It’s the perfect storm of gaming—being able to touch and interact with your customer 24 hours a day, seven days a week—to be able to subtly remind them that you are there whenever they need you. But to do that, you’ve got to be much more than just gaming. You’ve got to be mainstream entertainment.
And above all, you’ve got to be omnichannel. Omnichannel is a misused word in many circumstances, but in this situation, it’s completely accurate and describes being the leading information provider and platform for people who have a propensity to gamble.
It’s a tall order, but if you can even come close to meeting that goal, you’ve captured lightning in a bottle. But that’s the mission of Soo Kim and the company he leads, Bally’s Corporation.
From the Start
It’s a bold goal, especially for a company that started out as a small land-based casino company, Twin River, based in Rhode Island. From that small seed, however, Soo Kim and his team have built a powerful national legacy brand around Bally’s, which, of course, had traction already in the gaming industry. Bally’s started as Bally Manufacturing, a pinball manufacturer in Chicago in the 1930s, and expanded to building slot machines. When gaming was legalized in New Jersey, Bally scored one of the first licenses and opened Bally’s Park Place casino smack in the center of the Boardwalk.
Ensuing years saw the brand change hands many times until it landed with Caesars, which has no interest in expanding it. So when Twin River showed interest in the Atlantic City casino, Caesars sold it for $25 million, and for another $25 million threw in the Bally’s brand. Over the past two years, Bally’s has added almost a dozen casinos to its roster for a total of 16 casinos from Rhode Island to Lake Tahoe.
In addition to the name recognition the casinos bring to the brand, Kim signed a deal with Sinclair Broadcasting to brand its series of 21 regional sports networks as Bally Sports. The networks represent 42 professional teams and several major college conferences.
“Bally Sports Network gets billions of impressions a year, and has helped us re-establish our brand,” says Kim.
But maybe the biggest news over the past year has been the awarding of the single Chicago gaming license to Bally’s. Kim says the Chicago property will be a “landmark casino,” and is proud to have bested two impressive rivals, Hard Rock and River City Group, whose owner, billionaire Neil Bluhm, is a native Chicagoan.
“Sometimes when you are the underdog, the David, you just have to be more intentional about every action that you take” he says. “You have to try harder, you have to work harder. I’m an immigrant, I wasn’t born here, and we didn’t come with any advantages. I’ve had to work to carve out a life for myself and my family. In Chicago, we were there to sort of impose our belief system.”
Chicago has always been a highly sought-after destination, with a higher per-capita number of gamblers than perhaps any city outside of Las Vegas—it has long been the largest contributor, outside of California, of visitors to Vegas.
“Chicago is obviously the third-largest metropolis in the country,” says Kim. “But it’s the second-most popular tourist destination in the country, with 55 million tourists a year that visit Chicago. And guess what? They’re all coming to the Miracle Mile, the North Loop, and we are literally steps away.”
Bally’s is currently planning a temporary casino in Chicago in the landmark Medinah Temple building, with a projected opening date of late second quarter 2023. The permanent casino would be located in the River West neighborhood at a location currently occupied by the Tribune building. Opening is expected in 2026.
Bally’s recently closed the deal to purchase the operations of the Tropicana in Las Vegas—gaming REIT GLPI owns the real estate—giving the company a foothold on the Las Vegas Strip. With Caesars rebranding the Bally’s property on Flamingo and the Strip as a Horseshoe, the Trop will eventually join the Bally’s brand. It’s a property in desperate need of a renovation or a complete demolition, but Kim says they’ll take their time before deciding the direction of the property.
While Kim says they haven’t been part of the negotiations thus far, baseball’s Oakland A’s are considering relocating to Las Vegas, and have viewed the Tropicana site as ideal for a new state-of-the-art stadium. Reports say it would be a mixed-use development that could include a Bally’s casino.
“We control a very important corner on the Strip,” he says. “And they’re not creating more Strip corners. And it’s for a very modest price, so we can afford to be patient. We’ve built our business by cleaning up other people’s mistakes; we don’t intend to make our own. I believe that there is tremendous potential for a redevelopment at that site, but we want to be cautious and be patient, as the opportunity presents itself.”
As for the A’s stadium deal?
“They just have to feel the love from the community,” he says, “and I think that’s political. We don’t really get involved in that. And so, I hope that this community will figure that out, because I think it would be great.”
A bidding process has begun for another gem for any company’s gaming portfolio, a casino in or near New York City. Kim has a special affection for the area.
“I’m from New York,” he says. “New York is the most important market. It’s untapped. And it deserves to keep its own tax revenues, its own jobs, in the state. I’m a New York City taxpayer; I would like to keep our own taxes. I just think it’s one of those things that’s a matter of basic fairness.”
He admits that the competition will likely be quite formidable.
“I think if people were to make a shortlist, they probably wouldn’t put us on it, and I think that’s great,” he laughs. “Because we are happy to play the role of the underdog.”
The brick-and-mortar casinos are just part of the equation for Bally’s. The other side is the sports betting/iGaming end, and for Kim, it’s not happening fast enough. Part of the reason for that sluggishness is Bally’s commitment to owning their technology. That led to the purchase of Bet.Works, an online sports betting platform, and Gamesys, a U.K.-based iGaming company. Incorporating the two has been a journey, according to Kim. Bally Bet is the company’s sports betting platform, which is active in only a few states. So the delay is frustrating for Kim.
“We have good technology people; it’s just taking longer,” he says. “I would have hoped that we’d be further along by now. Because North America is so sports-led, if you’re not with sports, you’re not really in the game. But I continue to be very optimistic. I consider that the opportunity set is even more clear than it was before. It’s going to take a little while.”
He says the Gamesys iCasino product, active in New Jersey, is performing well. He says last month the Bally iCasino produced $4 million in revenue in a very competitive market.
“On the iCasino side, there is no one better,” he says. “They have operated in the longest, most-regulated markets, and they’re good. It’s the only platform that works without sports in the U.K. that has substantial market share. I think we have a lot of lessons from our business in Europe and Asia that we can bring to the U.S.
“There’s also an opportunity that when we finally figure out sports in the U.S., we can bring sports out in our existing markets. We still have not introduced a Bally brand internationally, which I think is a really wonderful opportunity, and we absolutely intend to do it. So, there’s still many, many more efficiencies between these two businesses.”
In its most recent quarterly report, however, Lee Fenton, the CEO of Bally’s Interactive, says it’s time to evaluate the tech purchases made by the company over the last two years.
“We are evaluating our money-losing businesses in North America interactive and refocusing efforts where we have faster paths to profitability,” Fenton said during the company’s third-quarter earnings report. “We pulled together a fairly large number of assets in a small space of time; we’ve now had 12 months of looking at that and knitting that picture together. The assets that are not showing us a near-term path to profitability will of course be under the microscope, as they should be.”
He says the company will identify what it will consider a “core asset” and possibly dispose of anything that doesn’t meet that description.
Kim sees online gaming as a very social activity, something that hasn’t revealed itself completely at this time.
“It’s all about entertainment,” he says. “It’s a form of opinionating, actually— a form of interaction. When you put money on something, that’s like saying, ‘Hey, I feel so strongly about this that I’m putting money behind my statement.’ But really, if you think about it, gaming is opinionating, and it should be shared, it should be social, it should be interactive. I actually think the future of gaming is not sitting in the corner or feeding the machine. I think this future of gaming is as a product and a service to a larger experience that’s interactive, that’s social, that’s casual. A much bigger market.”
Kim believes that content is king in the online space, but that it’s littered with roadblocks and hurdles.
“The current media landscape for content is that it’s all owned by people who are very careful about how they own it,” he explains. “And they all have copyrights, and we’ve got to respect that. Sometimes you have the video rights, but you don’t have the data rights. It’s an almost Byzantine system of the way content producers today monetize their content, whether through a subscription or through advertising. Ultimately what we’re talking about is engagement.”
In the context of the Bally Sports networks, the company has taken a somewhat eclectic path.
“We’ve been investing in boxing and poker shows and volleyball (Bally’s bought the AVP Beach Volleyball League last year). Soon, you’ll see other sports—we’re in the process of acquiring their rights. We’re not just going to sit on them—it’s not a land grab. We see an interesting set of rights; there’s a lot of them. Let’s collect them, and let’s see what we can do, to make it more fun, more engaging, two-way, interactive, and maybe you’ll put some money on it.”
Kim envisions an entirely different way that viewers will consume sports in the future.
“Look, the user experience for watching games on TV is terrible right now,” he says. “We force people to pay $100 a month, sit alone, in their living rooms, when less than half the Americans have cable. That’s not great. That means the other half literally cannot watch it.
“We don’t want sports to become boxing—pay-per-view, high paywall, no viewership. Sports is built on masses and it’s a shared experience. And we need to bring it back that way. But when the current economics are subscription or advertising, it’s really hard to do. Engagement is the answer. There has to be a third leg to the stool.”
Kim believes that sports betting and online gaming in North America is still in its infancy, and the sky is the limit.
“We’re in the early days, for sure. And we’re going to make mistakes, and it’s going to be a journey,” he says. “But we’re talking about Apple. It’s an idea. It’s an idea for an integrated product, a user experience. If one day somebody says that we are the Apple of gaming, that would be great!”