The Day – Darkened venues: For casinos, virus has been a show-stopper

When the Lumineers folk-rocked Mohegan Sun Arena on Feb. 29, no one suspected it would be the venue’s last concert for a while.

People might have started to wonder, though, by the time UConn dispatched Cincinnati nine days later in the championship of the American Athletic Conference’s women’s basketball tournament. UConn’s pursuit of another national title would end March 12, when the NCAA announced it was canceling the national tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On March 17, southeastern Connecticut’s casinos and just about everything else in the state shut down.

Six months later, it’s still anybody’s guess when the next big-name act, be it musical, athletic or otherwise, will take the stage or the floor of a casino venue packed with loud, on-their-feet fans. That’s true for Mohegan Sun Arena and Mohegan Sun’s Wolf Den, as well as for the Grand and Fox theaters at Foxwoods Resort Casino.

“We didn’t schedule anything the weekend of March 13-15 because we knew we were going to be closing, so the AAC tournament had to be the last thing,” Jeff Hamilton, Mohegan Sun’s president and general manager, recalled last week. “Everything’s canceled for the foreseeable future,” which means at least through the end of the year.

Jason Guyot, Foxwoods’ interim chief executive officer, wouldn’t rule out something sooner.

“We’re reviewing the possibility of doing something prior to the end of the year, probably in the Grand Theater, which seats 4,000 people,” Guyot said Friday. “It would be at 25% capacity, with mandatory masks and distancing, and we’d have to figure out how to get people in and out safely.”

The hard part, too, Guyot said, is working out the finances. The Fox Theater seats about 1,300 people.

Hamilton said the Wolf Den, an airy, 350-seat venue plunked down in the middle of Mohegan Sun’s Casino of the Earth, likely will reopen before Mohegan Sun Arena, which seats about 7,000 for concerts. Because of its size and location, the Wolf Den more easily can accommodate social distancing, and because it’s wide open, patrons don’t have to be seated in the theater to benefit from the entertainment.

“You can enjoy live music, the atmosphere it creates, without being near the stage,” Hamilton said. “You can be anywhere in the casino.”

The Wolf Den’s biggest asset may be its financial model, which doesn’t link ticket sales to performers’ fees. Mohegan Sun does not charge admission to Wolf Den acts, even those that are household names.

When open, the casino theaters generate traffic and revenue, with fans who attend shows and events staying at the casinos’ hotels, dining at their food-and-beverage outlets and gambling at their slot machines and table games. It’s hard to quantify the darkened theaters’ impact because it’s so far-reaching.

“We rely on entertainment to be a real driver of visitation to the property,” Guyot said.

Hamilton said Mohegan Sun Arena’s being closed has caused a significant dip in Mohegan Sun’s food-and-beverage revenue. Hotel revenue has fallen, too, largely because of reductions in room rates.

“When you have big events, it drives up demand for rooms, which means you can charge higher rates,” he said. “When you look at hotel ‘miss,’ it’s really driven by rates. You might still be filling up rooms, but not at the higher rates.”

Mohegan Sun offers loyal customers who participate in its Momentum Rewards program free tickets to arena events, some of which are exclusively reserved for program members. At any sold-out show at the 7,000-seat arena, you can expect 1,000 people to be comped Momentum cardholders, Hamilton said.

Like Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun has been studying ways it can reopen its entertainment venues to the general public. In the meantime, it has recast itself as a broadcast television studio for live sports events that take place without an audience present.

“We’ve looked at physical distancing with a capacity of a third of the arena and at 50% capacity. Hosting shows of that size is difficult from a business perspective,” Hamilton said. “With seating limited to every other row, that’s still pretty close quarters even with 2,000 people. Are people going to be comfortable with that? Are the performers?”

“Not only that,” he added, “It’s how do you get people into the arena safely without having them wait in lines at the door, and without them waiting for concessions?”

Operating in a ‘bubble’

With virtually nowhere to perform, touring acts, off the road for months, are itching to get reacquainted with live audiences and the hefty paychecks that come with them, according to Tom Cantone, president of sports and entertainment for Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment, Mohegan Sun’s corporate parent.

“If we said we were going to be ready tonight, they’d be on the road in an hour,” he said. “Big names are not performing. I’ve moved over 500 shows nationwide to later in the year or to next year. They know there’s going to be life after the pandemic, they just don’t know when.”

Cantone said he expects the entertainment business to break records when it resumes next year.

Unwilling to wait until then, MGE reached an agreement with ViacomCBS, owner of Showtime Sports and Bellator MMA, to serve as a broadcast center for a series of nationally televised boxing matches and mixed martial arts events, which have been taking place in the arena since late July. Now, the NCAA and a number of college basketball conferences as well as the WWE, the promoter of professional wrestling, have expressed interest in holding events in the arena.

“We’ve reinvented our relevance,” Cantone said. “Instead of being dark, we’re live — with no fans.”

Mohegan Sun, which lost out to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., on a bid to host the WNBA “bubble,” has created a broadcasting bubble. Production crews, technicians, athletes and staff must undergo COVID-19 testing upon entering and before leaving the arena and remain confined to quarters in the interim. Strict coronavirus protocols are in place.

“Everyone in the bubble stays in the bubble,” Cantone said.

The events taking place at Mohegan Sun Arena are airing all over the world, providing the casino with a marketing bonanza. Signage inside the casino and aerial footage of the property are routinely shown during the broadcasts. Showtime is hyping a Sept. 26 pay-per-view doubleheader at the arena, a total of six fights, five of which are world championship bouts.

An event like that typically would be held at a venue like Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, according to Cantone.

“We found an innovative way to beat the pandemic by making our venue the star until we can get the real stars back,” he said. “But I can’t wait to take the air out of this bubble and replace it with live fans.”

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