2019 in review: Looking back at the year in Atlantic City, southeastern Pennsylvania casinos
Legal sports betting’s first full year was the big story
There was seldom a dull moment in the casino industries on both sides of the Delaware River the past 12 months. For a change, most of the news was on the positive side—for the industry and its patrons. Below is a look at some of the highlights:
By the ‘book’
There’s no debating the biggest development of the year was the introduction of no less than eight permanent, state-of-the-art sports-wagering facilities in the region. At one point, it seemed the parade of ribbon-cutting ceremonies was endless. In Atlantic City, Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa unveiled its Moneyline Bar & Book betting parlor, Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City and its sister property, Bally’s Atlantic City, each debuted rooms named The Book and Tropicana Atlantic City gave AyCee its second William Hill-branded sportsbook (the other is located at Ocean Casino Resort).
More than just amenities, these facilities have quickly become integral parts of their hosts’ operations--especially in Atlantic City, where sports betting (in-person and online) is having a significantly positive impact on bottom lines citywide.
While even the most optimistic Atlantic City boosters aren’t expecting a return to the days when the casinos’ collective take (in gross revenue) topped $5 billion, there’s still ostensible cause for celebration: The town’s gambling dens are expected to exceed $3 billion in gross gaming revenue this year. If that happens (and it appears to be a lock), it will mark the first time since 2012 that much was earned.
That figure is all the more impressive when you consider that seven years ago, Atlantic City was home to 12 casinos as opposed to the nine that exist today. But this being Atlantic City, there’s always a dark cloud hiding a silver lining.
Two powerful casino executives went public with their disappointment and fears in 2019. Jim Allen--the Atlantic City native who serves as chairman of Hard Rock International and CEO of Seminole Gaming—and is the guy behind Hard Rock Hotel Casino Atlantic City opening on the site of the shuttered Trump Taj Mahal in 2018--aired his grievances with the city of Atlantic City in an interview with Roger Gros, publisher of the trade magazine Global Gaming Business. Allen spared nothing and no one as he decried everything from inaction and broken promises on the part of city and state officials to the deteriorating condition of Pacific Avenue, the main stem for the Boardwalk properties.
And Tilman Fertitta, the billionaire owner of Golden Nugget Atlantic City complained to the Press of Atlantic City that nine casinos were two too many for his and other gaming halls to be profitable over the long haul.
‘Revel’-ing in Ocean’s success
By far, the “feel-good” story of 2019 is the dramatic turnaround taking place at the far-western end of the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
Five years after Revel-the biggest failure of the town’s legal-gambling era—closed, its successor, Ocean Casino Resort, has established itself as a financially viable concern as well as one of AyCee’s top-tier properties in terms of luxury and amenities.
While the 20-acre complex itself has always been a breathtaking architectural accomplishment, its current owner, New York hedge-funder Luxor Capital Group, and its current management team have corrected Revel’s most egregious errors (e.g. ridiculously high room-and-restaurant price points, no premium-players’ lounge) and aimed their marketing sights not on some mythical super-rich New Yorker (as did Revel), but on the far-more-moderately incomed folks who have always comprised the core of the AC gaming market.
The result has been a thriving-in-2019 pleasure dome that has taken giant strides toward fulfilling the property’s potential.
The name game
October saw the rebranding of two high-profile southeastern Pennsylvania properties. On Oct. 11, Sands Bethlehem officially became Wind Creek Bethlehem. The casino was purchased by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, an Alabama-based tribe, earlier in the year.
Less than three weeks later, Philly said “see youse” to the SugarHouse brand as Rush Street Gaming of Chicago re-christened the casino Rivers Philadelphia in order to bring it in line with its properties in Pittsburgh, Schenectady, N.Y. and Des Plaines, Ill.
A new deal for Caesars
This will likely be a bigger story going forward as the dust begins to settle after the sale closes sometime this winter, but it’s certainly noteworthy that Reno, Nev.-based Eldorado Resorts purchased the mighty Caesars Entertainment empire.
As Eldorado owns Tropicana Atlantic City, the Caesars deal gives it four AyCee casinos—an inventory state regulators might see as excessive in a nine-casino jurisdiction. Which means one of the three gambling dens Caesars brings to the transaction—Bally’s Atlantic City, Caesars Atlantic City and Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City—could be sold.
That’s show biz
It’s impossible to proclaim any casino-hosted performance as the “best” of the year because it would be physically impossible for one person to see every casino show over the course of a year. Nonetheless, there were several turns that left a lasting impression on this audience member:
In August, the Stray Cats’ patented blend of 1950s’ rockabilly and 1970s punk energy made for rip-snorting, foot-stomping time at Ocean.
Later that month, the incomparable—and awe-inspiring 93-year-old Tony Bennett wowed the very lucky crowd at what was still Sands Bethlehem.
In October, Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa hosted one of the best programs I’ve seen in more than 45 years of being an entertainment critic: Steve Martin and Martin Short’s Now You See Them, Soon You Won’t show. Suffice it to say, every man, woman and child in America should see this showcase for the dazzling array of talents—comedic and otherwise--these guys possess.
Borgata was also the site of two other gigs that showcased, of all things, two former NFL stars.
In November, beloved Eagles long-snapper-turned-magician/inspirational speaker Jon Dorenbos proved to be a highly polished and engaging performer, while earlier this month, Hall of Famer/TV football guru Terry Bradshaw displayed the chops of a first-rate entertainer thanks to his thoroughly likeable stage presence, superb comedic timing and surprisingly facile vocal chops.
From me and mine to you and yours, here’s my best wishes for a joyous, peaceful and healthy 2020.
See you at the casinos!