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Alex Meruelo’s purchase of Arizona Coyotes a big move for gaming

Alex Meruelo joined a pretty exclusive club last week when the National Hockey League approved his acquisition of the Arizona Coyotes for an undisclosed price.

Now he’s among a small group of casino owners who also own sports teams.

It’s more evidence — if you really needed it — that the relationship between professional sports and the gaming industry is changing.

Meruelo is the owner of the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno, the largest hotel in the market (which also has Northern Nevada’s largest sportsbook), as well as the SLS Las Vegas.

Analysts say the media-shy Meruelo has become an expert at acquiring troubled companies and turning them around. But unlike another casino fix-it artist, Carl Icahn, Meruelo tends to fix the companies he buys and hang onto them. It’ll be big news for hockey and the Valley of the Sun if Meruelo can find what ails the Coyotes and turn the perennial money losers into winners.

The NHL has become one of the friendliest leagues to the gaming industry with the relationship it has built with the resort community through hosting the annual end-of-season awards show.

The fact that the NHL bought into a Vegas-born expansion franchise cleared a path for the Raiders and certainly has the National Basketball Association looking hard at Las Vegas becoming an NBA market. The NBA Summer League and the arrival of the WNBA Las Vegas Aces are proof that such a marriage could work.

It hasn’t been easy.

Several companies and individuals have tried with varying degrees of success to own both a casino and a professional sports team. Most have separated themselves from potential conflicts of interest by taking their teams’ games off the betting board.

Members of the Maloof family, former owners of the Fiesta casino franchise and now minority investors in Palms, formerly owned the Sacramento Kings NBA franchise. It was the Maloof connection that many thought eventually would lead to a franchise for Las Vegas.

Tilman Fertitta, who is related to the Fertitta family of Las Vegas that is the majority owner and operates Station Casinos and its parent Red Rock Resorts, is owner of the Houston Rockets NBA franchise. He once was a partner with the NFL’s Houston Texans, but that league has been the slowest to embrace a shift toward dual ownership.

Fertitta received some interesting news last week: New Jersey legislators are considering amending a state law that prohibits casino companies from taking bets on their affiliated league.

In Nevada, Fertitta’s Golden Nugget properties accept wagers on the NBA — but not on Houston Rockets games. In New Jersey, the entire NBA is off-limits to Fertitta and Golden Nugget Atlantic City.

MGM Resorts International owns the Aces but wasn’t the first casino company to take on a WNBA franchise. The Mohegan Sun, a tribal casino in Connecticut, acquired the Orlando Miracle franchise and relocated it to the Nutmeg State in 2003. It’s one of the most successful franchises in the league after teetering on the brink of bankruptcy in Orlando.

Like the NFL, baseball is slow to embrace the gaming industry. Just ask Pete Rose.

Derek Stevens, owner of the D Las Vegas and the Golden Gate and builder of Circa in downtown Las Vegas, once owned the Las Vegas 51s. The Pacific Coast League frowned on the joint ownership and Stevens eventually sold it to the Howard Hughes Corp., where it has transformed itself to the Las Vegas Aviators, a tribute to Hughes, a historic Las Vegas figure once heavily involved in the casino industry.

There’s no law or regulation prohibiting a Nevada gaming company from taking wagers on a professional team affiliated with a casino owner. However, some leagues have their own rules with such prohibitions.

I say Alex Meruelo will likely take Arizona Coyotes games off the board next season — not a huge financial hit, considering the NHL is one of the least-bet-on sports.

But there’s no denying he has helped push professional sports closer to the gaming industry with the transaction.

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on Twitter.

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