Could Macau Become Asia’s Poker Capital and MGM Sells the Mirage to Hard Rock for $1.1 Billion

February 3, 2023
Mark Patrickson

Macau is shifting its focus towards non-gambling activities as part of its new license agreements. Six casinos in the region have already agreed to invest $15 billion over the next ten years, with a significant portion of the funds directed towards non-gambling activities such as medicine, conference hosting, and other areas. This marks a significant shift in strategy, as non-gaming expenses will now exceed gaming-related expenses by more than ten times.

The new license agreements, signed last month, come as Macau struggles to recover from the financial impact of Covid-19. The region has been hit hard by travel restrictions, capacity limitations, and frequent lockdowns, which have all contributed to the decline in revenue for casinos.

The new agreements aim to attract more foreign tourists and diversify the income flow of the region, which currently relies heavily on gambling and related activities for over 80% of its cash flow.

The signing of the agreements also marks an end to the tension between casinos and interested parties such as investors, regulators, and casino owners. Heads of each company sat next to government officials as the deals were signed, and the agreements came into effect on January 1, 2023. The new direction for Macau's casinos is a clear pivot from the past and a necessary step towards a more sustainable future, although we are yet to hear what industry experts are predicting.

Hard Rock Takes Control of The Mirage: $1.1 Billion Deal Completed

MGM Resorts International has completed the sale of The Mirage, an iconic Las Vegas Strip resort, to Hard Rock International, owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, for nearly $1.1 billion. The deal was first announced in December 2021 and includes plans to construct a guitar-shaped hotel tower on the site of the resort's iconic outdoor volcano attraction. Hard Rock also intends to extensively renovate the hotel, expand its casino floor, and enhance its convention and theatre offerings.

This sale marks a significant change for the city, which has been a staple on the Strip for over 30 years. The Mirage was the first modern mega-resort in Las Vegas and was opened by casino developer Steve Wynn in 1989. It quickly became known for its volcano attraction and Siegfried & Roy performances. The opening of The Mirage also kickstarted a trend of building huge casino resorts with heavy amenities on the Las Vegas Strip. It really was a trailblazer back in those years.

As part of the sale, casino landlord Vici Properties has signed a lease agreement with Hard Rock, with an initial annual rent of $90 million. Hard Rock received regulatory approval for the acquisition from the Nevada Gaming Commission in December and assumed operations control of the property almost immediately.

The 3,044-room resort, which employs around 3,500 people, will continue to operate as The Mirage until the renovation and rebranding to the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Las Vegas is complete.

Hard Rock plans to release details of the property's overhaul, including its new features and development timeline, at the end of 2023.

Jim Allen, Chairman of Hard Rock International, said: "[Hard Rock is] excited to create an integrated resort [on the Strip that will] make this legendary entertainment community proud."

China's Wealthy Gamblers Turn to Malaysia Following Gambling Ban

As China continues to enforce its ban on gambling activities within the country, many experts predict that this will likely lead to an increase in Chinese citizens travelling abroad to participate in such activities. Countries like Malaysia, home to one of the leading casinos in South East Asia, are expected to see a boost in tourism from Chinese citizens seeking to gamble.

The ban on gambling in China has seen other Asian countries attempting to cash in on gambling tourism for many years. Today, the majority of the 340 casinos in Southeast Asia are seen as a way to attract Chinese tourists who have a passion for gambling.

In Malaysia, the only casino in the country is operated by the Genting Group in the popular tourist destination of Genting Highlands. According to the Executive Director of the Socio-Economic Research Centre, Lee Heng Guie, the growth in China's wealthy market will encourage more affluent citizens to try their luck at casinos throughout Asia, including Genting Malaysia.

"China's high rollers will be spending a lot of money at casinos in Asia, and Genting Malaysia will get a slice of the pie despite competition from neighbouring countries like Singapore, Australia, and the Philippines. So, we have to maintain our image as a clean and safe leisure and tourist destination."

Malaysia as a whole has become a popular destination for Chinese tourists in recent years. In 2019, before the outbreak of Covid-19, Malaysia recorded 3.1 million tourist entries from China, up from 2.94 million the previous year. These numbers could be beaten massively if Malaysia builds more casinos to cater to Chinese gamblers.

Critics Slam Dallas City Council's Exorbitant Legal Fees in Poker Business Battle

The City of Dallas is facing criticism as it decides whether to allocate $600,000 of taxpayer’s money to shut down two poker businesses, Texas Card House and Shuffle 214. The money would be used to seek a court order upholding the decision to revoke the businesses' certificates of occupancy and to defend the Board of Adjustment's ruling that allows the clubs to remain open.

City officials have said that they originally allowed the poker businesses to open in Dallas in 2020, believing that a grey area in Texas' law against gambling made them legal. However, after re-examining the law in 2021, the city reversed its stance and deemed the three active operators in Dallas illegal, revoked their certificates of occupancy and blocked others from obtaining one.

The owners of Texas Card House and Shuffle 214 have appealed the revocation to the Board of Adjustment, which hears challenges of development code decisions. The board has twice sided with the businesses, stating that they legally obtained their certifications and had done nothing to have them taken away.

However, Dallas County Circuit Court Judge Eric Moyé ruled in October in favour of the city, stating that the Board of Adjustment "abused its discretion and made an illegal decision" when it overturned the city's revocation of Texas Card House's certificate of occupancy. Attorneys representing Texas Card House have filed notice that they plan to challenge Moyé's ruling with the Court of Appeals for the Fifth District.

The discussion of legal fees comes as proposed state legislation has been filed to legalise gambling in Texas and close the loophole in the state's gambling ban that has been used to permit poker businesses. Supporters argue that poker is a game of skill and doesn't fall under explicit gambling, as the profit for businesses and employees comes from membership fees, food and beverages served, and cash tips, rather than directly collecting money from the games.

New South Wales Government Pushes for Gambling Card to Limit Harm

The New South Wales government in Australia is pushing for the implementation of a cashless gambling card in order to curb the harm caused by problem gambling. The move has received support from various organisations and individuals, including Mark Morey from Unions NSW and the national president of the Returned Services League (RSL), Greg Melick.

The cashless gambling card, which is still in the trial phase, would limit the amount of money that can be spent on poker machines and other forms of gambling. The card would also make it easier for authorities to track and prevent illegal gambling activities, probably a priority following the recent scandal at Crown Resorts properties.

The RSL, a charity that supports veterans, has expressed concerns over the use of poker machines in clubs illegally, which they say affects the reputation of the organisation nationally. Melick has suggested that new laws may be needed to stop clubs from using the RSL name if they do not adhere to certain guidelines and ethical practices.

Despite the support for the cashless gambling card, some RSL clubs have urged their members to push back against the plans, claiming that it could have unintended consequences. The NSW government has yet to make a final decision on the matter.

Macau's Chance to Become the Poker Capital of Asia

Macau is facing a challenge in increasing tourism to the city-state. Despite being a major gaming destination, Macau is lacking in key infrastructure and attractions to draw in tourists from outside mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. However, there is a potential solution to this problem: positioning Macau as the poker capital of Asia!

The World Series of Poker (WSOP) is a prime example of the potential of poker as a tourism draw. Each summer, the WSOP hosts a series of 88 tournaments in Las Vegas, which in 2022 attracted a combined 197,626 entries, with players from 87 different countries participating in the Main Event alone.

The WSOP's international expansion project, WSOP Europe, usually held in the Czech Republic, has also seen success, with bracelet winners from 19 different countries and its largest Main Event field to date in 2022.

Macau has a history of hosting successful poker tournaments, such as the 2018 Macau Millions, which featured a massive field of 2,499 players. However, due to the gaming table cap in Macau, poker has taken a backseat to other games such as baccarat. The government could solve this issue by exempting poker from the table cap during major tournament series.

The WSOP has previously expressed interest in hosting a "WSOP Asia" in Macau and the city-state could also attract other major poker tournaments such as the World Poker Tour, Asian Poker Tour, and Asia-Pacific Poker Tour. To further boost tourism, the government could also organise cultural festivals, music events, and film screenings to give international visitors a reason to explore the city while they are in town for the poker tournaments.

In short, positioning Macau as the poker capital of Asia would be a perfect way to attract thousands of visitors from around the world each year.

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