is an intern at WNPR.

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