Harrah’s close to ESPN-TV deal

Nov 15, 2005 3:14 AM

Entertainment industry insiders are whispering that Harrah’s is close to announcing a multi-year deal — perhaps as many as four or five years — with ESPN to handle television coverage of the World Series of Poker.

So far, Harrah’s is mum on the report.

In any case, the company continues to sort through a list of high-profile sponsors anxious to be involved in future productions. This will affect the look and perhaps even results of some events.

At last week’s Tournament of Champions (at Caesars Palace), 109 players qualified for a free tournament that offered two million in prize money.

But one of the television sponsors (a soft drink company) wanted to guarantee the maximum possible star power for what it was investing and therefore asked that high profile poker pros Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson be added to the roster of participants.

All three finished in the top 14 — Hellmuth was 3rd, Brunson 10th and Chan 14th. (See complete story on page S1 of Slots Today.)

We’ll probably see a provision for sponsors’ exemptions written into the agreement for next year’s event. Harrah’s appears to be shooting for a main event prize pool of at least $70 million in the 2006 World Series of Poker, which would mean a first place prize of about $7 million.

The company made its first mention of next year’s expected entry level and prize pool in an announcement that it has signed an agreement with Holland Casinos to award a World Series main event seat to the winner of a tournament at the Holland casino in Amsterdam.

The series of satellite events feeding the 2006 World Series will be more global than ever with tournaments from South America to Asia offering seats in the main event that has a buy-in of $10,000.

Harrah’s mulls development

Planning for a possible Singapore resort has been useful to Harrah’s as it also considers Las Vegas development possibilities.

Harrah’s has well over a hundred acres of Las Vegas real estate that is considered either undeveloped or under-developed.

It does not yet have the right to build anything in Singapore where the government continues assembling the rules for the competitive bidding there. The need for concepts that dazzle regulators while also widening Singapore’s appeal as a tourism destination has helped fuel the brainstorming being applied to Las Vegas.

In either case, the goal is to decide what a modern, international casino resort should look like when a company is starting from scratch and all the most modern brands and technologies are available. This requires entertainment that will not resemble yesterday’s excitement by 2010 or 2015. Gambling, food and beverage and hotel rooms will obviously be a big part of the equation.

"But there will be a variety of other things we might build into an offering," Loveman says. "Some of the facilities are largely as we would want them to be, like Caesars Palace, the Rio and Paris. Others are going to require very substantial modifications, perhaps even a complete tear-down and a rebuilding. We really don’t know results of our inquiry will provide. It’s a process that is fairly far reaching."

Atlantic City redevelopment plans are much further along and the company will probably be ready to unveil its thinking by the end of the year. There’s less real estate to work with in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk area and the focus on what’s necessary there has been sharper.

"The Atlantic City issues are very obvious to us," Harrah’s CEO Gary Loveman says. ""Some of the hotel product there is grossly substandard and we know we have to fix that."

Las Vegas, by contrast, offers so many possibilities. Among them: a sports stadium, the first use of the Horseshoe marquee on the Strip, a so-called signature Harrah’s and a monorail connecting the Rio and Caesars properties.

But in either case the idea is not to simply add more hotel rooms and casino footage, but to consider the broad range of bells and whistles customers might be expecting 10 years or more down the road.