Nevada Regulators License First Tribal Casino In Las Vegas History

  • Mohegan licensed as first tribe to operate a Las Vegas casino
  • CEO says company investing heavily in digital gaming
  • Mohegan's Canadian casinos remain closed due to coronavirus

The Nevada Gaming Commission (NGC) on Thursday unanimously approved Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment’s (MGE) license application to become the first tribe to operate a casino in Las Vegas since gaming was legalized in the state in 1931.

The Mohegan Sun Casino at Virgin Hotels Las Vegas is scheduled to open January 15.

The three-member commission approved MGE's license after a lengthy hearing that featured the same presentation from the tribe’s meeting two weeks ago in front of the Nevada Gaming Control Board (NGCB).

The NGCB had unanimously recommended approval of MGE's gaming license.

James Gessner, MGE chairman, told the commission the tribe was proud it had broken barriers that no other tribe has done, “including being the first Native American tribe to operate in Atlantic City before expanding internationally to South Korea and Canada.”

“We are once again breaking barriers as we will be the first Native American tribe to operate on the Las Vegas Strip resort corridor,” Gessner said.

The NGC also approved the licensing of 15 executives and tribal members who were in Uncasville, Connecticut, but appeared virtually at Thursday's hearing.

“This is an exciting opportunity to bring new investors into Las Vegas,” said commissioner Deborah J. Fuetsch. “I believe this will be a win-win for Las Vegas and the Mohegan tribe.”

Fuetsch noted that to survive the coronavirus-related closures of their casinos, MGE accessed some liquidity through its senior revolver and renegotiated some of its debt at new terms.

“But what really struck me was the [financial] support from the tribe,” Fuetsch said.

“As almost every company in our industry had to face, we were required to go back to our banks and amend our credit agreements with respect to the closures,” said MGE’s CEO Mario Kontomerkos.

“As part of those discussions with our lenders the tribe did indeed step up and provide many millions of dollars in liquidity to this company, which shows in my mind, and I think in the minds of the lenders who were very pleased with the support and backing, that this tribe is willing to provide at a time when we needed it the most.”

Fuetsch said the tribe’s financial support for MGE was an important topic to discuss because “hopefully we'll never go through this again.”

Currently, MGE owns or manages tribal and commercial properties in Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Washington state. The company also operates two casinos in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

Kontomerkos told the commission that the Ontario properties are the only ones that remain closed. 

“From a financial perspective, there are funds that we receive from the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission on a monthly basis,” he said. “Those funds basically offset the costs that we are incurring while we are closed.”

Kontomerkos added that the Niagara Falls properties are staying more or less neutral from a financial perspective and the company will be able to ride out the situation in Canada as long as they remain closed.

“Of course, we are pushing as hard as we can to reopen those properties as fast as we possibly can and get 4,000 employees back to work as soon as we can,” he said.

Kontomerkos did not disclose the amount of money the company receives on a monthly basis from the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission.

The company is also developing a $5bn resort at Incheon International Airport in South Korea that will open in 2022. Earlier this month, MGE was confirmed as the preferred bidder and contractor to build an integrated-resort at the former Athens airport site in Greece.

Kontomerkos also told regulators the company continues to diversify into digital gaming.

“We are currently involved in digital gaming and when we say digital gaming that is social gaming, sports betting and online gaming in five jurisdictions,” he said.

“Several years ago we made a move to invest in our own digital gaming platform development ... which can support many gaming products in the future, in many jurisdictions.”

Kontomerkos said developing Mohegan’s own digital gaming platform will allow the company to “penetrate this growing industry.”

NGC chairman John Moran Jr. said the tribe had an "impressive string of firsts" and the tribe would have an opportunity to make a name for themselves in Nevada.

The company, owned by the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, will operate the casino at Virgin Hotels Las Vegas on the site of the former Hard Rock Las Vegas casino.

The opening had been anticipated for late November or early December but was delayed until January due to the continued coronavirus outbreak.

Joe Hasson, who was named the casino’s general manager in July, assured the commission the project will be completed on time and on budget.

The Mohegan Tribe did not have to negotiate a tribal gaming compact with Nevada as MGE is leasing and managing the space from another company and the resort is not on sovereign tribal land.