Making the News

Star Ledger

Originally Published:Sunday, September 16, 2007

"Ken has everything to be proud of in his career," said Michael Pollock, publisher of Michael Pollock's Gaming Industry Observer. "He has had a very long tenure in an industry where long tenures are rare.

"It was not always easy," Pol lock said. "The general consensus is that the Bally's brand is a very tired brand. It doesn't mean much. And that's tough to work with. And he's managed to do a good job."

Count down for Bally's president

By JUDY DeHAVEN
Star Ledger

In the dual worlds of casino and boxing, everyone has an ego. Everyone wants his name in lights.

Ken Condon was an anomaly.

The man who started as Atlantic City's first casino host and worked his way up to become president of Bally's preferred to operate behind the scenes.

He is A.C.'s longest reigning ca sino boss but never wanted his name in the newspaper. And he was instrumental in reviving big- time fights, although few outside of boxing knew his name.

But now that Condon has announced he will step down as Bally's president, officials are wondering if the Atlantic City fight scene can continue without its biggest booster, and how the casino's parent company, Harrah's Entertain ment, will fare without its most senior executive.

Harrah's spokeswoman Alyce Parker said the company remained committed to the sport. But box ing officials are worried.

"I'm very afraid that this is going to have a very devastating impact on our boxing program," said Larry Hazzard, chairman of the State Athletic Control Board. "We're going to be in serious trouble unless his replacement has the same type of enthusiasm and fer vor for professional boxing that Ken Condon does.

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

Harrah's Entertainment has gone through some turmoil in management since it announced last year it would be acquired by two private equity firms for $27.8billion. The world's largest casino company -- and biggest A.C. operator -- has lost several key people, including its chief operations officer, Tim Wilmott, who was its highest- ranking executive from Atlantic City.

But Condon said in an interview Thursday there were no hard feel ings. The 52-year-old said after nearly 30 years in the casino indus try, it was time to take a break. And no one should count him out just yet.

"It's an amicable departure," Condon said. "I'm going to hang around long enough to help with the new transition, then take time off and spend time with family and decide what to do when I get bored.

"But I'm definitely not using the word retirement," Condon said. "I'm not that old."

Joe Domenico, a former Har rah's A.C. executive who most re cently worked at the company's ca sinos in Illinois, will replace Condon.

Condon, an Orange native who earned his bachelor's degree in marketing and business administration from Montclair State University, was one of a cadre of "Day One" employees at Resorts when it opened as Atlantic City's first ca sino in 1978. He worked in the pub lic relations department. But as the need to cater to high rollers emerged, Condon's job evolved. He became Atlantic City's first casino host.

At Resorts, Condon was introduced to boxing, watching fights in the ballroom. One of Condon's most memorable moments was watching Mike Tyson there at the start of his career.

"I just enjoyed the sport and never let it go," Condon said.

Condon left Resorts after 11 years to work for Mark Ettess, who was hand-picked by Donald Trump to run the Trump Taj Mahal but died in a helicopter crash the year before it opened. Ettess had built a reputation for aggressive marketing special events -- most notably boxing. It was a track Condon would follow.

Condon said Ettess's death was his saddest A.C. memory.

"I finally had a chance to work for (Ettess) at the Taj, and the week before I started he was killed in the helicopter crash," Condon said. "My first entry into the Trump Taj Mahal was attending his funeral."

Condon stayed at the Taj for four years before briefly returning to Resorts and then taking a marketing job at Bally's. He was named its president in 1998.

In recent years, Bally's has grown to be A.C.'s largest gambling hall, adding the Wild Wild West ca sino and swallowing the neighboring Claridge. With growth came challenges, however. Bally's has no single brand and is difficult to market. But while Borgata surpassed Bally's in the top spot for revenue, industry observers said Condon helped Bally's hold its own.

"Ken has everything to be proud of in his career," said Michael Pollock, publisher of Michael Pollock's Gaming Industry Observer. "He has had a very long tenure in an industry where long tenures are rare.

"It was not always easy," Pol lock said. "The general consensus is that the Bally's brand is a very tired brand. It doesn't mean much. And that's tough to work with. And he's managed to do a good job."

While at Bally's, Condon said he was encouraged by the late Arthur Goldberg, who at the time of his death was chief executive of Park Place Entertainment, to develop a boxing program. Bally's partnered with Main Events, a Bloomfield promoter, and laid the groundwork for Bally's rise in the boxing world.

In the 1990s, Trump was the force behind A.C. boxing. But as his casino empire struggled, and then A.C.'s main venue, Boardwalk Hall, closed for renovation, the sport all but disappeared.

When the Hall reopened in 2001, most of the boxing world had already written A.C. off. Then Condon stepped in.

Bally's put on a heavyweight fight between Evander Holyfield and Hasim Rahman in June 2002. The legendary Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward fights followed.

Out of the 18 boxing events at Boardwalk Hall since it reopened, 17 were put on by Condon.

"He literally brought big-time boxing back to Atlantic City," said Dennis Dueltgen, director of operations for Main Events.

Dueltgen said Condon was different than other casino presidents. When Dueltgen was having trouble with his teenage son, Condon took an interest in him.

"Talk about a guy who's up there, to take that time and talk to my son," Dueltgen said. "That tells you something."

But Dueltgen said Condon never wanted accolades.

"We did big shows with him -- we did (George) Foreman fights with him, Lennox Lewis. You're talking big-time fights," Dueltgen said. "And if you wanted to give him kudos he wouldn't let you. He never wanted the credit."

Lee Samuels, the spokesman for the promoter Top Rank, said Condon had a knack for picking the winners.

"He's the heartbeat of boxing in Atlantic City," Samuels said. "He knows what good fights are, what sells and what's works for his customers.

"Atlantic City has gone hot and cold with boxing, but it's hot right now because of Ken."

Big fights need the deep pockets of the casino behind them, which is why all the major boxing shows in New Jersey have taken place in Atlantic City.

Hazzard, the head of the State Athletic Control Board, said one A.C. pay-per-view show can bring the state some $300,000 in tax revenue off the bat; the Athletic Control Board's budget is around $400,000. But Hazzard said that doesn't include the extra business generated in A.C. and the casinos on a big fight weekend.

Although mixed martial arts events have proliferated, few rise to the level of big-time boxing.

"We're going to be in very seri ous trouble in terms of the revenue that comes in from a major boxing event," Hazzard said. "The mixed martial arts in no way come anywhere near to the events that Ken Condon and his organization generate for us.

"Ken Condon has created quite a legacy," Hazzard said. "I try to tell it like it is -- I'm known for that. And there are very few people in boxing that I could speak (about) this highly."

Judy DeHaven covers the casino industry. She may be reached at jde [email protected] or at (973) 392-7804.)
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