Billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who died Monday night at age 87, kept his focus on Las Vegas and Macau for business and on Israel for philanthropic efforts.
But that doesn’t mean he never looked into the goings-on in New Jersey, which in 1978 opened the first legal U.S. casino outside of Nevada.
At a gaming conference in Las Vegas in 2014, Adelson, speaking during a period when Atlantic City was in the midst of having five of its 12 casinos shuttered, said he had seen its downturn coming many years earlier.
“It was my conviction that someday the abutting states were going to legalize gaming and suck out all the business that Atlantic City was taking from adjacent states,” Adelson said at the Global Gaming Expo (G2E) event.
In fact, Adelson doubled down on that conviction in 2009 with his $800 million Sands Bethlehem casino — one of a half-dozen near the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border that did just what Adelson had forecast.
But there was a location at the other end of the Garden State that held a bit more allure for Adelson.
North Jersey casino concept was a lure for Adelson
At that same G2E talk in 2014, Adelson acknowledged that he was aware of rumors about a casino perhaps someday coming to North Jersey. The Meadowlands Sports Complex, home to an NFL stadium, a fabled harness racing track, and now a multi-billion dollar entertainment and retail complex called American Dream, would be “an attractive place” for a casino, Adelson said.
In fact, Adelson referenced a possible variation on his lucrative Las Vegas Sands model: casino, hotel, convention center, meeting space, and more dining and entertainment than a typical casino property.
But Adelson also addressed a familiar concern.
“Look, it’s a two-edged sword,” Adelson said of the risk that a casino might rise in Manhattan or anywhere close to it in New York as a defensive reaction. Adelson envisioned such a conversation among New York elected officials: “‘Lookit: They’re taking all the New Yorkers’ money, and they’re sucking it up in that casino in Meadowlands,” Adelson mused. “‘We gotta open in New York and keep the money in New York.”
So when New Jersey legislators began talking seriously in early 2016 about putting out a statewide ballot question to voters later that year, Adelson did not join in the hunt alongside sometimes-friend, sometimes-foe Steve Wynn — another Las Vegas gaming legend.
Wynn backed a losing effort by Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto to pass a bill that would allow for one of two new casino licenses for the northern part of the state to go to a gaming company without any footprint in Atlantic City.
Secaucus a familiar … odor for Adelson
When he was in the U.S. Army in the 1960s, Adelson spent some time stationed at Governor’s Island in New York City’s section of the Hudson River.
“I could smell Secaucus,” Adelson said at the G2E interview. “It used to rain the odor of pig farms on the Meadowlands. We don’t have that anymore. So it would be a very attractive place [for a casino].”
Adelson also had an uncle who ran a business at Atlantic City’s “Million Dollar Pier,” and Adelson sometimes visited the city on weekend passes while in the Army.
There was another, somewhat awkward Adelson-New Jersey connection in 2015-16.
Adelson, the leading single donor to the national Republican Party, naturally drew the interest of anyone running for president at that time.
Then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fit that description.
Christie and online casino gaming — Adelson’s third rail
But as it happened, Christie’s actions ran afoul of Adelson’s most intense pet peeve: online gambling.
Adelson always insisted that allowing people to play online poker or other mobile casino games would lead to economic chaos for American families. But in 2013, Christie signed into a law a bill to allow for such gambling in his state.
While a modest operation also opened in late 2013 in Delaware and Nevada legalized online poker only, most of the credit to the growing adoption of legal online casino gaming goes to New Jersey’s success on that front.
Adelson initially backed Florida Senator Marco Rubio before belatedly joining the bandwagon for the candidacy of Donald Trump, another casino mogul — though one with roots in Atlantic City.
The passing of Adelson — and even moreso the election of Joe Biden to replace Trump as president — indicates that opposition to online gambling in the U.S. is liable to disappear. That could lead more states to legalize that activity, and perhaps to the launch of multi-state lotteries online to match the traditional Powerball and Mega Millions retail games.
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