The calendar has not flipped even a year, yet already Atlantic City appears in full thrust toward revitalization.

That’s a word that has been thrown out quite a bit over the past nine months or so: revitalization. Along with rejuvenation. Or renaissance.

That was the intended goal. Especially for two casinos that, before winter began to thaw, had plans to open along the Boardwalk.

As the incoming resorts prepared to replace two defunct properties, Hard Rock Atlantic City and Ocean Resort Casino possessed relatively unselfish mindsets.

Their respective openings, both incidentally occurring on the same day and within the same hour in June, were not for themselves. They were part of the rebirth of Atlantic City. The debuts of each property synced nearly perfectly with the launch of NJ sports betting.

And this new industry has tied Atlantic City casinos old and new as the seemingly once-hopeless city begins to rise from the ashes and establish itself once more as a tourist destination.

A ‘new era’ dawns on the shore

For months anticipation built for the openings of Hard Rock and Ocean Resort: Two sparkling new gems added to a crown that appeared to be rusting.

That is not hyperbole.

Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam dubbed opening day a “new era” for the Boardwalk. Hard Rock International chairman Jim Allen predicted “a new renaissance” arriving in Atlantic City. And his property would represent “the bridge to a revitalization” in the area.

“We believe in Atlantic City,” Allen said, “we believe in the state of New Jersey, and we truly believe Atlantic City’s best days are in front of it.”

Just two weeks prior to the openings of Hard Rock and Ocean Resort, Gov. Phil Murphy finalized the legalization of sports betting in New Jersey. And since that game-changing June, Atlantic City, it appears, is rising back to prominence.

“I think it’s early, but if you saw, tourism numbers are up,” Ocean Resort owner Bruce Deifik said in a phone interview. “Slightly, but my attitude is that it’s amazing to me.

“Las Vegas gets 43.5 million tourists per year; Atlantic City gets 24.5 million tourists a year, and we have a beach boardwalk and an ocean. What would it take for us to get that to 30 million visitors a year? Easy to get here, easy to drive here, expand operations in and around Atlantic City International airport and great options for restaurants and entertainment and rooms and very affordable for families with children and millenials. I believe Atlantic City is going through a renaissance in front of our eyes. It’s creating a very solid foundation.”

NJ sports betting part of that foundation

Though still early, Deifik conceded, Ocean Resort — a microcosm of Atlantic City — has started to build “a very, very good book of grouping convention. We’re excited about that.”

Part of that swell in visitors lies with the brand-new resort. Part of it is due to the Ocean Resort sportsbook. The expansive William Hill Sports Book at Ocean Resort is a sight to behold.

Sports betting draws a certain set of patrons. They, in turn, bring family and friends who explore other areas of the property and Atlantic City. That is the foundation for the revitalization of the city.

“I think sports betting is going to be significant in terms of an overall setting-the-stage for a destination,” said Rummy Pandit, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism at Stockton University.

“It provides Atlantic City yet another market segment with a completely different segment of revenue. That’s not just from the sports betting itself. But because sports betting is primarily a social activity, in addition, it generates lodging and food and beverage and entertainment. There’s a multi-faceted impact off sports betting to the Atlantic City area.”

Industry already helping that base

Deifik does not hesitate at the question.

“If the question is, with a fully activated sportsbook, does it have a dramatic impact on the property? The answer’s absolutely yes, unequivocally yes,” he said. “Sports betting is a social function, for people to get together … and congregate and spend time and have a beer and bet on your team and bet on the team you grew up watching or your alma mater. It’s different. Not everybody gets to go to a stadium and not everybody wants to go to a stadium to watch a game.

“This is an opportunity where you can watch your own team along with a lot of other games and a lot of other teams, and you’re in an environment where you’re high-fiving with people. From that standpoint, it’s extremely good for the property. It’s great for the casino floor because it creates really good energy.”

Certainly, the bottom line is cause for celebration.

Accepted wagers in September, for example, reached $184 million, resulting in $24 million in revenue. That news came after New Jersey reported nearly $153 million in handle and $16 million in revenue over the first three months combined.

To boot, NJ online gambling reported $25.8 million in revenue for the second-best month in the five-year history of the industry. In a statement, NJ Division of Gaming Enforcement director David Rebuck cited sports betting as a key factor.

“Driven by the explosive growth in sports wagering and continuing improvements in Internet gaming and brick-and-mortar casino win results,” Rebuck said, “the gaming industry produced another month of superb revenue increases. The revenue results point to a strong finish for New Jersey’s gaming industry in 2018.”

NJ sports betting is an ‘important piece’ to Atlantic City

Thus, Deifik — certainly along with other property owners and operators — boast a rosy outlook for Atlantic City. The Boardwalk has already begun the first stages of a renaissance. And soon, perhaps, the AC will return to its former glory.

Deifik is sure of it. And sports betting plays a major factor.

“It’s a really great amenity (sports betting), and I think it gives people a reason to come to Atlantic City and stay in the region versus getting on a plane and going somewhere else,” Deifik said. “I think that’s a very, very important piece of what we all should talk about here. March Madness, when it comes up, the Super Bowl, just thousands and thousands of people go to other places, like Las Vegas.

“I think now’s an opportunity for people to come to Atlantic City, go to the hotels, have great options as far as food and beverage and entertainment, and get to watch the game in really well-done sportsbooks. I think ours rivals anything that’s in Las Vegas. We’re very, very excited about that.”

Grant Lucas

About

Grant Lucas is a longtime sportswriter who has covered the high school, collegiate, and professional levels. A graduate of Linfield College in McMinnville, Grant has covered games and written features and columns surrounding prep sports, Linfield, and Oregon State athletics and the Portland Trail Blazers throughout his career.