A new gamble on boxing is taking shape in this resort as gaming executives shell out millions of dollars to draw major fights away from Las Vegas and attract free-spending bettors to the gaming tables.
Three major heavyweight bouts in seven months and a new infusion of money by land mogul Donald Trump is helping put big-time muscle in Atlantic City's boxing scene.
Boxing had become popular here in casino gambling's early days a decade ago, but it sputtered when too many boxing cards turned the frequent bouts into twice-weekly mismatches of unknowns.
Mark Etess, executive vice president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, remembers a day he spent with casino President Steve Hyde in May, 1986, shortly after Donald Trump closed the deal for full ownership of the gaming hall.
Trump came into the room, looked at his two casino executives and said: "So we're going to get big fights now," according to Etess.
"Boxing has been here since casino gambling," said Etess. "What has happened is not so much the emergence of boxing here, but the re-emergence of big boxing."
The re-emergence began on June 15 when the Convention Center played host to the Gerry Cooney-Michael Spinks bout. A title bout between Mike Tyson-Tyrell Biggs fight followed in October and a Tyson-Larry Holmes match for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world is scheduled on Friday.
For now, it looks as though the future will bring more big fights to the Boardwalk, despite a number of drawbacks that include too few hotel rooms and troubles scheduling a venue.
Big-time boxing is a big deal to the casinos and Trump understands that.
Casino executives decline to discuss what they spend to attract their high rollers to town. But one source close to the Atlantic City fight game said Trump paid about $6 million in site fees--the money paid to promoters to bring a fight to a particular venue--to get the Cooney-Spinks and Tyson-Biggs fights.
Etess denied that sum, but refused to disclose how much money was involved. However, he would talk about the profit from the Cooney-Spinks "War At The Shore."
"Frankly, the volume we did at the casinos was staggering," said Etess. "The pit drop Monday night, June 15, was over $7 million. On the Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday of Spinks-Cooney, there was about $10 million in incremental play at the casino with $6 million coming on the night of the fight."
To put that in perspective, just remember casinos on the average keep about 16% of all the money bet at the board games. So an extra $10 million bet means the casino earns about $1.6 million by staging the fight.
The payoff on the Biggs-Tyson fight was in the same neighborhood, said Etess, adding the casinos also win in terms of publicity surrounding the event.
"If you look at the previous history of big fights, they more than pay their way," said Marvin B. Roffman, a gaming analyst for the Philadelphia investment firm of Janney Montgomery Scott Inc. "They just generate a tremendous amount of business."
A major part of the strategy is marketing the fight to the gambler. Each casino rates its clients based on their line of credit and the amount of time they spend gambling.
"With a major attraction like Tyson-Holmes we do go out of our way to communicate to the players that we most want to have in attendance that we would love hosting them," said Etess.
And hosting includes tickets to the fights, free room and, in some cases, even sending a jet to pick them up, Etess said.
"All this is a marketing gimmick to bring the customer to the door," Roffman said. "That's the whole purpose of the fight, to bring customers to the door. The trick to making money in gambling is once he comes in, you are going to win."
Boxing emerged on the Atlantic City scene about 1981, three years after the casinos opened. Within the next two years, the sport hit a highwater mark. Almost every casino had a boxing show, and the number of shows were averaging about 130 annually.
"It got to the point where there were three and four boxing shows a week in Atlantic City," said promoter Dan Duva of Main Events in West Paterson. "Every casino was putting on a show. It was just too much. The casinos were not making money because it was too much."
By 1984, the cost effectiveness of boxing was declining to such a point that many casinos curtailed their programs. Some title fights still came to Atlantic City, but the big ones were going west to Las Vegas, particularly to Caesars Palace.
"The advantage Las Vegas has over Atlantic City and why they can do more big fights is because of the venues," said promoter Frank Gelb, a liaison between promoters and the casinos in Atlantic City. "They can construct on their own mini-arenas in a parking lot any time. We only have the convention hall and that is not available all the time."
Gelb said another Las Vegas advantage is the fans' ability to bet on the fight. New Jersey does not allow casino betting on sports events.
"There are not enough quality hotel rooms," Duva added. "There are only about 10,000 quality hotel rooms in this city where Las Vegas has 60 or 70,000. The other thing is there is easy air travel to Las Vegas. You come here and you to have to fly to Philadelphia and drive for an hour."
While boxing had staged a slow upward swing in Atlantic City, last year marked the return to big-time boxing with the two major events.
Roffman said Trump's commitment helped.
"Caesars (in Las Vegas) was the only one that would go after these big fights and nobody in Atlantic City wanted to pay that kind of money to bring fights in Atlantic City," said Roffman. "I guess Donald set a new pattern. He has gone and topped Caesars because he wants the action in the east."
Etess said Trump will not get into a bidding war with any of the Las Vegas casinos just to get a fight.
"We are in boxing as a sidelight," he said. "All of us, Donald Trump, Steve Hyde and Mark Etess are boxing fans. But we are not confused. We are in business. We are not indulging our hobbies.
"People would like to make the case that we have gotten into the game by overpaying, overpaying, overpaying. Again, we have been gratified by the bottom line we have done so far," Etess added. "If they (Las Vegas) are going to turn around and pay some crazy number to just get back in the business, we are not going to chase their insanity."