There’s free agency – even in gaming

If the casino industry were Major League Baseball, the current crop of big-name executives that have been cut loose since December would constitute a high-priced free agent market.

The only difference?

These guys aren’t going to see the Albert Pujols or Josh Hamilton-sized pay hikes shelled out over the past two years by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

In the casino business, high-six-figure-a-year salaries are not in tremendous demand, especially on the Strip.

The two highest-profile positions on the market are top executive jobs with Canadian-based Gateway Casinos in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the Seneca Nation of Indians, which owns casinos in upstate New York and Ontario, Canada.

“I’m telling these guys, there are only two or three jobs that pay in the $650,000- to $700,000-a-year range,” said Mark Wayman, a gaming industry executive placement recruiter.

“And those big jobs? We’re only seeing maybe two or three a year come open,” Wayman said.

The names in the current free agent pool are somewhat surprising.

In early December, Aria President Bill McBeath, who had been with the CityCenter flagship hotel-casino through its construction and opening, resigned to “step back and reassess his career goals,” according to a statement from MGM Resorts International. During CityCenter’s development, McBeath also held the title of Bellagio president.

Two weeks later, Felix Rappaport, president of The Mirage, also resigned to “explore new opportunities within and possibly outside our industry.” In addition to The Mirage presidency, a position he held since 2010, Rappaport served as president of Luxor, Excalibur and New York-New York

The head-scratcher came Jan. 5, when one-time Las Vegas casino president Don Marrandino stepped down as president of Caesars Entertainment Corp.’s four casinos in Atlantic City and the company’s racetrack casino outside Philadelphia. The Atlantic City native made a triumphant return to the market in 2009 after 20 years on the Strip.

Add Michael St. Pierre into the mix, and you have a starting rotation. St. Pierre left his position as the senior vice president of shared services as Caesars in November. Before that position, he spent almost 14 years running Caesars (and corporate predecessor Harrah’s) casinos in the Midwest.

So after years of seemingly stable executive ranks as the industry weathered the recession, why the current management shake-ups?

Immediately after the resignations, gaming sources began floating reports that executives were asked to leave by corporate bosses. Others hinted we were in for a round of musical chairs, with gaming executives landing positions at other properties.

Gaming is a business fraught with rumors. Years ago, a friend said speculation and innuendo combine as the second-biggest industry in Las Vegas.

The truth is somewhere in the middle.

Some of the changes could be related to cost-cutting. Companies will replace an executive with a lower-priced hire, or give another casino president oversight of two properties.

McBeath was replaced by CityCenter CEO Bobby Baldwin, who added stewardship of the hotel-casino to his overall duties. Rappaport’s job is being filled temporarily by MGM Resorts Chief Operating Officer Corey Sanders.

In Atlantic City, Marrandino’s job was filled by two general managers.

Several Atlantic City area publications and gaming newsletters speculated that Marrandino was forced out.

In November, Harrah’s Atlantic City was fined $50,000 by New Jersey’s Division of Gaming Enforcement after Marrandino improperly told dealers to issue $2,000 worth of chips and wagering coupons to an unnamed celebrity in August.

According to the Press of Atlantic City, the celebrity lost the money playing blackjack and roulette. However, gaming regulators said the customer did not properly pay for the chip and vouchers, which were issued in violation of casino regulations.

This slip-up won’t relegate Marrandino to the sidelines. A noncompete clause in his Caesars employment agreement, however, could limit his job prospects.

A gaming source who has reviewed contracts for casino executives said most agreements have yearlong noncompete clauses that are defined geographically. Marrandino is most likely prohibited from working for another casino on the Boardwalk or with a property in a market that competes with Atlantic City, such as anywhere on the East Coast.

That’s a reason the jobs in Vancouver and upstate New York are attractive.

You can get around noncompete clauses, but there may be cost.

On Dec. 26, Gamal Aziz resigned as the president and CEO of MGM Hospitality, a subsidiary of MGM Resorts, which is establishing hotel projects in international markets.

Eleven days later, Wynn Resorts Ltd. announced it was launching Wynn Resorts Development, a similar venture, and named Aziz president.

Howard Stutz’s Inside Gaming column appears Sundays. He can be reached at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. He blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/stutz. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.

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