In mid-March, heavyweight boxers Otto Wallin and Travis Kauffman tested positive for Covid-19. At the same time, the virus knocked down most major league and college sports in the U.S. Casino resorts like Mohegan Sun went down for the count, too.
It’s been a long climb back for all involved, and the culmination played out August 15 when Wallin and Kauffman squared off in the ring at the Mohegan Sun Arena, a fight broadcast by Showtime Championship Boxing.
Wallin emerged a winner on a TKO, but that’s almost beside the point for this story. The fact that the fighters lived to fight another day is a story. The fact that the competition returned to an arena, albeit one without fans, is a story. The fact that the arena in question is in the middle of a Connecticut tribal casino is a story.
Tom Cantone, president of sports and entertainment for Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment (MGE), stands at the center of these stories.
“I sat in my office surrounded by 8 million square feet of darkness, thinking of ways to stay relevant during this unprecedented time,” Cantone said of those early days in March.
He reached out to Viacom with an idea to use the resort’s arena to broadcast events for the company’s sports brands. The result was a residency partnership with Showtime Championship Boxing and Bellator MMA, with fights broadcast live on Showtime and the Paramount Network. Bellator kicked off the residency on July 24, and Showtime launched August 1 with a bout between Angelo Leo and Tramaine Williams for the Junior Featherweight World Championship. On August 21, Paramount aired Ryan Bader versus Vadim Nemkov, part of the Bellator 244.
“Tom Cantone and his team have been excellent partners and the venue has suited our unique needs to deliver both boxing and MMA sports,” Stephen Espinoza, president of Showtime Sports, told GGB News.
While no fight fans crowded the stands, all combatants were still tested and quarantined before each fight, Cantone said.
The first event almost brought Cantone to tears. “When I heard them say ‘Live from Mohegan Sun Arena,’ I got a little emotional as I saw my crew and people clapping. I remembered sitting in my office all alone, wishing for this day to come true. And like magic, it did.”
Viacom could have gone to Vegas or L.A, Cantone said. They chose rural Connecticut. “It was a combination of a good relationship and a great team to back it up here at Mohegan Sun,” he said. “It’s an incredible endorsement for our team. We found a way to beat the pandemic.”
“For us, it’s about leadership to show how a venue can reinvent itself even in a pandemic environment.”
The broadcast contract extends at least through December.
Of course, the series’ success begs the question: Could this work for musical entertainment and comedy as well?
“I’m getting calls now to explore just that after seeing us on national TV,” Cantone reported. “I have social distancing models ready just in case,” in case fans may be permitted to attend on a limited basis.
Meantime, the September 26 Showtime event will feature five world titles in one night, Cantone told GGB News with pride. ”It’ll be a huge pay-per-view audience.”