It was only a few years ago I feared for the future of the casino industry. Where were the new visionaries now that the older ones were fading away? How would the industry survive if it was to become just another corporate system with little innovation and fewer opportunities to succeed?
Steve Wynn had been dismissed. Sheldon Adelson was aging and passed away just this year. Others were long gone, some still alive but retired. Kirk Kerkorian, Jack Binion (his father Bennie was a legal gaming founder), Jackie Gaughan, Lyle Berman, Stanley Ho, Charles Mathewson, Kerry Packer, Johann Graf, Claudine Williams, Peter Carlino, Mickey Brown, Jay Sarno, Phil Satre, Craig Neilson… if you don’t recognize any one of these names, please use Google. They all truly had a vision for where the industry was headed, and that vision was confirmed by their success or at least by the companies or casinos they founded. Apologies to whoever I didn’t mention because visionaries were many in the early days of legal gaming.
But just a few years ago, there weren’t any new visionaries, at least that were evident to me. The industry was controlled by the big corporations, many of which were founded by the visionaries. And no offense to these corporations. Caesars and Harrah’s, MGM, Penn National, SJM, Crown… great companies all, but they were growing the traditional way—mergers and acquisitions, cost cutting and analytical management. Lots of success but little understanding where the industry was going.
But the new visionaries slowly began to emerge. It’s a far different world than it was when gaming was first legalized (as evidenced by the vast number of people I considered visionaries). Gaming is now almost a traditional industry, so it’s difficult to first find a way to differentiate yourself from the competition, but it’s even harder to identify something no one else has done—the hallmark of visionaries.
Luckily, we’ve begun to recognize the new visionaries. We’ve highlighted them in recent issues of GGB, so you don’t have to do much research.
Let’s start with last month’s cover story, Soo Kim, the chairman of Bally’s Corp. The new Bally’s was a small Rhode Island casino called Twin River, but Kim understands that to build a gaming giant in today’s world, you have to control all the channels—and not just gaming, but also sports and entertainment. And he understands that you need to control the technology at the same time. The rapid growth of Bally’s is evidence of his commitment and his vision.
Derek Stevens got into gaming because he loved the atmosphere of Las Vegas when he would visit from his hometown of Detroit. So when he bought the Golden Gate, and later the D (the former Fitzgerald’s) in Downtown Las Vegas, he was only getting his feet wet. But when he opened the Circa at the foot of Fremont Street, he demonstrated he knows exactly what the public wants when it comes to sports betting and entertainment.
The rise of cashless gaming seems to have happened quickly during and following the pandemic, but new Sightline CEO Joe Pappano has been shepherding his message for years. Sightline was an early entry into this field, but Pappano has always been on board and the company is ready to truly transform the way gaming handles money.
Tom Reeg. You might not expect the president of Caesars to be included in this list because Caesars is still the giant of the industry. But consider that Reeg steered the tiny Eldorado Resort from its Reno base to a journey across the nation gobbling up regional casino companies until he could approach Caesars and get the support of investors who believe in his dream and his system. Yes, the jury is still out when it comes to whether the Eldorado approach will work with the giant corporation, but it’s a compelling idea.
But if you add Reeg, you can’t ignore folks like MGM’s Bill Hornbuckle, Everi’s Mike Rumbolz or Penn’s Jay Snowden. Hornbuckle has guided the giant MGM through the pandemic with an eye to reigniting his Las Vegas properties and the interactive future with BetMGM. Rumbolz has combined the industry’s leading payment provider with an innovative slot company. And Snowden took over from the very talented Tim Wilmott, to make Penn a leader in sports betting, with a joint venture with Barstool, and the creation of a new game studio for iGaming.
So I know visionary is a subjective term and it’s not to be bestowed on every leader of every gaming company. A person with vision needs to understand where the industry is going and how to get there in a way that no one else can understand.
So fear not. The industry is in good hands. We might not recognize them today, but the visionaries are lurking and ready to pounce for the good of the entire business.