Hail Caesars: 40 Years Later, Where Do Things Stand For One Of AC’s Oldest?

Written By Bill Gelman on June 29, 2019 - Last Updated on June 28, 2019

Caesars Entertainment is making its share of headlines these days. But in this particular case, we are not talking about the Eldorado-Caesars merger.

June 26 marked the official 40th anniversary of Caesars Atlantic City. They celebrated with a special invitation-only Ruby Anniversary Dinner on Saturday night. Mr. Las Vegas himself, Wayne Newton, even made a rare AC appearance.

Tony Rodio, CEO of Caesars Entertainment, flew in to be part of the festivities. He began his career in the industry at Harrah’s Atlantic City and has worked at several different companies since.

The company’s three Atlantic City casinos are still a big part of the gambling portfolio. Having its flagship brand located in the center of town still operating four decades later is a major accomplishment.

“With three resorts in the market,” Rodio said in a press release, “Caesars has viewed Atlantic City as critical to our success over the past 40 years.

“Atlantic City is a popular destination, especially during the summer months, for one-third of the US population and many of our 55 million Caesars Rewards members, who live within driving distance of our properties. Having started out at Harrah’s Resort, and spending most of my career in the city, I have a special appreciation of this landmark 40th anniversary for Caesars, the gaming industry, and Atlantic City.”

The view from Atlantic City

Kevin Ortzman, regional president for Caesars Entertainment, has literally watched the property grow right before his very eyes. And we’re not just talking the 16 years he has spent working for the company.

He is a native of AC, and shares a perspective that goes beyond the day-to-day business operations.

“It’s unbelievable. I recall as a little boy growing up in the market and seeing these casinos come to fruition or seeing renovations of existing historic buildings was pretty amazing.

“To be here leading Caesars Entertainment Atlantic City is pretty phenomenal. … I think the four decades of Caesars Entertainment has really forged the way to legitimize Atlantic City as a leading East Coast gaming and entertainment destination.”

Ortzman, of course, went on to praise “amazing employees,” 70 of whom have been there since day one. One of them even goes back more than 50 years to the property’s Howard Johnson days.

Ortzman referred to all the team members as the “true fabric” of the company.

Caesars and the ups and downs of AC

Flashback to opening day and this beachfront town was the only place on the East Coast to find legal casino gambling. Caesars was just the second casino to open, joining Resorts Casino on the Boardwalk.

Below are two of the original artist renderings before Caesars AC opened its doors:

Feeder markets such as Pennsylvania (home to Harrah’s Philadelphia), New YorkConnecticut, and Maryland have since opened land-based casinos of their own.

While none of those states can offer the amenities of the Atlantic Ocean or public beaches footsteps from the casino doors, the gambling expansion hit AC hard. The market once consisted of 12 casino hotels before properties started closing.

As recent as last year, there were only seven casinos still in operation.

The opening of Hard Rock Atlantic City and Ocean Casino Resort has brought the number back to nine. But Ortzman said the “very challenging time” started more than a decade ago.

“It really kind of started in 2006 with the proliferation of gaming starting in Pennsylvania, and it has just blossomed everywhere around where we would historically market to customers.”

Ortzman also brought up the Great Recession and how the market changed in 2014. That was the year four properties could no longer keep their doors open.

Showboat, previously owned by Caesars, was among the four to cease operations. Revel (now Ocean), Trump Plaza, and Atlantic Club were the others. The Trump Taj Mahal (now Hard Rock) closed two years later.

“I think the harsh reality was there needed to be a correction. And that was the result to start to stabilize Atlantic City,” Ortzman said.

Caesars survived the downturn, but the gambling market in New Jersey was in trouble.

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Rise of online gambling

The concept of legal online casino gambling did not exist back in the late 1970s. Think about it. Email, GoogleFacebook, and Twitter were still decades away. And iPhones? That was futuristic talk.

Today, there are apps for all forms of real money casino games.

Caesars Interactive serves as the online arm to the land-based operations. The New Jersey portfolio includes four platforms that all launched in 2013.

Fast-forward to today, and the market now consists of more than 20 online casino and poker apps. And Caesars Interactive is holding its own.

The May figures released by the Division of Gaming Enforcement show the company earned $4,474,326 in internet gaming revenue, a 9.4% increase from the same period last year.

Through the first five months of 2019, the number comes in at $23,044,668, marking a 24.2% increase.

It is also no secret that NJ online casinos are likely a big part of the reason why Atlantic City has rebounded as much as it has. A recent American Gaming Association report hinted as much. But a simple look at data from the last year reveals how closely tied the retail and online sectors are.

Ortzman sees online gambling only getting stronger, but he’s well aware that the gambling industry is a fickle thing. In fact, Ortzman said, he’s not sure Caesars can truly define what the future holds.

“It was sluggish out of the start, but it’s certainly gaining momentum. We recalibrated what our expectations are and now the results are exceeding our recalibrated expectations.”

Doubling down on NJ sports betting

Today, the AC market is a much different beast compared to 13 years ago or even two years ago. It’s night-and-day different from when Caesars welcomed its first customers back in 1979.

But Ortzman said great things are happening to the market. And he is quick to reference the launch of NJ sports betting.

Those who arrive at Caesars via the valet entrance will notice there is open space on the casino floor perhaps to accommodate a future retail sportsbook. But there are other plans for that space, said Ortzman.

“We are going through a master plan redesign of our casino floor. Although idle space today, tomorrow we expect it to be programmed with really fun, cool stuff,” he said.

So while the Caesars Sportsbook is available to mobile and online customers, customers are not going to find a retail sportsbook anywhere on Caesars property.

Nothing is planned, and from Caesars’ perspective, they really don’t need one.

The neighboring Bally’s Wild Wild West Casino recently unveiled its massive 15,228-square-foot space, better known as The Book.

“I think our adage or mantra that we have the best sportsbook in Atlantic City or all of New Jersey really is true in the sense that it’s truly an integrated experience,” Ortzman said.

Since the two casinos are linked together, the giant sportsbook will be a shared amenity. A grand opening is planned for sometime in July.

And for those wondering if The Book will be big enough for football season, all it takes is a side-by-side comparison of Atlantic’s City’s larger spaces. DraftKings at Resorts (5,000 square feet) and the William Hill Sportsbook at Ocean Casino (7,500 square feet) are smaller, even when combined.

Moneyline Bar and Book opening Friday at the Borgata is 8,000 square feet.

Looking into the Caesars AC crystal ball

The Caesars story took a somewhat expected twist following the weekend conversation with Ortzman. The long-rumored merger with Eldorado was officially announced on Monday.

The deal is not expected to be finalized until sometime in early 2020, so its effects on the casinos under the new Caesars umbrella (including Tropicana) are the new unknown.

Ortzman, however, is ready to see what the future brings: “I am excited to see how it continues to grow. I am going to do my best to continue to evolve and bring Caesars Entertainment forward.”

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Bill Gelman

Bill Gelman is a veteran sports writer based just outside of Philadelphia and not too far from the Jersey Shore. Bill spends time in Atlantic City writing about casino openings and expansions, special events and now NJ sports betting and online gambling.

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