Net Bets Push Golden Nugget Casino Near Top in Atlantic City

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ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -

Don't look now, but a new contender is quietly rising to the upper echelon of Atlantic City's casino market.

In recent years, the Golden Nugget has steadily — and stealthily — grown its gambling revenue and market share, surpassing better known, bigger rivals.

In January, it reached the No. 2 spot in Atlantic City in terms of overall gambling revenue, trailing only the perennial market leader Borgata. It ranked fourth among the city's nine casinos for the full year 2018.

And Golden Nugget has in recent years soared past the competition to dominate Atlantic City's internet gambling market, taking in about twice as much each month as the nearest competitor.

Not bad for a casino that was once in such poor shape when it was owned by Trump Entertainment Resorts that a sale fell through in 2008 because of things like leaky skylights going unrepaired; managers simply moved potted plants underneath them to catch the water.

"We don't puff our chests out and brag a lot," said Tom Pohlman, the casino's general manager. "It's really just knowing what you are and what you want to be, and being consistent with that."

The casino is one of five owned by Texas billionaire Tilman Fertitta, who also owns the NBA's Houston Rockets and is featured on the "Billion Dollar Buyer" TV show. He bought the casino from Trump Entertainment, the company founded by now-President Donald Trump, in May 2011, when the New York real estate mogul's involvement in Atlantic City was little more than the use of his name on three casinos he used to own but later lost control of to creditors.

Fertitta paid $38 million for the casino, which at the time was known as Trump Marina, and quickly plowed an additional $150 into it to make it more competitive, redoing the inside and outside and shedding the drab institutional appearance that made it look more like a hospital than a casino.

The casino's gambling earnings soared by more than 67 percent in Fertitta's first full year of ownership, to $130.4 million. It posted double-digit growth in five of the seven years since, and took in $327.8 million last year.

In January, the Golden Nugget's $26.7 million in gambling revenue trailed only the Borgata, which won $55.8 million.

Can it keep up that pace? Rummy Pandit, executive director of the Lloyd Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism at Stockton University, isn't so sure.

He notes that a third of Golden Nugget's revenue comes from internet gambling, which represents a greater share of Atlantic City's overall gambling market in the slower fall and winter months. That's a factor in why the property was No. 2 in January, but also may be a factor that causes it to come back toward the pack when the weather warms up and land-based casinos predominate, Pandit said.

As the smallest casino in town, with 720 rooms, the Golden Nugget is also the most gambling-centric, Pandit added, deriving nearly three-quarters of its revenue from gambling. It tends to cater to locals and day-trippers.

"That allows them to best utilize their attributes and facilities that they do have," he said.

Internet gambling is one of Golden Nugget's core successes; the casino was an early, aggressive adopter of online gambling. It also was the first in the market to offer internet gambling with live dealers, broadcast from a video studio deep inside the casino.

Its outdoor deck is popular with gamblers in the summer, and it offers outdoor gambling there when the weather permits; wire straps hold down cards and money so they don't blow into the nearby waterways.

The Associated Press surveyed several dozen Golden Nugget customers, with many saying they liked its outdoor deck and gambling areas, its restaurants and staff; one patron swears it uses the biggest olives in their Bloody Mary drinks of any Atlantic City casino.

Teresa Nowotarski of Reading, Pennsylvania likes the pool-level suites, the Chart House restaurant, its players' club and breakfast buffet.

"Plus, I always seem to win there," she said.

"I love the deck," added Cassandra O'Neill of Voorhees Township, New Jersey. "It's the best place to be in the summer; I love looking at the boats and listening to the band while playing blackjack outside."

However, during the AP survey, nearly 20 customers complained about an unpleasant smell in the carpets near the parking garage, and several said they wished it were a bit brighter indoors.

Like most of its competitors, the Golden Nugget offers sports betting. But it is at a competitive disadvantage: state gambling regulators will not let the casino take bets on any NBA games due to Fertitta's ownership of the Rockets. That has the effect of driving customers elsewhere, as Pohlman noted, "You're not going to go to two different sports books to make your bets."

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