A lot has changed in the five years since Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and Ocean Casino Resort opened their doors on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
Apologies for stating the obvious, but it’s a necessary evil for the purposes of this analysis.
Since opening on June 27, 2018, the two new kids on the block are outperforming nearly every other casino in town, only looking up at perennial market-leader Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. Unsurprisingly, executives at both properties believe they have the ingredients — notably a handful of former Borgata employees and more than a few of its whales — to take on the Marina District casino for the top spot in AC.
However, the duo’s accession to the top tier of the Atlantic City casinos market has not been “the rising tide to lift all boats,” as was projected in early 2018. Rather, Hard Rock and Ocean have taken chunks of business from Borgata and slivers of market share from everyone else, resulting in underwhelming returns for the city as a whole.
Hard Rock, Ocean Casino showing consistent growth
Post-COVID, Hard Rock and Ocean have separated themselves from the other seven AC casinos as the only properties posting consistent growth. Despite millions of dollars of reinvestment by most of the city’s casino operators, gamblers prefer the new game in town, as evident from their spending.
Outside of the city limits, New Jersey’s gambling industry has changed dramatically.
Online casinos in New Jersey and NJ sports betting continue to grow, impacting in-person gambling volumes at Atlantic City’s nine casinos. Accelerated by stay-at-home policies during the worst of the pandemic, online gambling in NJ is showing no signs of slowing down or customer fatigue.
The percentage of NJ’s total gross gambling revenue that online casinos are responsible for is increasing.
In 2014, the first full year of legal online casinos in New Jersey, internet revenue accounted for 4.5% of the statewide total. Last year, it was 29.6% of the statewide total. Through the first half of 2023, online casinos are on pace to account for 35% of all gambling revenue in NJ.
Newest AC casinos not as competitive with NJ online casinos
Hard Rock and Ocean are not really even competitive in the online gambling segment. The two AC casino operators and their online partners are the lowest-performing licensees in terms of monthly NJ online gambling revenue, which only serves to underscore their impressive in-person gambling returns.
As much as the two AC casinos currently have in common, they arrived at their present stations under vastly different circumstances. Neither Hard Rock nor Ocean reached their current status without some internal transitions.
Hard Rock, an iconic name synonymous with celebrities and high energy, was widely expected to revive the north end of the AC Boardwalk. The Seminole Tribe of Florida (owners of Hard Rock International) and a contingent of NJ businessmen pumped over $500 million into the former Trump Taj Mahal, which shuttered its doors in 2016. The lead-up to HRHCAC’s grand opening came with all the pageantry, pomp and circumstance one might expect from the global brand.
Ocean, on the other hand, had almost no expectations. The property was home to the failed Revel Casino Hotel, a $2.4 billion project that closed shop in 2014. Bruce Deifik, the Denver-based businessman who bought the glass gambling parlor in 2018, tried every trick in the book to get people through the doors. After bleeding out more than $23 million in the first seven months of operation, Deifik lost control of Ocean to a Wall Street investment firm. Tragically, Deifik passed away weeks after the transaction was complete and never saw Ocean reach the level of success he envisioned.
Can Hard Rock AC, Ocean Casino continue to grow?
Looking forward, there’s little reason for casinos not named Hard Rock or Ocean to believe long-term growth is attainable without significant changes. The stagnant Atlantic City casino market is facing a multitude of external pressures, including three downstate New York casinos, Trenton’s inevitable smoking ban, unresolved property tax issues and a sluggish national economy.
The promises of shared success have not come to fruition, and Atlantic City is, once again, searching for answers. Except this time, there’s nothing on the horizon to save the day. There is no equivalent to online casinos (2013) or sports betting (2018), or new casino openings to rescue AC in 2023 or beyond.
Hard Rock and Ocean celebrating their shared fifth anniversaries may, unfortunately, be the last time things are ever this good again in AC for quite some time.
Once again, apologies for stating the obvious.