THE MONEY WARS IN BOXING : Las Vegas Hotels Find the Stakes Are High in Fight Game

Times Staff Writer

In 1976, Caesars Palace presented a heavyweight bout between George Foreman and Ron Lyle, one of its first major boxing shows.

The following morning, a Caesars executive made a tote check on the previous day’s “drop” in the casino and discovered that gamblers had left behind an unusually large sum of money, much more than would have been the case on any other busy evening.

It isn’t known today if this was a major surprise to anyone, but one thing is certain--world-class boxing has continued at Caesars ever since.


A decade later, the rattle of the slot machines, the fast-paced action at the tables and the lines at the sports book windows continue on fight week at Caesars, as they have all week here. This time, the catalyst is an $80-million argument Monday night between Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard.

But now, after having had the Las Vegas boxing scene pretty much to itself, Caesars has a challenger. And it’s a heavyweight.

The Las Vegas Hilton, which bills itself as the free world’s largest hotel--3,174 rooms to Caesars’ 1,650--has jumped into the boxing business with both feet.

The Hilton, too, has recently learned that major boxing events bring heavy hitters--the gambling kind--into its casino.

And so in the late 1980s, when title fights at Yankee Stadium, Madison Square Garden and Chicago Stadium are but a distant memory, it’s come down to Caesars vs. the Hilton for the heavyweight boxing capital of the world.

Caesars has had boxing pretty much to itself for about a decade. Other Las Vegas hotels--the Riviera, the Dunes and the Imperial Palace--have appeared occasionally with boxing shows but none ever made a long-term commitment to the sport.

Caesars has held 61 world championship fights, most in its 15,000-seat stadium, built on a couple of tennis courts.

In 1985, the Hilton held a welterweight title fight between Donald Curry and Milton McCrory in a temporary parking lot stadium. Looking at the revenue earned in the casino just before and just after that bout, Hilton executives grew enthusiastic about having more boxing shows.

“Boxing is the event, the catalyst, that brings players (a casino term for high-stakes gamblers) into town,” said John Giovenco, president of the Hilton Nevada Corp.

“It’s a man’s game, it attracts people who like action and excitement. We’ve not seen anything approach it here except New Year’s Eve. The action in the casino goes up substantially on a night when we have a major fight here.”

Of course, hotel executives are gambling, too . . . that the high rollers will lose more often than they win in the casino.

Less of a gamble, Hilton executives say, is that major boxing shows will increase the roster of their casino players.

“For Curry-McCrory, we had about 200 players,” Giovenco said. “For the Mike Tyson-Bonecrusher Smith fight (March 7), we had 1,300. And we think we can build on that number.”

Hotel executives will not reveal casino revenues but nearly all readily say that boxing shows, by themselves, are only marginal money makers and, in fact, frequently are losers.

But when viewed as a marketing tool, they say, and as a vehicle to lure players into the casino, boxing is always a winner.

“There are several reasons why we’re in the boxing business,” said Bob Halloran, president of Caesars World Sports.

“We’re in the business of filling hotel rooms, selling food, entertaining people, selling merchandise and gambling. Boxing gives Caesars Palace world-wide exposure, and you can’t measure what that means for us. It’s like we’re in the banking business--boxing is our promotion to get people in here.”

Hilton executives say much the same, after reviewing their recent short-circuited attempt to play host to the crowning of an undisputed heavyweight champion in the Don King-Butch Lewis heavyweight unification tournament.

Mike Tyson won the World Boxing Council and World Boxing Assn. titles in the Hilton tournament. But he was denied a shot at Michael Spinks’ International Boxing Federation crown when Lewis, Spinks’ manager, pulled him out of the tournament to pursue a bout with Gerry Cooney.

Naturally, Hilton management, after spending $10 million in site fees and other costs, was furious. The IBF then stripped Spinks of his championship and Lewis faces lawsuits by both the Hilton Nevada Corp. and HBO.

Nevertheless, the experience hasn’t deterred the Hilton from challenging Caesars.

“We’re not soured on boxing, we’re soured on Butch Lewis,” Giovenco said. “Lewis has shown himself to be an unprincipled person. He had a contractual obligation to put on a series of fights here . . . and Michael Spinks was one of the participants. If I had my way, Butch Lewis would be involved in lawsuits for a long, long time.”

OK, but after Hagler-Leonard, what’s out there? Is there anything worth bidding big numbers for?

Halloran indicated that the first Caesars-Hilton bidding war could develop over a fight between Tyson and the winner of a Spinks-Cooney fight, if such a bout ever actually occurs.

Tyson is obligated to fight twice more for King, after which he will become a free agent, able to fight for any promoter.

“It seems like a blockbuster-class fight comes along every 18 months,” Halloran said. “When we did Ali-Holmes (1980), we wondered if we could ever top that. Then along came Leonard-Hearns (1981), then Holmes-Cooney (1982), then Hagler-Duran (1983). There’s always one coming along.”

Halloran shrugged when asked if Caesars was concerned about the Hilton’s entry into boxing, and a possible escalation of site fee costs.

“We’ve maintained a track record over the years,” he said. “(I hope) it develops that we’re bidding against people who know what they’re doing, that it doesn’t drive up the site fees out of sight.”

The site fee is what a hotel pays the promoter for a fight. In the case of Hagler-Leonard, Arum says Caesars paid him $7.9 million. Halloran would say only that the figure was “over six million.”

Why do the hotels need to deal with promoters? Arum and King have prominent boxers tied to long-term promotion contracts. But it has occurred to some Caesars people that promoters could be dispensed with simply by getting promoters’ rights themselves to young boxers.

“I’ve recommended to my superiors that we get out there and obtain some promotional rights to talented young boxers,” Halloran said. “The way I see it, we are the promoters.

“Arum makes two or three phone calls, we pay him millions for the fight, and all he has to worry about is how big his profit is going to be. We have to hope we sell enough tickets to cover our expenses.”

Retorted Arum: “If they’re telling you they don’t make a lot of money off these fights, they’re jerking you around. The (financial) quarter when they held the Hagler-Hearns fight was an all-time record for them, and that fight was a major reason.”

Curiously, executives from both hotels said that their hotels come out ahead financially more often on a one-night basis when a major fight is held at another Las Vegas hotel.

Las Vegas hotels buy anywhere from a dozen to hundreds of tickets for fights at other hotels, give away the tickets to their rated players, drive them to the fight in limousines, then--most importantly--return them to their casinos immediately afterward.

“Yes, if you’re talking only about our costs and our players in our casino, we do come out ahead more if a major fight is somewhere else,” Giovenco said.

“But when you consider things like exposure on world-wide television, those nighttime TV shots of our hotel from helicopters, the attention we get in the media . . . all of that is very important to us.

“So all things considered, it’s always best to have the fight at our place, where we can give the best seats to our players.”

This weekend, the Hilton is cashing in on the Caesars fight, just as Caesars does for a Hilton fight.

The Hilton has a one-third-page ad in the Las Vegas Review-Journal this week, inviting boxing fans to its “Super Fight Super Party.” The ad explains that for those with $40 tickets to the Hilton’s closed-circuit telecast of the fight, invitation to the party is included. An added bonus: An “in-depth analysis” of the fight by New York Post sports columnist Dick Young.

In an interview with Jack Burkam, Hilton marketing vice president, a reporter used the term Las Vegas’ two major hotels.

“There, see!” he said. “Would you have used that term two years ago when referring to us? Maybe not. Boxing’s done that for us, the same way Bill Cosby and Donna Summers have done it for us.”

In a couple of years, there may be a third heavyweight entry into the Las Vegas boxing scene. Steve Wynn, president of the Golden Nugget, has announced plans to build a 2,500-to-3,000-room casino-hotel next door to Caesars Palace.

“The word is that Wynn has wanted to be in big-time boxing for years but didn’t have the facility for it, that with this place, he will bid for the big fights,” said Mel Greb, longtime Las Vegas boxing promoter.

“If the Hilton is really serious about boxing, and you have Wynn and Caesars all bidding for big fights, it’ll be the best thing that ever happened to Bob Arum and Don King.”

Caesars Palace executives can call up the names of about 60,000 rated players on their computer screens, all gamblers who have obtained casino credit. One of them is Len Banker, a professional sports gambler who lives in Las Vegas. He confirms that casino action is brisk on a big fight weekend.

“See, here’s how smart those Caesars marketing guys are,” he said. “The big fights are always on Monday, right? See, they bring in all these high rollers before the weekend and play them like suckers. They give them all weekend to show off in front of their girlfriends, and let them gamble all their money away over the weekend.”

One wonders, though, if Hilton executives have pondered the toll major boxing shows take on their staffs.

“Our VIP services department this week is like Macy’s on Christmas Eve,” said Caesars Vice President Bill Doner.

Just one example, learned from another source: Former welterweight champion Tommy Hearns, who has fought both Hagler and Leonard, arrived at Caesars this week and was unhappy to discover that he had a regular room and not a suite.

“Keeping celebrity-level people happy all week for a fight like this is extremely difficult and it really takes a toll on all of us,” said another Caesars executive.

Halloran said: “I would have loved (for Caesars) to bid on the Tyson-(Pinklon) Thomas fight (which the Hilton got for May 30), but I’m not sure we could bounce back so soon from this one to do it.”