U.S. casino billionaires place bets in Japan's tale of two cities

Sat May 10, 2014 10:58pm EDT
 
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By Farah Master and Nathan Layne

OSAKA/TOKYO (Reuters) - Two U.S. billionaires are betting on rival cities, Tokyo and Osaka, to be the first in Japan to open casino resorts - once the government gives the go-ahead to legalize gambling.

Japan is one of the world's last untapped gaming markets and could become the third largest gambling destination after Macau and the United States, with annual revenue of over $40 billion, according to broker CLSA.

Lawmakers who support legalizing casino gambling hope to see initial draft legislation this year, with the first resort opening by 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympic Games.

In a race for first-mover advantage, 76-year-old Chicago real estate mogul Neil Bluhm has set his sights on the southern commercial hub of Osaka, while Las Vegas gaming tycoon Sheldon Adelson, four years his senior, is putting his weight behind a Tokyo flagship resort.

Bluhm, who owns casinos in Pennsylvania, Chicago and Niagara Falls, has a net worth of $2.6 billion, according to Forbes. The former lawyer and now head of Rush Gaming believes Osaka, one of Chicago's 'sister cities', has the kind of flexible local government that will help drive this project, and, crucially, has "shovel ready" casino sites.

He says the whole process - from approval to construction - in Tokyo will be more complex, more time-consuming, and more expensive.

While Adelson hasn't ruled out pitching for Osaka, too, he sees Tokyo as the main prize, given its highly affluent 13.2 million population. The CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corp (LVS.N: Quote), who Forbes says is worth close to $39 billion, has pledged to spend $10 billion as Japan opens up to legal gambling - an offer he says his rivals can't match.

THROWING BIG NUMBERS   Continued...

 
The skyline of Osaka is seen in this February 8, 2001 file photo. REUTERS/Kimimasa Mayama/Files