Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Atlantic City's Resiliency in the Fight Game

Atlantic City, New Jersey was supposed to be dead as a major fight town.  Long removed from its heyday as the centerpiece of East Coast boxing in the '80s when the triumvirate of Donald Trump, Mike Tyson and Don King ruled much of the boxing marketplace, summoning the spirit of its late, local hero, Arturo Gatti, Atlantic City has persevered to maintain its status as a premier boxing destination.  

Boxing in Atlantic City wasn't supposed to recover from the collapse of Trump's casino empire, the imprisonment of Tyson, the banishment of King from promoting in New Jersey, the abandonment of the sport by U.S. broadcast networks, the corporate consolidation of its casinos, the closing and refurbishing of Boardwalk Hall, the rise of the Indian casinos in nearby Connecticut (Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun), the reemergence of Madison Square Garden in boxing, the retirement of Arturo Gatti, and so on and so on.  Yet, Atlantic City has thrived in obtaining high-quality boxing and has redoubled its efforts to expand its presence in the sport.

There are two factors that have kept Atlantic City in the limelight as a major boxing attraction:  Ken Condon and Boardwalk Hall.  

All discussions about the contemporary boxing scene in Atlantic City begin and end with one man.  His name is Ken Condon.  Since arriving in Atlantic City in 1978 as gambling was legalized, Condon worked for a variety of casinos, including Resorts, Trump and Bally's.  Starting as a marketing professional in Resorts, he was put in charge of its boxing program.  Condon worked his way up the chain and, like many of us, became hooked on boxing during the Tyson years. 

By 1993, he moved to Bally's and established that casino's relationship with the venerable, old-time boxing venue, Boardwalk Hall.  As he ascended to president of the casino, he was instrumental in attracting top boxing matches to the resort town.  Condon was an unassuming presence, yet knew all the major players in the sport.  Most of all, they liked working with him.  

Upon Condon's retirement in 2007, there was so much consternation about Atlantic City's future in boxing that the Commissioner of the New Jersey Athletic Control Board, Larry Hazzard, Sr., said to the Newark Star-Ledger, "I'm very afraid that this is going to have a devastating impact on our boxing program.  We're going to be in serious trouble unless his replacement has the same type of enthusiasm and fervor for professional boxing that Ken Condon does.

"I personally don't believe that they could find someone of that caliber to fill that type of void.  I would go so far as saying that if it were not for Ken Condon, there would be no professional boxing in the state of New Jersey.  There would be none."

Wisely, Harrah's Entertainment (now Caesars Entertainment, Inc.), which owned Bally's, fashioned a deal with Condon upon his retirement where he would be the company's Sports and Entertainment Consultant for its Atlantic City properties – a position that Condon still holds.  

However big-time fighters and promoters did not just come to Atlantic City because of Ken Condon's warmth and hospitality; they came to fight in Boardwalk Hall. 

There is no explanation for why an 82-year old building is so popular amongst fight fans other than that Boardwalk Hall provides a superior boxing experience.  The intimate arena seats 13,000.  There are no luxury boxes.  You won't find magnificent LED displays; the food is barely adequate.  But what you do get are absolutely incredible sight lines.  You are closer to the action in the second level in Boardwalk Hall than you would be in the bottom tier at almost any other arena.  Modern venues push their seating so far back that you can feel removed the action.  At Boardwalk Hall, the vertical arrangement of the seating makes you feel like you are right on top of the ring.  Also, the arena only has seating on three sides of the boxing ring, reducing the amount of corner seating and awkward-angled views.   

In addition, with the right fight, you get the boxing fans from New York and Philadelphia.  They may be many things, but they certainly are passionate and they love their boxing.  The crowds are often multi-ethnic, drawing black, white and Hispanic boxing fans from around the region. Unlike the more glamorous crowds at Las Vegas fights, the Atlantic City boxing crowds feature some of the most curiously dressed people that I've ever seen (especially the women, but not exclusively).

Over the last few years, Condon and Boardwalk Hall have opened up the arena's Adrian Phillips Ballroom to showcase smaller fights.  Here, the first Paul Williams-Sergio Martinez fight took place.  The Ballroom will also host this week's Carl Froch-Glen Johnson match.  The set up of the 3,000-seat ballroom is akin to watching world-class boxing in a high school gym; it's that intimate.  With just minimal floor seats and the main vertical seating on just one side, it almost feels like you’re sitting in the bleachers watching a basketball game or a wrestling match.  Perhaps even more so than Boardwalk Hall, the view is incredible.  You can practically smell the sweat of the fighters and you can hear the crisp, landed punches reverberating around the room.


Atlantic City's future as a destination faces a slew of new challenges.  In many ways, the health of its gaming industry has never been threatened as severely as it has been in the past few years.  Slot machines have opened up in the neighboring states of Delaware and New York.  Pennsylvania, an enormous feeder to Atlantic City, has opened up casinos across the state, with a full complement of slots and table games.   Additional expansion of gaming has been proposed for New York and Maryland.  For over a generation, Atlantic City was literally the only game in town.  Now, annual double-digit revenue losses have become the norm for many of for New Jersey's casinos.  At least 6 of Atlantic City's 11 casinos have been in some phase of bankruptcy over the last three years.

The recession has also cast an unforgiving shadow on the future of the resort city.  Four new casino projects were delayed or scuttled because of the reduced lending and bonding capacity of the financial markets.  One new project, the Revel Casino, successfully built its exterior but halted action on the completion of its interior because of the dearth of additional financing.  The uncompleted project has symbolized the abandonment of hope in the city's future prospects. 

However, A.C. does have a few pleasing trade wins at its back.  Madison Square Garden in nearby New York City is undergoing a refurbishment, shutting its doors to boxing for the time being.  In addition, MSG has become so cost-prohibitive to stage a fight, that only the largest attractions in boxing can make money in the main arena.  (Although, the Dolans, the owners of Cablevision and MSG, have been known to buy fights as loss-leaders from time-to-time.)

Also, the knowledgeable and numerous fight fans that live within a four-hour drive make Atlantic City a natural site for fights with no established ticket sellers.  When Paul Williams and Sergio Martinez met for the first time in 2009, neither fighter had much of a box-office following.  Yet, the fight sold out the Ballroom and it was one of the fights of the year.  Additionally, Glen Johnson and Carl Froch have no real established ticket base in the United States, so Atlantic City was selected to stage the semi-final match in Showtime's Super Six tournament.  Atlantic City fight fans know quality; when there are good fights, they will show up, regardless of ethnicity, geography or any of the other factors that usually dictate the location of major fights.

In recent history, Atlantic City was reluctant to stage more than a few fights a year.  Condon told the Philadelphia Daily News in 2007 that he tried to limit boxing in Atlantic City to once a quarter.  However, within those parameters, over the last few years Condon was still able to lure some big names to A.C., including Miguel Cotto, Antonio Margarito, Antonio Tarver, Kelly Pavlik, Bernard Hopkins, Paul Williams, Sergio Martinez and Yuriorkis Gamboa.

But desperate times call for desperate measures.  With all of the uncertainty surrounding Atlantic City's dwindling customer base, perhaps it is not surprising that Condon, with Caesars' backing, has been more aggressive in bringing fights to Atlantic City.  In addition to staging numerous fights in Boardwalk Hall's two facilities, Condon has held numerous club fights in the Ballroom at Bally's casino. 

So far in 2011, Condon has staged the Yuriorkis Gamboa-Jorge Solis card.  He attracted a ShoBox main event earlier in the year.  He also secured the Paul Williams-Erislandy Lara fight in July for the Adrian Phillips Ballroom.  Atlantic City was heavily involved in the Zab Judah-Amir Khan negotiations before that fight landed in Las Vegas.  (It would have drawn better Atlantic City than it would have in Vegas).  He has also staged a number of successful smaller shows at Bally's. 

So for now, Atlantic City will continue to thrive and even expand its market share for big fights along the East Coast.  With MSG temporarily decommissioned for boxing and the Indian casinos in Connecticut set up for smaller fight cards, Boardwalk Hall looks to be in the sweet spot. 

More importantly, Condon has cultivated key relationships with large and small promoters, from Top Rank to Main Events to Dan Goossen to Lou DiBella to Star Boxing to Fingerman Promotions.  Those relationships are the key to Atlantic City's continued viability as a boxing destination. 

For an often dismissed and beleaguered resort town, Atlantic City continues to attract top-quality boxing.  And while there might never be a phenomenon like Mike Tyson again or a bankroller like an unencumbered Donald Trump, Boardwalk Hall, unlike most venues in the country, consistently and successfully opens its doors for boxing.  I'm sure more great fights will be on the way.      

No comments:

Post a Comment