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Live! Performance

Cordish Companies perseveres through the Covid-19 crisis to open two Pennsylvania properties in a year

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Live! Performance

Last month, Cordish Companies staged a weeklong grand opening celebration for the new Live! Casino & Hotel Philadelphia. Any other year, this would be a routine, feel-good industry story. This year, it is a story of a remarkable achievement. Live! Philadelphia is the second Cordish casino opened in as many months, both built in record time in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Baltimore developer Cordish had parlayed its regional “Live!”-branded sports and entertainment districts into the casino business with the 2012 opening of Live! Casino & Hotel Maryland, adjacent to the Arundel Mills Mall in the Baltimore suburb of Hanover. It wasn’t the first casino project for Cordish, which developed the Hard Rock resorts in Tampa and Hollywood, Florida for the Seminole Tribe. But it was the first to take the Live! concept—sort of a sports bar on steroids, awash in video monitors, entertainment and a full food menu—and wrap it into a casino.

After Live! Maryland opened, Philadelphia was a natural next step for Cordish, which already operated the Xfinity Live! attraction in partnership with Comcast, Inc.

Xfinity Live! is a short walk from Wells Fargo Center, the arena of the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers and the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. It is the heart of the city’s Stadium District, walking distance not only from Wells Fargo Center, but Citizens Bank Park, home of Major League Baseball’s Philadelphia Phillies; and Lincoln Financial Field, home of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles.

This is sports central, a perfect complement to the Live! brand. The new property would capitalize on that fact, with nods to the city’s sports teams all around the property, a collection of bars and lounges adorned with huge LED screens beaming sports contests, and its unique FanDuel Sportsbook and Lounge, a state-of-the-art facility giving patrons the ability to bet on sports while lounging in style.

But Philly is not the only amazing Pennsylvania story from Cordish this year. In December, the company unveiled Live! Pittsburgh, located in the space of a former anchor store at the Westmoreland Mall, around 30 miles east of downtown Pittsburgh.

The new Philadelphia property gives the developer bookend properties in the two largest markets in the second-largest gaming state in the country.

Eyes on Pennsylvania

With Pennsylvania one of the only gaming states in expansion mode prior to the pandemic, Cordish Companies had eyes on the market as perfect for the follow-up to its popular Maryland Live! property. The second Philadelphia casino license, in flux after successive owners backed out amid the Great Recession, provided a perfect opportunity.

Sports & Social sports bar at Live! Philadelphia

Cordish formed a subsidiary, Stadium Casino, originally in partnership with Greenwood Gaming, which owns Parx Casino in the Philadelphia suburb of Bensalem. Ultimately, Cordish would buy out its partner in 2018 to become the sole owner of Philadelphia’s second casino license, for a hotel-casino to be built in what is arguably one of the most prime locations in the nation.

Sitting in the center of all of Philadelphia’s professional sports facilities will surely result in a host of foot traffic on and around game days, and with easy access from Interstates 95 and 76, and it’s hard to argue with the location.

By the time Cordish took sole possession of Stadium Casino, the company was eager to capitalize on the new Pennsylvania gaming law, which in 2017 created a new license category—Category 4, smaller casinos (750 slots, 40 table games), created as satellite facilities for current licensees. Cordish jumped on the opportunity by securing a license to build its satellite facility in the state’s second-most populous area.

“The commonwealth of Pennsylvania has a tremendous value to us as a major East Coast operator in the casino space,” says Cordish Companies principal Reed Cordish. “Being in the two premier cities obviously has its merits, and we have great locations in both cities.”

Construction on the two Pennsylvania properties would occur concurrently. Cordish celebrated construction milestones on both sides of Pennsylvania in 2019 as both projects proceeded smoothly.

Then, Covid-19 hit.

With casinos idle around the world, it was reasonable to expect operators to stand pat in survival mode, as opposed to growth mode. But Cordish soldiered on with both projects—remarkably, completing them not far from the original targeted opening dates.

Live! Casino Pittsburgh opened as the state’s first Category 4 casino—and likely the only one ever to open before its host casino—in early December, and the Philadelphia property opened for Preview Days January 19.

But the celebration in Philadelphia on February 11 heralded the next evolution of the Cordish gaming model—the Live! entertainment concept matched up with hallowed sports ground in the nation’s third-largest city.

Pittsburgh First

FanDuel Lounge at Live! Pittsburgh

It’s no coincidence that the Cordish gaming model also happens to work quite well on the western side of Pennsylvania. According to Rob Norton, president of Cordish Gaming Group, the company moved to secure a satellite facility (sometimes called “mini-casinos”) as soon as Category 4 was created in 2017.

“Once the Category 4 options became available and the law passed, we immediately started considering the potential locations,” Norton says. “We felt like there were a handful of really great locations, and our location in the Westmoreland Mall, on the east side of Pittsburgh, we felt was the best option in the entire state. And as you saw, even during the pandemic, we went from from concept to opening in near record time.”

“It’s a great area where we’re in a fantastic mall,” comments Joe

Billhimer, Cordish executive vice president in charge of both Pennsylvania properties, who notes that it’s one instance of the original Maryland Live! property serving as a model going forward. That property is adjacent to a retail mall; Live! Pittsburgh is in a mall. “The Cordish experience experience of operating gaming (adjacent to) a mall has proven to be beneficial in terms of foot traffic, location, and locating where people like to go,” Billhimer says.

“It is a very nice, well-appointed casino, 750 slots, 30 tables, two great dining venues—we’re really proud of how that fits into the market there. We think it will be a draw for that whole part of Pennsylvania.”

That includes employing local talent. Cordish established a live dealer school near the Westmoreland Mall, augmenting what Billhimer says was a very good supply of experienced dealers from other Pittsburgh-area and West Virginia casinos.

The property itself follows the Cordish model, including the necessary sports vibe—capsulized by the popular Sports & Social sports bar concept. First conceived 10 years ago at Cordish’s Fourth Street Live! property in Louisville, Kentucky, Sports & Social blends dining, social games and various other entertainment in a unique attraction centered around sports.

“One of the signature concepts of our Live! districts is our trademark brand Sports & Social, which we consider to be the premier sports-focused restaurant and entertainment concept in the country,” says Cordish. “It’s one of the highest per-square-foot revenue restaurants in the United States, and just a juggernaut success in Pittsburgh.”

And in Pittsburgh, sports are woven into the fabric of the market every bit as much as in Philadelphia. “In Pittsburgh, we have one of the more higher-end Sports & Social facilities within the portfolio,” says Billhimer. “It’s an unbelievable spot to watch sports, and we’ll do (partnerships) in the Pittsburgh market with the sports teams.”

Category-Killer

If Live! Pittsburgh is a sure hit, Live! Philly is a sure home run. Cordish built the property in the style of a destination resort, distinguishing it from nearly all other regional casinos, which are built more for convenience-style locals gambling.

The one constant that will drive success for this destination-style business, though, is that prime location.

“I have to tip the hat to the Cordish family and the Cordish development team for doing what nobody has been able to do for a long time in securing a site here in the Philadelphia area,” says Billhimer. “It’s one of the best sites left in America.”

“What really excited us about it,” adds Cordish, “was the opportunity to create something in conjunction with the Stadium District that is truly unique anywhere in the United States. This combination of four professional sports teams and a world-class gaming resort facility sets it apart.”

Cordish adds that with the new Live! casino, the company was able to benefit a Philadelphia community it has been a part of for nearly a decade. “We’ve had the privilege of being able to operate in this market for a long period of time,” he says. “We opened Xfinity Live! with our partners Comcast back in 2012, and it’s been one of the strongest food and beverage entertainment districts of its kind anywhere in the United States. And that certainly gave us a lot of confidence going into this larger project. This is a market we know well and a market we really like.”

That feeling, no doubt, is mutual. Live! Philadelphia created 5,000 jobs (3,000 in construction; 2,000 permanent) and will have an estimated economic impact in the neighborhood of $2 billion in the first five years of operation.

If there was ever a facility that can meet or exceed those estimates, it is Live! Philadelphia. The 510,000-square-foot property features 2,200 slot positions, which includes 74 electronic table games. There are 121 table games with plans to expand to 150, a dedicated 29-table poker room, a six-room Event Center that includes 15,000 square feet of customizable meeting/entertainment event space, and a variety of food and beverage options that include a number of local favorites. An attached multi-level parking facility is augmented by some 2,000 spaces in an outdoor surface lot.

Across the property’s interior are nods to the Philadelphia region, including not only sports teams but artwork from local artists, famous local food, and even the sculpture that greets customers at the casino entrance—a bright red replica of Robert Indiana’s famous “LOVE” sculpture that marks the Love Park plaza in downtown Philadelphia. Of course, this one says “Live!” instead of “Love.”

The Prime Rib

Restaurants include The Prime Rib, the top Zagat-rated steakhouse previously located in Center City Philadelphia for more than 20 years; Luk Fu, “where the authentic flavors of Southeast Asia meet in South Philadelphia;” and 10th Street Market, a unique food hall inspired by the great food markets in Philadelphia where guests will be able to enjoy a wide variety of food, as well as a bar open 24/7.

The F&B offerings include special touches like private dining and karaoke rooms in Luk Fu, the Asian fusion brand first developed at Live! Maryland. Inside the room, a large circular table is equipped with giant lazy Susan for community dining.

The local-flavor 10th Street Market food court features favorites like two Guy Fieri outlets—Guy’s Burger Joint and Guy’s Taco Joint—Morty’s Deli, Luckie’s Liquor and Termini Brothers Bakery (a 99-year Philly institution).

The 208-room luxury hotel features state-of-the-art technology in rooms at various price points, including two levels of suites offering killer views of the city—providing one more factor distinguishing the new property from others in the Philadelphia region.

“We were the first casino development in the commonwealth to actually build a hotel with with its development,” Billhimer says. “I think our location has poised the market for growth.”

Highlights of the casino include unique offerings such as the Sports & Social brand wrapped around the Cordish FanDuel Sportsbook concept—sports wagering in a best-in-class sports bar, featuring a 500-foot-long LED screen and different styles of entertainment. There’s even a large foosball table.

“Here in Philadelphia, we’ve been able to integrate the FanDuel experience into Sports & Social, and we feel that gives us an incredible point of differentiation versus other experiences,” says Cordish. “And it’s something that we’re going to lean into heavily in our casino properties and other entertainment districts. We have a Sports & Social well under construction now at Maryland Live!, and we’ve used Sports & Social as a tremendous growth vehicle around the country.”

Other highlights of the main casino reveal the unique Cordish touch. One signature feature is the R Bar, a unique interactive area featuring electronic table games arranged facing a 40-foot-long video screen. First conceived in the Maryland Live! property, the R Bar presents all 74 of the property’s dealer-assisted ETGs in a pit configuration that puts the live dealers in front of the attraction.

The ETGs offer players the opportunity to play two blackjack games, two baccarat games and roulette, all at the same time.

The R Bar concept features what Billhimer calls “probably the most aggressive Interblock Gaming portfolio out there” in a configuration that has been copied liberally by other operators. “It’s a very interactive area with a great sports bar,” he says, “with the game offerings of Interblock arranged in a stadium style.”

Other highlights of the casino include the two high-limit gaming rooms, each with its own private bar, its own cage, and personalized service. The slots—denominations ranging from $1 to $500—are each situated in a private, Plexiglas-enclosed station. According to Norton, while the private stations provide safety against spread of the Covid-19 virus, they actually were designed before the pandemic hit, simply as a way to give the best slot players their own space.

Everything in the new casino points to the elevated Center Bar, another sports-themed bar with giant LED TV screens, communal tables, lounge seating and live music, offering a 360-degree view of the gaming floor.

Each of the property’s 121 table games is equipped with ticket-in/ticket-out pay technology, allowing players to buy in with a ticket and cash out at a kiosk. According to Norton, the property’s Aristocrat Oasis casino management system is equipped to offer completely cashless play in the near future.

This technology at the tables, which reduces player/dealer touchpoints and cash-handling, is only one aspect of an operation designed with maximum safeguards against the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

Upon entering the casino, all guests and employees pass by thermal cameras to detect anyone with a fever. Once inside the casino, the sea of Plexiglas is striking, with barriers between slot games and in front of dealers at every table. Hand sanitizer stations are everywhere.

It’s all part of “Play It Safe,” the program initiated at the Maryland Live! property early last year to effect a safe return to operations following the pandemic shutdown.

iGaming Assist

The new properties in Pennsylvania follow one more important precedent set in Maryland—building a database online. In an industry first, Cordish launched PlayLive!, its Pennsylvania online gaming site, ahead of the opening of the physical property.

Prior to the 2012 opening of Maryland Live!, Cordish launched a free-to-play social casino that allowed customers to become familiar with the Live! brand and to join the Live! player’s club online. This time, the site, launched in August, is a for-money iGaming site, utilizing the GAN online gaming platform.

“We got about a five-month head start, and we started to build brand awareness and brand loyalty in the online space, all while giving opportunities for those customers to earn entries into the grand opening celebrations and all kinds of other prizes,” says Norton. “That was just one of a number of efforts to try to build the database quickly on the front side.”

Norton adds that the GAN iGaming platform is another holdout from Maryland. “GAN was the platform that we chose back in 2011 to launch the play-for-free site in advance of Maryland,” he says, “and they’ve been our partners ever since we expanded into real-money online gaming. We did an exhaustive search of platforms, and we felt GAN gave us the best opportunity to deliver the product, the quality and the speed that we were interested in putting it into market. They’ve been good partners, and continue to refine the product.”

The success of the Live! Philadelphia casino stands to grow quickly as the Covid-19 pandemic subsides—particularly when the major sports teams resume play with full attendance, when the Stadium District is typically crowded with fans and Cordish’s own Xfinity Live! attraction a couple of blocks from the casino is packed with customers.

“Just imagine 80,000 or 90,000 fans coming in for an Eagles game, or any of the other sporting events here, and you know it’s going to play a large role here in Philadelphia,” says Billhimer.

The operator has marketing partnerships either in place or in the works with all Philadelphia professional sports teams, as well as in Pittsburgh. However, in Philadelphia, the sports angle combines with the hotel to transform the property into a regional draw.

“I think we’re absolutely a local/regional destination here for the South Jersey/Philadelphia metro market, but we’re going to extend our reach, given the fact that we operate in the Stadium District with four major-league teams, and visiting fans from major cities across the country,” says Billhimer. “We’re going to reach out to those individual cities and and extend our marketing arm out that far, and in conjunction with a lot of other Cordish Live! district developments in some of the other cities.”

“We’re treating the Philadelphia Live! casino as a true destination resort,” says Cordish. “It’s going to have great energy and expectation for our local customers, but I expect we’ll see people come here from 200 miles out. And, with the partnerships that we’re building with the teams here in the stadium entertainment district, as people come in from out of town, we have a world-class hotel, we’ve got a world-class casino, we’ve got incredible restaurants and entertainment, and we have the game.

“This is going to be one of the more exciting places you can come see a game anywhere in the country and have an experience that beats out your typical tailgating.”

Growing the Brand

While 2021 will no doubt be consumed with refining operations at the two new Pennsylvania casinos, Cordish is by no means finished expanding the footprint of the Live! brand. Upcoming projects include several in the U.S. and even internationally.

The company is in a partnership with Caesars Entertainment to develop land at the Pompano Park race course in Florida, which also houses an Isle of Capri-branded casino. “We think it’s one of the great development sites out there—200 acres in the heart of South Florida,” says Cordish. “Caesars has the existing casino, which is currently being upgraded and expanded. It will be the center point around which we’ll build this large development.

“We just successfully went through the entitlement process and can build something really spectacular, with up to 4,000 residential units, with a great Live! entertainment district mixed-use component. We’re very, very excited about that.”

Other projects include Ballpark Village, a non-gaming mixed-use retail and entertainment project at the St. Louis Cardinals’ Busch Stadium.

“Being part of the Cordish Companies allows us to do things that other casino companies can’t do,” comments Norton. “They are true developers, and everything is integrated with the Cordish development team. As we are looking at the other markets where sports betting is approved, we have the ability to do things quickly, and at a level I think our competitors are going to struggle to keep up with.”

Cordish says the company also is open to further expansion of the Live! brand in the way of casino projects. “We are approaching the Live! brand holistically,” he says. “As we look at the benefits, the rewards, the tier structure, and all the benefits of being a Live! Rewards member, that comes with multi-property benefits. The casinos are all linked. They’re all in one database. You earn in one place, you can redeem in another. And we are actually rolling that out here for the first time to allow the Live! Rewards points to redeem complimentaries and get benefits at the Xfinity Live! location. As we continue to expand the casino footprint, I think we’ll see that growth go into all the markets.”

As for possible new casino projects, “we’re definitely keeping our eye open for opportunities that make sense for us,” Norton says. “I’m hopeful that we’ll see growth opportunities, both greenfield and from acquisition in the future.”

“Speaking for my family, we would love to see the gaming division of our company grow,” says Cordish. “Whether that’s through new construction, sports wagering or through acquisition, we think the gaming division has done a wonderful job, and should continue to grow.”

Meanwhile, Cordish will continue to polish its new Pennsylvania gems, and to apply the Cordish formula to that effort.

Norton says that formula is to consider entertainment first, everything else second. “Everyone who comes into the organization embraces the fact that Live! means it’s an entertainment concept first,” he says. “It’s not a casino; it’s not about slots. It’s about the experience. And I think we bring that to the table unlike any other company out there.”

Frank Legato is editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. He has been writing on gaming topics since 1984, when he launched and served as editor of Casino Gaming magazine. Legato, a nationally recognized expert on slot machines, has served as editor and reporter for a variety of gaming publications, including Public Gaming, IGWB, Casino Journal, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Atlantic City Insider. He has an B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in communications from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of the books, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying, and Atlantic City: In Living Color.  

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