How The Men Behind Empire City Are Handling The Slot Casino Business With Live Gaming Looming
With live gaming possibly around the corner, a father-and-son-team from a pedigreed sports family adeptly navigate their long-time business.
Yonkers Raceway has been a historically lucky spot for the Rooney family. Back in 1937, Art Rooney Sr. placed a bet there on a horse said to have 14-1 odds. The wager began a legendary three-day run where—between racetracks at Yonkers, Aqueduct, and Saratoga—Rooney, the founding owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and patriarch of the legendary sports clan, parlayed those winnings into roughly $250,000, a sum the equivalent of millions today.
His bookmaker on that first bet was Tim J. Mara, owner of the rival New York Giants. As the Pittsburgh Press later reported, “Mara usually marks Art’s programs and if Rooney likes his [Mara’s] selections, he’ll bet the limit on them. He’s a nut on hunches, and so far they have been holding up splendidly.”
So splendidly, in fact, that Rooney and his wife Kathleen named their son Tim, who was born the weekend of the big run, in Mara’s honor.
Now fast-forward 78 years. Today, that son, Tim Rooney Sr., is president of Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway. The family, best known for football, maintains strong roots in racing, as well as their powerful familial ties. Tim Rooney Sr. runs the business with his son, Tim Rooney Jr., general counsel, and his son-in-law, Bob Galterio, VP and COO. Together, the family faces a changing landscape in the casino business, as New York State moves forward with licensing full-scale Las Vegas-style casinos.
Anyone expecting this prominent family to situate themselves in lavish offices is in for a surprise. No high-rise corner suite, mahogany desks, flat-screen TVs, or plush carpeting. The Rooney offices are in a modest outbuilding on the grounds of the casino, tucked behind a long, squat aluminum building and accessible through a chain-link fence. Neither Rooney Sr. nor Jr. has a window, though Rooney Jr. does have a friendly chocolate Lab stretched out on his office floor. The conference room hosts an old, round wooden table, cardboard boxes scattered on the floor, and walls covered with photos of horses, racetracks, and more horses.
Rooney Jr. is more reserved in his manner, while Rooney Sr. clearly loves to tell a good story. Father and son work well together. It helps, both men say, that Rooney Jr., an attorney, spent most of his career outside the family business before joining six years ago.
“There’s nothing wrong with family members coming into your business as long as they’re capable,” Rooney Sr. says. “It’s extremely important, no matter how talented they are, to have them work for other people first.”
Rooney Sr. admitted that he can be more critical of “Timmy” than others in the company.
Both men share a concern about the way New York State is moving into the gambling resort business, and specifically with the licensing of new sites. Today, Empire City Casino offers 5,300 slot machines with electronic games, as well as year-round harness racing. The casino is prohibited from offering gaming tables with live blackjack, craps, baccarat, poker, and roulette. Until last year, full-scale gambling in New York State had been confined to tribal lands.
“There is nothing wrong with family members coming into your business as long as they’re capable,” says Rooney Sr.
But those restrictions are changing. In 2013, New York voters approved a constitutional amendment to expand casino gambling as part of a plan to revitalize economically distressed upstate regions. The move unleashed a flurry of intense lobbying, with developers like Caesars and Resorts World promising huge, splashy resorts.
At the end of 2014, a panel appointed by the State Gaming Commission granted the first three licenses to sites in the upstate counties of Sullivan, Schenectady, and Seneca. While Westchester wasn’t eligible for a license at this time, nearby Orange County was. Six developers made bids there, including a Malaysian conglomerate called Genting Group, which had proposed an enormous 1,000-hotel-room complex on what is now an old landing strip in Tuxedo, New York.
The potential pitfalls for the Rooneys were multiple. First, new casinos anywhere in the state could undermine the racetrack casinos. And a large resort with gaming tables in nearby Orange County could have made a huge dent in Empire City’s business. The Rooneys lobbied hard against a license for the site and were thrilled with the panel’s decision against an Orange County site.
“We applaud [the board] for their work and ultimate determination that Sullivan County represents the region’s best hope for economic revitalization through casino and resort development,” says Tim Rooney Jr. The Rooneys had halted future investments and expansions until the casino sites were chosen.
The family purchased Yonkers Raceway in 1972. In addition to owning the Steelers, the Rooneys had long been involved in the racing business. They owned Liberty Bell Park in Pennsylvania; The Palm Beach Kennel Club, a greyhound racetrack in Florida; and part of Randall Park, a thoroughbred track in Cleveland. Though Seabiscuit won a race at Yonkers (then called Empire City Racing Association) in 1936, the track’s thoroughbred racing days were long over by the time the Rooneys purchased the business. (Empire City had been converted for harness racing in 1942.)
When the Rooneys bought the business, it was solely a racetrack. But in 2001, New York State passed legislation allowing racetracks to install slot machines. But this version of the law mandated tax rates too cumbersome to make a profit, the Rooneys say. Business looked so dire that they almost sold the property in 2001. But the legislation was amended in 2006, and in October of that year, Empire City Casino had a soft opening with 1,870 machines.
Meanwhile, racetrack casino operators, the Rooneys included, lobbied the New York State Racing Commission for changes. The legislation was amended and the Rooneys hung on to the business.
While many people assume casinos are “cash cows,” the family maintains that between paying off winners and New York State taxes, they do not make as much as people suppose.
The State gets almost 69 percent of casino profit, which is split between education (Empire City has generated more than $2.3 billion for education in the state) and “the horsemen’s share” (meant to revitalize the racing industry). The remaining 31 percent goes back into casino operations.
Getting into the casino business ultimately forced Rooney Sr. to divest his ownership share of his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers. The NFL took a position against joint ownership of the team and a casino, and Rooney Sr. says he was compelled to sell his shares to his brother Dan. The move, he says, was “disastrous for me, because I’m a fan.” Then he adds, deadpan, “It’s getting less difficult as the team gets worse.”
For the Rooneys, football was a business, not a hobby. Father and son make a distinction between early owners like themselves and current owners, for whom a football team is “a vanity asset.”
“When we owned the football team in Pittsburgh, we lived in the poorest neighborhood,” Rooney Sr. says. While people knew who they were, owning a team then, was “no big deal,” he explains.
The Rooneys originally paid $185 million for Empire City. Overall they’ve invested more than $300 million into the property. In 2013, they completed a $50 million renovation. The 66,000-square-foot expansion included a 300-foot curved glass wall, a 30,000-square-foot gaming room, and two new restaurants. The casino formed a partnership with well-known Chef Alain Ducasse to open pinch, a high-end American restaurant, which offers 100 New York beers on tap. They also opened Dan Rooney’s, a traditional Irish pub, with a façade loosely based on Rooney Sr.’s grandfather’s bar in Pittsburgh. With the restaurants, the Rooneys hope that Empire City might become a destination for customers who might not have otherwise visited the casino floor.
In part, the renovations were undertaken to compete with Aqueduct Racetrack. But the Rooneys also wanted a more state-of-the-art facility in anticipation of full casino licenses being awarded. A second round of licenses, which could include Westchester, will be granted in roughly seven years.
The business model has a lot going for it. Empire City is 1.8 miles from the New York City line and easily accessible from public transportation and major highways. “We’re confident that this can be the best site for commercial gaming,” Rooney Jr. says.
Asked what it’s like to live in such a high-profile family, the Rooneys look unfazed. Neither of them think about it that way. And now the family is famous for more than football and racing: Two Hollywood stars have joined the mix.
Only as an afterthought does Rooney Sr. say, “Want to see a picture of my granddaughter?” That photo is a Vogue cover of Academy-Award nominated Rooney Mara (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo). And Rooney’s sister Kate Mara is best known for her Emmy-nominated role of a conniving young reporter on House of Cards. They are the daughters of Tim Mara (yes, of the Giants clan) and Kathleen McNulty (née Rooney).
The Rooneys’ modesty extends to their philanthropy. The family gives generously, with a special interest in literacy, but they don’t like to boast about it. These days, Rooney Sr. enjoys golfing and Rooney Jr. likes to travel. But in the end, it goes back to those racing roots.
Rooney Jr. smiles. “It’s no mystery what my father loves. It’s the horses.”