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

April 05, 1987|EARL GUSTKEY | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — 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?

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