Former NBA superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson said it’s unbelievable how the landscape between Las Vegas and professional sports has changed, with the city recently getting two professional sports franchises, and hinted nationwide sports wagering will be part of the future.
Johnson, co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and president of basketball operations with the Los Angeles Lakers, gave a keynote address and answered questions from AGA President and CEO Geoff Freeman on the final day of the Global Gaming Expo.
“Remember all of the sports leagues were saying we’re staying away from Las Vegas and no way,” Johnson said. “The whole thing of betting and this and that, and they wanted us to stay away from all of that. Now you have two teams coming to this great city, and the fans want it. It’s great for the NFL and it’s great for the NHL and great for the fans. The narrative is changing. The landscape is changing. A lot of things are changing around Las Vegas – sports and the major leagues. I think… you are going to see it moving towards something really good for all of us. All these regulations will change.”
Freeman responded that sports wagering is a “big priority” for the AGA and said the industry is working closely NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
“We’re working closely with other leagues to do the right thing here,” Freemans said. “We’ve seen that comfort as well. Increasingly there is a relationship with our industries – sports and live entertainment – and we think we have a great opportunity and it sound like you agree.
Freeman asked Johnson about casinos and teams partnering as sponsors and how that landscape has changed over the years.
“You stayed away from it,” Johnson said. “Now the Lakers have a great relationship (with MGM) and now casinos are popping up everywhere. I think that’s been great for everybody. It has changed a lot. Before it was, ‘Nope, you can’t do it. It’s bad for the image and bad for everybody.’ Now, you’re seeing sports teams having relationships with casinos and vice versa. It’s a way for everybody to win … the Lakers and their model, have proven that. We will continue to come here to Las Vegas and have games because we have a heavy fan base here. Our friends over at MGM have done a great job of laying out the red carpet for us. We look forward to years and years of partnership.”
Johnson talked about going to Las Vegas to see Muhammad Ali fight outside of Caesars Palace, and coming now for boxing and MMA events.
“I love it, love coming here, love spending time in Las Vegas,” Johnson said. “I hope people continue to come here and experience Las Vegas. And also being spoiled, because – they spoil you when you’re here.”
Johnson said what he loves about the gaming and hospitality industry is how it’s evolving and reinventing itself.
“You have to speak to that customer and listen to that customer and then over deliver to that customer,” Johnson said. As chairman and CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises, he talked about his ventures in movie theaters and Starbucks franchises, for example, of having higher profit than competitors and colleagues because he knew what the customers wanted and gave it to them.
“We had to change the fan experience when we took over the Dodgers… we were right in the middle of the pack for attendance when we took over,” Johnson said. “For the last four years, we’ve put millions into the stadium, a couple of hundred million into the stadium, to increase the fan experience, We took the concessions up another level. Since we took over the team, for the last four years, we have been No. 1 in attendance, and this year we almost went to four million fans (3.7 million). We sold three million tickets before the season even started. No other team was close to it. It’s amazing to see these fans, who love the Dodgers and also that game experience.”
Johnson said it’s important to give customers more. If you over-deliver to them, he said, you’ll get a great retention.
“Just like these folks out here – if they over-deliver, they’re going to come back to their casinos (and play) whether its blackjack or craps or the machines,” Johnson said. “If they like it and it’s going good and they feel good, they will come back over and over again. The only difference is we have to get a hold of millennials because they’re a little different. They like it quick, and like it on their phone. They are also not like us, creatures of habit. They want to jump around. You gotta home in on those millennials because they are a different kind of customer.”
Johnson said he’s invested in an esports team, and said NBA and NFL team owners are looking to do the same. It’s an exploding industry, he said.
“When you see them selling out arenas to… young people coming to see these young men and women play video games, it’s crazy,” Johnson said. “I have never seen anything like it. When the opportunity came for me to invest, I said I didn’t know a lot about it. My partners kept saying this is the wave of the future. I did my homework. They are selling out all over the world. I said, ‘okay, let me write the check.’ As soon as we bought the team, three or four months later, we doubled it.”
As for the Lakers, who play Sacramento in a preseason game on Sunday in Las Vegas on Sunday, Johnson said the team is building around No. 2 overall pick Lonzo Ball. He has changed the way “our team will play this season.”
“Right now we just want to build,” Johnson said. “If we’re fortunate to make the playoffs, fine. If we don’t, that’s not going to determine whether or not we have a good season or not because the West is loaded this year. What I want to see us do is go to another level. If we can do that, this will be a successful season. We have created a lot of cap space for next summer and hopefully we can land a couple of big free agents to go along with our young guys, and then we will be right in the middle, fighting for a championship.”