Sunday, July 11, 2010

Station Casinos Collapse Backing UFC-owning Fertitta Brothers into a Corner

By: Rich Bergeron

When it rains, it pours for the Fertitta family. Last Friday the patriarch Frank Fertitta, Jr. died while undergoing treatment for heart disease in a California hospital. The death comes at the tail end of a long and painful campaign of pending bankruptcy that finally ended in the Chapter 11 proceedings that are now ongoing for Station Casinos. Services for the founding father of Station Casinos have been set for this Friday and Saturday. Yet, amidst all the major media reporting of this tragedy, only the Los Angeles Times piece on the subject has so far included the truth about the skimming investigation Frank was suspected in. Even then it was too little, too late.

The fact that Frank had been suspected of and investigated for skimming during his early career was much more important to the downfall of Station Casinos than many might think. It is this bare fact and the stigma that Frank never quite shook which kept him from being in charge of the company until his death. Instead, he was CEO of Fertitta Enterprises for a time, working on investments and land deals since he couldn't get involved in running the casinos. He left that job to his sons, with Frank III taking the reigns first in 1993. It just might be this early mantle laid upon Frank's oldest son that created the conditions which now exist today. The billionaire Fertitta brothers have shown over the years that they were never quite prepared to run the family business, unless the goal was to run it into the ground.


Perhaps the fatal blow to the family business and maybe even the father himself was the potential loss of Palace Station to Boyd gaming, a long-standing opponent and major competitor in the locals Vegas gaming market. Frank Junior reportedly spent every lunch hour he could at Palace Station, which was his true pride and joy and a place he might have loved even more than his own sons. This was the place that made the pauper into a prince. It all began with a little place called simply "The Casino." The name changed almost overnight after Frank Junior bought the shabby property and turned it into The Bingo Palace:

Knowing that Palace Station might be snatched away from the family by a well-placed bid in bankruptcy court must have been hard for Frank Junior to deal with. His sons must have been equally disturbed by the fact that their poor financial management of the company and over extending of company debt could ultimately lead to them losing their father's prized property to the highest bidder. Despite early rejections of Boyd's offers to purchase a group of core, less debt-laden properties during the days before bankruptcy set in, the competitor is now more intent than ever on acquiring whatever it can from its ailing enemy. If they get what they're looking for, it might even come at a lower price than they initially offered.


Dana White's attitude about Station Casinos falling on hard times was glib at first, and he insisted the casino troubles wouldn't translate into bad times ahead for the UFC. Yet, there is now talk of consolidating the WEC and UFC operations in what would ultimately be a cost-saving measure. The Fertittas seem to be showing signs of financial stress and things continue to get worse for the casino environment. There seems to be no bottom to the depression the company is experiencing with a reported $65.3 million loss posted by Station Casinos in the second quarter of this year.

Just a little less than a month before Station Casinos went bankrupt, Frank Fertitta III bought a $28 million home in Emerald Bay, which is a prime beachfront community in Orange County, California. The family was at one point ready to put up $244 million of their own family money to save the company from a painful bankruptcy. It seems Frank III decided to spend a considerable percentage of that bid when it seemed most apparent that the company couldn't be saved for that price. Meanwhile, now Lorenzo Fertitta is selling his Vegas house for 2.95 million bucks, meaning he may not be Dana White's close neighbor for much longer. Check out this amazing mansion on the market for a bargain:

Now that the company is in bankruptcy, the $244 million pre-packaged bankruptcy solution proposed by the Fertittas is out of the question.The company already reportedly has legal bills in excess of $16.2 million for the months leading up to the actual BK filing. The Fertittas themselves will also have to retain their own lawyers along with the rest of the company's directors. The road ahead is sure to be filled with turmoil as the finger of blame will likely be pointed squarely at the Fertitta brothers due to their ultimate oversight of the company during its fall from grace. More litigation will compound the bankruptcy as lenders and bondholders will try to exact revenge by trying to bust the big Fertitta piggy bank with the aid of high powered lawyers and law firms.

The Las Vegas Sun reports, "Station has already advanced retainers to Nave's law firms totaling $750,000 and to the Colony directors' law firm of $1 million; and has agreed to cover the costs of the attorneys for the Fertitta directors, the filing said. Additional costs for all the directors should be paid by Station as they are incurred, the company argued." Yet, even if the company does foot the legal bills for the moment, it will be Lorenzo and Frank III paying the price in the long run if litigation can prove they were reckless and irresponsible in their operation and oversight of Station Casinos. Though it's true that Lorenzo, Frank III, and Delise Sartini only own 24 percent of the company combined, Frank III and Lorenzo had the most principal management roles leading up to the bankruptcy. Lorenzo's departure for full-time UFC duty in 2008 is not likely to absolve him of culpability and may have been more of a cost-saving measure in hindsight. Of course, many experts would argue that Dana White really needed a babysitter, but it is also a strong possibility that Lorenzo knew the bankruptcy was coming and wanted nothing to do with burdening the company when he could be better used elsewhere.

The uglier the Station Casinos bankruptcy case gets, the more chances that the debacle will impact the UFC's operations in a negative manner. The so-called "experts" in the fight industry will claim that the two companies are wholly separate and unrelated. As such, they will further try to justify that the UFC is safe and secure no matter what happens to Station Casinos. At the same time these "experts" will harp on the bogus $1 billion price tag bestowed on the UFC by a Forbes magazine writer who seemingly never took into account the fact that there is a heavy debt load associated with the fight league that few talk about when a possible sale is discussed. My Enron of MMA page outlines all the details of the $350 million senior-secured credit facility that will make the UFC difficult to sell for a high profit margin. Even if the UFC's growth and success is perpetual, that loan will still have to be paid off in full before any sale would be worthwhile for all the players involved.

The vast wealth of the Fertitta family may actually be a barrier to the success of the UFC rather than a benefit considering the fact that the deepest pockets make the best targets when it comes to litigation. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to analyze the moves made by Station Casinos over the years and conclude that while the company itself suffered, the Fertitta family cashed in hand over fist. The litigation buck doesn't stop with Station Casinos, either. Though it's been a case that's been flying under the radar in recent months, the lawyers for the former PRIDE organization are still pursuing legal action against the Fertittas, Dana White, and Zuffa over allegedly false promises made that were supposed to guarantee PRIDE would continue as an active organization as part of the sale agreement. I have spoken personally with some of the lawyers on the case who are leaving no stone unturned and not giving up anytime soon.

While Frank Fertitta Jr.'s recent death may mean the brothers inherit some of their father's leftover fortune, even that influx of cash may not be enough to weather the storms to come. Of course, there are plenty of scenarios that could play out that might keep the Fertittas in great financial standing through all of this. Yet, to say that they are guaranteed to get through this with no real impact on the UFC is to neglect to consider the true facts at hand. Those facts point to the very real possibility that the Fertittas could exhaust their existing cash reserves while Station Casinos languishes in bankruptcy. If that happens, you might see the Fertittas seek another big loan package for the UFC putting that outfit in further debt. After all, the last UFC loan came only after the Fertittas overextended their credit with similar instruments they secured for Station Casinos. Those huge loans and an overzealous expansion of the company's gaming interests and land holdings have resulted in the current Station Casinos bankruptcy situation, and if something that big can fail so miserably, so can the UFC.

The bottom line here is that while the UFC brass and the associated spin machine will try to convince the fans that everything is on the up and up, behind the scenes times are very tough. The UFC continues to find success and expand its fan base in a manner that makes it appear ironclad and in no danger, but behind the smoke and mirrors there's a real possibility that things could soon start to go downhill fast. It all depends on what kind of impact the impending litigation and bankruptcy of Station Casinos has on the Fertitta family war chest. This is a family used to spending money at a rapid rate, and Frank III's $28 million home purchase during the toughest time Station Casinos has ever faced is a clear indicator of that. Those who might argue that it would be impossible for this family to lose everything over this might be the same folks who once thought Station Casinos would never go bankrupt.

As a huge fan of the UFC myself, I would never want to see the organization as a whole suffer over issues at a company that is supposed to be unrelated. At the same time, I have to wonder why the Fertittas would promise up to $244 million to keep Station Casinos out of a nasty bankruptcy. The only answer to that question is my mind is that they must have known if they couldn't make that deal things would get very ugly very fast. That's exactly what's happening. The only folks who will truly capitalize here are the bankruptcy lawyers, and there are already reports of huge legal fees accruing (as much as $995 per hour for some of these top-tier hot-shot attorneys).

As long as Station Casinos continues to lose revenue due to the poor economy and a prolonged bankruptcy, the Fertitta Brothers will have less money to invest in the UFC. If a complete catastrophe drains the Fertitta family coffers, they may very well try to leverage Zuffa's assets somehow. If at that point they are shafted by potential creditors and/or lenders, the real troubled waters for the company will start churning. A sale of the company might never take place as some have reported, but the lack of cash reserves could result in the UFC becoming a much more streamlined organization. Whether or not that streamlining negatively impacts the business remains to be seen, but those who tell you there will be no impact whatsoever are wishful thinkers. It all depends on how bad things get in the days to come.


"A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack was." Joseph Hall

The Fertitta family still has a rock-solid reputation in Las Vegas. Numerous reports of Frank Fertitta, Jr.'s death in the Vegas media have made no mention of the family patriarch's troubles or tribulations. The most familiar refrain in these Vegas reports reflects the fact that Station Casinos has been repeatedly represented as one of the best companies to work for in Las Vegas. These articles also laud Frank Junior for virtually inventing the locals casino market. As far as Station Casinos bankruptcy news, I've yet to find an article that even suggests that anyone in the Fertitta family was reckless or irresponsible in the business practices that led to the bankruptcy.

Only a nasty and contentious bankruptcy process, which seems inevitable, will tarnish the Fertitta image in Sin City and beyond. Local reporters will have no choice but to explain what's happening when things get truly ugly. The cracks in the facade of the once untouchable family reputation will only then become fully visible.

As the truth emerges as to just how irresponsible the Fertittas have been leading up to this bankruptcy, it will become increasingly harder for the Fertitta Brothers to do business elsewhere. The way Fertitta Enterprises handled the Xyience bankruptcy is a perfect example of how powerful people can get away with impropriety with little consequence, but that was really small potatoes compared to the current situation with Station Casinos. I truly believe the Xyience debacle was a practice run for the bigger and bolder Station Bankruptcy. Though the Xyience situation was a much less sordid and scandalous affair than the Station Casinos bankruptcy process promises to be, there are some common threads. Unlike Xyience, though, the Fertittas have much more to lose when it comes to the casino business. I wouldn't be surprised if the Fertitta brothers completely sell off the business and confine themselves to either just a few properties or the consulting business alone.

Whatever happens, it will expose the true nature of just how ruthless billionaire business tycoons can be and what lengths they will go to in order to keep the money coming in. Those who think the Fertittas are saints and can do no wrong will ultimately have to accept that the sinner label is more appropriate. Just think about how much these guys are worth, what kind of money they're spending, and then look at what their fighters in the UFC get paid. No matter how successful the UFC becomes, it seems the league's top fighters will never get the kind of paydays that the best boxers get. This reality seems lost on most fans, and any fighter who speaks up about it knows there's a strong possibility of being blacklisted at best or thrown out of the league at worst.

For those few folks out there who know the real truth about how the Fertittas operate and the "family" history that put them where they are today, their comeuppance can't arrive too soon. Karma is a bitch.

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