Weighing The Pros And Cons: Mets’ Owner Steve Cohen Landing A Citi Field Casino

Written By Mike Mazzeo on April 21, 2022 - Last Updated on April 28, 2022
Downstate NY Casinos Citi Field Casino Steve Cohen

Sportsbook advertising is all over Citi Field.

Caesars. DraftKings. MGM Empire City.

Billboards. Video boards. The outfield wall.

The Caesars-branded, left-field club lounge that could eventually become a retail sportsbook pending future legislation to allow kiosks at stadiums, arenas and racetracks across New York.

In that sense, Steve Cohen’s New York Mets are just like many other professional sports teams — taking full advantage of the sudden influx of advertising dollars that sports betting partnerships have provided now that online sports betting is legal in the Empire State.

Yet the 99th-richest man in the world appears to have even greater ambitions on the gaming front.

Cohen, with net worth valued at more than $17 billion according to Forbes, has engaged in talks with various entities, including Las Vegas Sands, about the possibility of building a casino next to Citi Field.

The acceleration of the three downstate New York casinos was included in the final NYS budget, setting the stage for an open competitive bidding process. And, potentially, another Steve Cohen victory.

‘Money goes a long way’ for potential Citi Field casino

The City reported that the Amazins’ owner hosted New York City Mayor Eric Adams and other City Hall officials at the Queens ballpark in January to discuss development plans in the surrounding area. That spot, with respect to all the “chop shops,” is in desperate need of a facelift. Sure, it’s prime destination if you need spare car parts. Not so much if you’re looking for restaurants, bars or other entertainment options and amenities.

It is widely known that Cohen gave $1.5 million to a political action committee that backed Adams’ mayoral campaign. And when Adams lifted the vaccine mandate to allow unvaccinated pro athletes to play home games in NYC, the news conference was held at Citi Field. That relationship is likely to be under scrutiny throughout the process.

Some sources have suggested Adams — the former head of the Senate’s Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee, would like to see a casino built in Manhattan. (Adams is on record as saying he’d like two of the three licenses in NYC.) But others believe a legacy development project like Queens-Willets Point — with a casino, hotel, convention center and other new construction — could enamor Adams. Perhaps a soccer stadium, restaurants and/or retail shops.

“Sands is looking at Citi Field, which is a crazy idea,” Assemb. Gary Pretlow recently told PlayNY. “There’s a lot of community opposition to that.”

Still, as one casino industry source put it:

“I do think there’s going to be community opposition. But I don’t know if it’s a death blow. When you’re a billionaire like Steve Cohen, your money goes a long way toward making problems go away.”

Favorites to land downstate NY casino licenses

The perceived frontrunners for two of the three downstate casino licenses are video lottery terminals Resorts World NYC in Queens and MGM Empire City in Yonkers.

If Resorts World and Empire City emerged in the open competitive bidding process, that would leave one more license for a new construction project that may take around up to five years to complete. Several locations in Manhattan could make sense, including the possibility of a Hard Rock casino in Times Square.

Any Manhattan casino would need to be vertically integrated, built straight up with a combination of floors for table games, slots and hotel. That lack of size could potentially mean less revenue.

For casinos, the key is also to get people there and then keep them there, without any other attractions. Manhattan, itself a tourist destination, doesn’t exactly fit the bill. But Manhattan would be advantageous in terms of potentially attracting rich tourists from outside the area. And the idea of catering to high rollers at larger stakes does have merit.

Still, if the gaming facility location board — a majority of which must earn selection by the New York State Gaming Commission by Oct. 6 — decides on an area outside of Manhattan, the Citi Field location could make sense. It is next to La Guardia Airport. The 7 subway train and Long Island Railroad (LIRR) are right there. And within driving distance: Brooklyn, Long Island, Connecticut and New Jersey.

A happy medium of sorts.

Other boroughs, of course, could perhaps make a similar case. And potential issues could arise. Such as cannibalization of Resorts World and the possibility of attracting players in the winter/MLB offseason.

Read More: For The State’s Consideration: South Bronx Assemblymember Wants Downstate Casino

Opposition already in play for new casino construction

Community opposition to any sort of Citi Field/Queens/Willets Point new development construction project that includes a casino is already well documented.

The Queens Civic Congress submitted a letter to the NYSGC after the request for information (RFI) regarding the downstate casino licenses went out. The group expressed various concerns, including opposition to using public parkland, additional traffic congestion and other environmental issues.

Concerning parkland, in the most simplistic terms: If you take it, you have to replace it somewhere else.

The letter indicates the group’s awareness of northeast Queens as a potential site for a new casino. In addition, a study that identified the area conceded that “the scale ultimately proposed for an integrated resort casino may be much larger than we are considering.”

The Congress continued:

The former New York Mets owners, the Wilpons and Saul Katz, proposed in 2011 to construct a full, Las Vegas-style casino on the parkland property located just west of Citi Field stadium. It is crucial to note that on June 6, 2017, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that the 1961 legislation does not authorize construction of a retail complex and movie theater on that public parkland, because it had not been explicitly authorized by the state legislature. Queens Civic Congress would strongly and actively oppose any effort to subvert this ruling or any effort to amend state legislation to permit alienation of this valuable parkland.

How Citi Field casino project could become reality

Could Cohen and any casino partner of his get around the community opposition in Queens and pass through zoning regulations?

As per Senate budget bill S8006C that was signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul: “each applicant who proposes a gaming facility located in region two of zone one, there shall be established a community advisory committee.”

The governor, the district senator, the district assemblymember, the district councilmember, the borough president and the NYC mayor will each appoint a member of the committee.

As per the budget bill language: “Each committee shall review, solicit public comments and written submissions of such comments, and hold public hearings; Upon a two-thirds vote, each committee shall issue a finding either establishing public support approving or disapproving the application.”

Breaking down potential votes

The Citi Field casino development project would need at least four votes.

  • Mayor Adams: For the sake of this projection and his existing relationship with Cohen, let’s say he’s on-board.
  • Gov. Hochul: She would presumably want to be on the same page with the Mayor. No repeat of Cuomo-De Blasio and their ego clash necessary.
  • Queens Borough President Donovan Richards: Why have just one casino in your borough when you can have two? That means thousands of additional jobs and a possible local economic boom.
  • Councilman Francisco Moya: Adams pushed for Moya to win the election as City Council speaker. That didn’t happen, but it would make sense that they’d still be in lockstep.
  • Assemblyman Jeff Aubry: Aubry endorsed a campaign rival of Adams. According to a Politico report, Adams tried to get Aubry to join his administration so Adams could get disgraced politician Hiram Monserrate back in the mix.
  • Senator Jessica Ramos: The New York Post reported that Ramos was against Cohen becoming owner of the Mets, and favored the bid by Alex Rodriguez and Jennifer Lopez.

By this analysis, it’s reasonable to think the vote could — unofficially — end up 4-2 in favor.

Who would Cohen bring in to run the Citi Field casino?

Cohen then might have to sell the idea of partnering with Las Vegas Sands, a massive donor to Donald Trump.

That may not matter elsewhere in the country, but it certainly could in New York. Sands CEO Rob Goldstein has expressed a willingness to spend a massive amount to get into the NYC market. The minimum fee is $500 million for a downstate license, but perhaps it will end up being double that.

There will be community opposition. There will be other bidders. And NYSGC would need to score the bid against them to see who ultimately earns a coveted downstate casino license.

But Steve Cohen has the potential to overcome it all with his combination of wealth, power and influence.

Photo by AP / Mary Altaffer
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Mike Mazzeo

Mike Mazzeo is a contributing writer for PlayNY, reporting on legal sports betting in New York while covering the potential legalization of NY online casinos and poker. He previously wrote for ESPN, the New York Daily News and The Ringer, among others.

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