Wynn has $135 million soft spot for University of Macau

And all this time I thought casino mogul Steve Wynn was a die-hard UNLV fan with a heart that bled Runnin’ Rebels scarlet.

Who knew he was secretly loyal to the University of Macau?

That’s the conclusion I reached after reading that the gaming industry titan, through Wynn Resorts Ltd., had agreed to donate $135 million over 11 years to the University of Macau Development Foundation.

Your mind isn’t playing tricks. That’s $135 million to a 30-year-old foreign university with a student population of around 7,000. Given the fact Wynn’s fortunes have blossomed thanks to the success of his two casinos in Macau, you’d almost suspect there’s more to that donation than one man’s devotion to higher education. Wynn Resorts’ Macau casinos have helped push its chairman’s net worth to $2.8 billion, according to Forbes, and that’s after his divorce made wife Elaine a billionaire.

Perhaps we’ll learn more about the greater meaning of the $135 million donation as the lawsuit filed against the company by Wynn Resorts board member Kazuo Okada develops. The Japanese businessman, Wynn Resorts’ largest shareholder, accuses the company of denying him full access to its “books and records.” The generous University of Macau donation was mentioned in the lawsuit.

A company statement called Okada’s claims “preposterous and without merit” and vows a vigorous defense. Preposterous or not, Okada states he’s invested $380 million in the company since 2000.

Meanwhile, gaming industry observers are gasping at the public airing of grievances by Okada. Will this fight result in a shareholder showdown that rocks Wynn Resorts to its foundation?

The battle of corporate behemoths will be intriguing to watch. But, frankly, it’s above my pay grade. What I’m more interested in is Wynn’s unabashedly gushing affection for the University of Macau. Sure, the UM offers numerous degree programs, and its sports teams range from basketball and soccer to dragon boat racing and karate.

But $135 million?

If you believe Wynn was ever loyal to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, that enormous donation would appear to signal a dramatic shift in his allegiance. It seems like only yesterday Steve and Elaine were “Gucci Row” regulars courtside at Runnin’ Rebels basketball games at the Thomas & Mack Center. His business wizardry has been heralded often by UNLV. He received an honorary doctorate degree and has been inducted into the gaming and business halls of fame.

And he’s made contributions to UNLV. Just how much is difficult to determine.

But information contained in a UNLV Foundation event program gives us an idea of where Wynn ranks. It turns out he’s a member of the Palladium Society, which means that over the decades he’s donated more than $1 million but less than $10 million to the university. (As an aside, Elaine Wynn is the former chairman of the foundation, a longtime member of its board, and has a personal philanthropy record that includes a $5 million donation to downtown’s Smith Center for the Performing Arts.)

By way of comparison, the foundation’s Palladium Diamond Society is reserved for donors of $10 million or more. Its members include the William Bennett Family Foundation, William S. Boyd, Engelstad Family Foundation, Stan Fulton, Lied Foundation, Lincy Foundation, Robert and Paula Mendenhall, and Mel and Ruth Wolzinger. At the $25 million Palladium Ruby Society level is the Greenspun family.

While UNLV isn’t the only charitable game in town, its higher education mission is essential to the future of Las Vegas. But in brutal economic times, with its budget being hacked by the Legislature, it needs all the help it can get from the billionaires who until recent years made their fortunes almost exclusively in Las Vegas.

While $1 million, or even $10 million, for the hometown school is nothing to sniff at, it’s half a bag of peanuts compared with $135 million.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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