Crown’s casino licence now hinges on former Supreme Court judge Patricia Bergin’s findings from the year-long investigation into the group, which was triggered by a series of reports by this masthead. The recommendations are due by February 1.
Crown could lose the licence completely, or have strict conditions imposed. Changes to Crown’s management and board could be required, and Packer may have to sell down some of his 36 per cent holding in Crown to lessen what counsel assisting the inquiry called his “deleterious” influence.
But even if Crown keeps its licence, there are questions about whether Crown Sydney is viable in its current form or if the city’s tallest building could become a white elephant.
The risk, according to gaming industry experts, is that even after Australia’s international borders reopen the Chinese high rollers that were a vital part of the Barangaroo business plan are unlikely to return.
“The international VIP market is pretty much gone,” says David Green, an industry consultant who has worked with both casinos and gambling regulators.
“These people won’t put their heads up again while the mainland [Chinese] authorities are as belligerent and antagonistic towards gaming as they now are.”
When Packer first proposed the project in 2018, he made it clear having a high-roller, members-only casino attached was crucial to its viability and that China was the biggest opportunity.
Crown promised the NSW government that Barangaroo would deliver $1 billion in tax revenue in the first 15 years of operation. The casino would triple the value of international VIP gaming business coming into Sydney, Packer claimed. But in October, while giving evidence to the Bergin inquiry, he conceded that would never eventuate.
“Clearly that’s wrong but that’s what I believed at the time,” Packer told the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority (ILGA) inquiry.
The billionaire businessman explained that in the original business case international high rollers would generate a third of Crown Sydney’s earnings, with local gamblers and its hotel and hospitality operations making up the balance covering the cost of construction.
“The upside in Crown Sydney was from the international VIP business,” Packer said.
Out of the $2.2 billion construction cost, Crown also hopes to recoup $800 million from sales of luxury apartments in the tower. The penthouse is still for sale at a reported asking price of $100 million.
Crown’s grip on the China market was already slipping, following the arrest of 19 Crown employees in China in 2016 for illegally promoting gambling (one of the main focuses of the Bergin inquiry) and Crown’s subsequent exit from its Asian joint venture.
Crown then relied on “junket” tour partners to bring Chinese VIPs to Australia, but that has been put on ice after the Herald and The Age exposed how many of its junkets had links to organised crime, which was examined further at the Bergin inquiry.
Crown has pledged to never work with junkets again, unless state regulators implement a licensing regime for the controversial operators. And just last week the Chinese government passed even harsher criminal penalties for anyone organising Chinese citizens to travel overseas to gamble.
Casino industry expert Ben Lee, from the consultancy IGamiX Management & Consulting, says this effectively closed-off the flow of Chinese high rollers to casinos like Crown Sydney.
“It leaves them up the creek without a paddle,” he says. “The only way they even can try to recover their investment [from Barangaroo] is to go aggressively after the local market.”
That will include targeting lower-tier players – not just wealthy VIPs – who currently frequent Crown’s Sydney rival The Star, says Lee. That’s possible because its table game-betting limit is only $25, which far from being “high-roller” stakes is what most patrons bet on the main gaming floor at Crown Melbourne.
“When you look at the table limit of $25, that’s a laugh,” he says. “That’s not even the main hall limit in Macau. So while they were saying one thing, they were really aiming for something else.”
Green says that Crown could still attract some relatively high rollers. But the inability to extend credit to Chinese gamblers here and get around China’s tight capital controls – which was a key function of junkets – would limit the earning potential.
“It’s going to be a lot harder for them to carve much out of gaming itself,” Green says.
Green thinks Crown will eventually be allowed to operate in Sydney but may face a long delay in opening the facility and stricter reporting conditions. There may also be some issues replacing its board.
Some industry watchers say the Bergin inquiry has jeopardised not just Crown Sydney but also the group’s most important asset: Crown Melbourne.
The Victorian government last month fast-tracked its next five-yearly review of Crown’s licence, due in 2023, to this year in light of the evidence the NSW inquiry uncovered about what was happening under its nose at the sprawling Southbank complex.
But another outcome which could address Crown’s licensing issues is for it to be taken over by another operator. Australian market analysts have recently crunched the numbers on a possible merger between Crown and Star Entertainment to create a $14 billion gambling behemoth with casinos in Australia’s four largest capitals.
Packer for his part has shown himself to be a willing seller. He negotiated a full Crown takeover with US casino giant Wynn in April 2019, but that fell apart when details leaked to the press.
Hong Kong operator Lawrence Ho’s Melco Resorts then agreed to buy 20 per cent of Crown from Packer in May last year and said he wanted to grow its stake further but retreated amid the COVID-19 downturn and after becoming a focus of the ILGA inquiry.
Green says a takeover would have to be at a knock-down price given Crown will not have the international business it has previously enjoyed. (With COVID-19 forcing it to close its properties for much of 2020, Crown’s share price is down 20 per cent over the past year).
While Lee says that if Crown were to offload just Barangaroo in the event it lost its licence there, it would also have to do so at a substantial discount.
“Previously you had the potential cream of the international market but with that effectively closed off, with just the domestic market there’s not going to be a lot of growth,” he says. “It has to be a bargain.”
Business reporter at The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.
Colin Kruger is a business reporter. He joined the Sydney Morning Herald in 1999 as its technology editor. Other roles have included the Herald’s deputy business editor and online business editor.