Sheldon Adelson's Business Interests

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A few astute readers pointed out a significant omission from my piece yesterday about Sheldon Adelson’s purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal: In looking at the transaction solely through a political lens, I completely neglected to consider its potential effects on his business interests. It’s an angle that potentially sheds more light on Adelson’s still-mysterious motivations.

A Boston native, Adelson lives and is based in Las Vegas, where he was a pioneer in turning the gambling mecca into a convention destination. He founded the now-defunct electronics trade show COMDEX, then sold it in 1995 for $862 million. Today, the Adelson family are majority owners of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, which owns the Sands Expo Convention Center and the Venetian and Palazzo mega-casinos. Each casino cost more than $1 billion to construct in the go-go aughts, when luxury resorts packed with high-end shopping, celebrity-chef restaurants, and decadent design flourishes were all the rage on the Strip. (The city took a devastating hit in the 2008 financial crash, but tourism has now returned to pre-crisis levels and new resorts are again being built.) The Venetian, where this week’s Republican presidential debate was held, features singing, costumed gondoliers “rowing” guests on motorized boats down indoor and outdoor canals. Adelson’s properties are the only nonunion casinos on the Strip; his antipathy to unions is one of his most strongly held political beliefs.

But Vegas is no longer Adelson’s main commercial base. He was an early entrant into the casino market in the Chinese port of Macau, where his $2.4 billion, 10.5-million-square-foot Venetian Macao is the largest casino in the world and his fourth Chinese casino complex, the Parisian, is scheduled to open next year. Despite a recent slowdown in the Macau gaming business, China now accounts for about 65 percent of Sands’ revenue, with another 10 percent or so coming from a Sands casino in Singapore; the rest comes from the company’s Las Vegas holdings and a casino in Pennsylvania. It’s hard to lose money in the casino business—essentially a state-granted license to print money—though some manage to do it (looking at you, Donald Trump). Adelson’s net worth is pegged at $28 billion.

So one possible use of Adelson’s Review-Journal could be to quash negative coverage of his properties and/or amplify critical coverage of his Strip rivals. He’d have to hire a new staff if he wanted to do that, though—the R-J’s chief gaming reporter, Howard Stutz, is a paragon of integrity, widely acknowledged as the best in the business, who covers the industry without fear or favor and has been on the beat for over a decade. “I’ve always been fair and impartial, and nothing is going to change my coverage of the gaming industry,” Stutz told me.

There’s an area where Adelson’s business and political interests converge: his opposition to online gaming, which the Obama administration unilaterally legalized in 2011. Adelson backs two bills in Congress to overturn that ruling; he claims to oppose online gaming for moral reasons, but most observers, myself included, believe that’s a disingenuous cover for his desire to avoid competition from the Internet for gamblers’ dollars. The Review-Journal’s libertarian-conservative editorial page has supported legal online gaming. It would not be surprising if that position changes under Adelson’s ownership.