NHL’s Florida Panthers make play for casino

Add the Florida Panthers to the list of South Florida professional sports teams that like the potential synergies between casino gambling and sports.

The National Hockey League team has taken several Las Vegas casino operators on tours of the Sunrise property and discussed the possibility of building a destination resort casino on the land surrounding the arena if Florida legislators approve an expansion of casino gambling. The plan is similar to one being explored by the Miami Dolphins.

“As an entertainment company, obviously we’re interested in any future entertainment opportunities in the South Florida marketplace,” said Michael Yormark, president and chief operating officer of the Florida Panthers, who acknowledges there has been “significant interest” among several major Vegas players. “We have had preliminary conversations with most of them.”

Representatives from Las Vegas Sands and MGM Resorts International confirmed they have looked at the property. Wynn Resorts has also visited the site.

At the Bank Atlantic Center in Sunrise, the 130 acres on which the arena sits is owned by Broward County; the Panthers hold a long-term lease on the property. About 90 acres of that land is undeveloped and largely used for surface parking lots, Yormark said.

Broward County Commission Chairman John Rodstrom believes the arena site would be “very attractive” for a casino and the possibility could yield benefits for the county. The county would not likely be the applicant for the casino license, although it owns the land, Rodstrom said.

“The money generated there could go right back into tourism,” Rodstrom said.

In addition to available land, the arena site is easily accessed by major highways, with roads already built to withstand large crowds. It is also near Sawgrass Mills, the mega outlet mall and entertainment destination, the state’s second-largest tourist attraction that draws about 30 million visitors per year.

The challenge: Most casino operators seem to be focusing on eastern corridor sites in South Florida that offer proximity to the beaches and the airports.

The Panthers arena “has got a lot of things going for it,” said Alan Feldman, senior vice president of public affairs for MGM, which prefers Miami-Dade as a potential location over Broward. “It’s also a little ways away from where the action is.”

South Florida isn’t the only market where gambling and major league sports are rubbing elbows.

In Massachusetts, Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft are seeking approval for a $1 billion resort casino next to the football team’s stadium in Foxboro. The National Football League prohibits teams from investing in gambling enterprises, but league rules don’t prohibit leasing land for a casino.

The Panthers say they have already cleared the concept with the NHL. “The league has given us the green light if we choose to pursue this opportunity,” Yormark said.

While Miami-Dade County has gotten most of the attention in the casino debate, potential casino operators are eyeing several Broward locations. Often mentioned. are Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood and the Broward County Convention Center in Fort Lauderdale.

Legislative bills proposed by Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, and Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, would allow for up to two destination casino resorts in Miami-Dade and one in Broward.

“If you’re going to have gambling coming to South Florida, we want one or more of these sites,” Rodstrom said. “If it comes down to one, it’s going to be a food fight.”

But some of the potential Broward sites face challenges.

Rodstrom and Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, don’t see a casino as compatible with Broward County’s plans for expanding the convention center and adding a hotel, both in terms of logistics and space.

Proposed legislation would require a $2 billion investment before a property could apply for a casino license -- a condition that could rule out the Diplomat unless its owners could get credit for previous improvements or land purchases. Alternatively, the Diplomat could find a creative way to utilize the hotel’s golf course property in nearby Hallandale Beach, which has been slated for redevelopment.

Diplomat General Manager Ed Walls confirmed the hotel remains interested in the possibility of attracting casino gambling, but said it was “too soon in the process” to discuss any details.

Gulfstream reportedly is in discussions with Caesars Entertainment.

The Gulfstream site covers about 250 acres, half now in undeveloped parking lots, and also includes the Village at Gulfstream Park, a two-year-old retail and restaurant project.

“We have already been upgrading the facilities,” said Tim Ritvo, president and general manager of Gulsfstream.

“We already have all the amenities, we just need to add the destination. We hope that puts us ahead.”

Representatives for Las Vegas Sands and MGM say that while they have looked at Broward sites, they are concerned about whether they can justify a $2 billion investment in Broward County as required under the proposed bill.

“Certainly Broward could support a very fantastic destination resort,” said Nick Iarossi, a lobbyist for Las Vegas Sands. “But $2 billion is a big number to hit in Broward. You risk making an adequate return on your investment. Our first inclination is that $2 billion could be a lot to support in any county outside of Miami-Dade.”

The bills’ co-sponsors have both said repeatedly they don’t intend to compromise on the requirement linking casino licenses to a $2 billion investment -- a key to ensuring new gambling facilities are an upgrade over current South Florida facilities. Bogdanoff says the idea of two casinos in Miami-Dade and one in Broward are only guidelines and that she’s not going to focus on the specific locations.

“The market will decide where the facilities will go,” Bogdanoff said.

“The market will decide if it will be one, two, three or none. I’m not convinced that Broward or any other county is not a good market. If it’s only the Miami market that’s viable, than that’s up to them. These are smart people who know what they’re doing. They will choose the locations.”

Broward leaders believe any concerns about the viability of the market are misplaced.

“If casino gambling is going to be successful in one place, it will be successful in the other,” Grossman said. “The only people that know the difference between county lines are legislators. Visitors do not care about crossing county lines.”