PERSONALITY CORNER: Tim Rooney Sr.
By Frank Scandale@FScandale
Title: President of Yonkers Racing Corp and Empire City Casino.
Former Life: Part owner in the Pittsburgh Steelers
Duties: “Keep everyone in line and make sure expenses are under control.”
Favorite Sports Moment: “Very easily, when we won our first Super Bowl.”
Favorite Family Moment: “ Ha. Reviewing it, it has to be the same moment because of the family involvement. Unbelievable.”
Most Admired Person: Wellington Mara. I knew Cardinal (Terrance James) Cooke, but as a regular human being, Wel Mara was special.”
Favorite Golf Spot: Winged Foot Golf Club, Mamaroneck, NY.
Even a guy who used to co-own one of the best NFL teams in a city that saw its share of horrendous winters and can’t avoid talking about this winter’s hottest topic – the weather.
Relentless sub-freezing temps, snow and lingering ice have made 0 degrees the new 32 in the Northeast and its effects have not have escaped Tim Rooney Sr. and his operation at the Yonkers Raceway Corp. which also operates the Empire City Casino in the shadow of New York City.
This became the second consecutive winter when the region took it on the chin.
“Last year, the first quarter hurt dramatically against the same quarter in 2013. When the weather hit, we were down, but we came back up at the end of the year. January (2015) started off fairly strong, but then the bad weather even supplanted the weather from the last year!” Rooney laughed. “We came back again and were up every day until last Saturday when that 5 inches of snow hit us. We had the accounting department check how many days we had under 25 degrees or snow and we are double the number of bad days this year compared to last year.”
Weather is only one of the factors that determine how the casino and harness racing business will go for Rooney. The competition and proliferation of brick and mortar casinos and online betting made his days as a football team owner seem orderly.
In a wide-ranging interview, the gregarious Rooney touched on football, gaming, horse racing, online gambling, his family and golf.
The Rooney name has been synonymous with professional football since 1933 when Art Rooney Sr. founded the Pittsburg Steelers for $2,500. Tim and two of his four brothers were forced to sell their shares in 2009 in the team because the National Football League’s concerns about the family’s other business interests in gambling entities. The move was painful for Rooney for many reasons, not the least of which is passion for the pigskin despite his love for horses.
“Well, there is no comparison. My father was in the business (racing) his whole life, but football is football.
He likes to say his favorite sports moment was the first time the Steelers won a Super Bowl, Super Bowl IX in 1975. “Nothing possibly comes close. They were all good (wins) but there is no emotion ever having equaled that first one.”
When pressed about his favorite family moment – he has five children and 19 grandchildren – he laughs and hesitates, saying, “I probably shouldn’t say this, but it might be the same moment because of the family’s unbelievable moment (together)…winning the Super Bowl was unbelievable.”
So much has changed now with respect to sports and gambling, but Rooney wishes the NFL then had allowed them to hold their shares.
“When we were closing in on the sale, I honestly did not want to sell my stock in the Steelers. My father had done this (racing) long before this and we had been running the team in this manner,” he continued. “On the other side, my brothers who stayed in will be a lot wealthier, especially when Buffalo sold for $1.4 billion.”
Despite his love of football, he says he does not attend games anymore. Too easy to stay home and watch it on television, he says. He used to fly to Pittsburgh on Saturday, have dinner with his brothers that night, go to the game and fly home on Sunday night.
Today, his focus is on Yonkers and Empire with his son Tim Jr. and son-in-law Bob Galterio. With casinos popping up all around the Northeast and siphoning off potential and former customers, Rooney says the trick is to keep reinventing and innovating. Rooney, in fact, hinted that Empire would unveil something new soon along with a strong advertising campaign.
“We’re going to try out some new things this year, a little more refreshing,” Rooney, now 76, said. “We have a new ad campaign coming out at the end of February or so. It’s more of a return to a stronger campaign on TV.”
The table games at fully licensed casinos has been a draw for some players, he said, but New York State’s upcoming budget has a provision for Empire to receive a higher quality electronic table game, something Rooney insists will level the playing field somewhat. The legislature still has to approve it, but he is optimistic that will happen.
“Our facility is very good. We just opened another restaurant and put a lot of money into our food business. Two of the three restaurants are doing very well. But the biggest thing we have coming is that part of Governor Cuomo’s budget is to give us a higher quality of electronic table games, one of which is blackjack. “
That looming boost and the weather’s inevitable improvement has Rooney eyeing a 5 percent improvement in 2015. “I think we will be up a couple of million dollars this year.”
The real issue down the road is becoming a fully licensed casino when New York State allows those businesses in the metro region to apply. Under the state’s gaming law, New York City and its surround suburbs, including Yonkers, are prohibited from receiving any casino licenses for at least seven years, according to a story in the New York Daily News last December.
“We’d be looking to get one of those new licenses,” Rooney said.” Basically if we had a license now, we could open immediately.”
That would complement Rooney’s operation that features approximately 6,000 electronic machines now. “For us not to get a license would be hard to imagine.”
For now, the only non-tribal casino licenses will be located further upstate, which Rooney believes will not impact business.
The other big issue looming on the horizon is online gambling and sports, a mounting issue as prominent figures such as current NBA commissioner Adam Silver and his predecessor David Stern call for legalized sports betting outside of Nevada.
For Rooney, it’s a complicated issue, while he knows there is so much betting now in sports. According to the American Gaming Association, the estimated amount bet illegally on the recent Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl game was said to be approximately $3.8 billion, compared to approximately $100 million bet legally.
“The only question I have for it and somebody smarter than me can figure it out is when a guy makes an unbelievable catch in the game and then later on an important third down drops the ball, everybody is suspicious of everything that happens. Is somebody going to ask if he dropped it on purpose?
He recalls the days at the track when people were betting heavy on sporting events at the pay phones, back before cell phones existed. “If you go out and see the pay phone lines, all I can tell you is that they are not calling home to find out what’s the wife is making for dinner.”
Today, the game is more interesting and exciting for a wider ranger of people.
“If say Denver is playing Seattle and you don’t have an interest in either team, I don’t care who wins the game, but people watch them because they are betting on the game. That is really part of the popularity of the game.”
When the snow finally melts in the East, you’ll likely find Rooney relaxing on a golf course, one of his favorite other sports. The mere mention of golf gets him going about Tiger Woods, the stalled champion nursing injuries and a bruised mental game.
“Tiger Woods. When you looked at his position, the only other guy who dominated a sport like Tiger was maybe Michael Jordan. Not Bradshaw. Not Manning. None of them was a dominating in their sport as Woods.”
He recalled how small the purses were in comparison to today’s average first-place prize money being way north of $1 million, and cited his family’s own tournament, The Philadelphia Golf Classic back in the 1960s.
“We had this match, we owned it, sold the tickets, everything. The purse total was $150,000. That was tied for the biggest purse on tour at that point,” he explained. “In our tournament we got lucky. (Jack) Nicklaus and (Arnold) Palmer tied and went into a playoff. It’s the only thing that got us to break even.”