Former Stars Group CEO Rafi Ashkenazi and some of his fellow executives will take up management positions for Hard Rock Digital.

Call Them The Rock Stars: Hard Rock Taps Former Stars Group Execs To Lead The Charge Into Online Gambling

On Monday, Hard Rock International announced that it would be forming a new company, Hard Rock Digital (HRD), to manage the online gambling and sports betting aspects of its business.

The Hard Rock brand enjoys international recognition and there are well over 100 properties worldwide which bear the name. The first of these opened in London, in 1971. In 2007, the Seminole Tribe of Florida completed its purchase of the brand for $965 million. Now, there are eight Hard Rock branded casinos in the US in seven different states, with two more coming soon.

Its presence in the online space isn’t nearly as large at the moment. However, this new spinoff indicates that this will probably soon change.

“With the launch of Hard Rock Digital, we are broadening our digital business which enhances consumer experiences and offerings across our interactive gaming and sportsbook offerings,” said Jim Allen, Chairman of HRI. “Hard Rock Digital also intends to pursue strategic branding and distribution opportunities both within the U.S. and globally.”

This strategy has become something of a trend among land-based casino companies. In many cases, the digital wings of the companies receive their own stock market listing or are part-owned by outside companies. That won’t be the case for Hard Rock, as HRD will be fully capitalized by HRI, Seminole Gaming and their direct partners.

Better to show up late to the party than not at all

Geography is part of the reason that Hard Rock doesn’t have the same online presence as some other companies. Most of its US properties are in southern states that don’t have online gambling and aren’t likely to legalize it any time soon. Some, like Oklahoma, California and Florida haven’t even authorized retail sports betting yet.

Indeed, Hard Rock’s only presence in an online casino state is Hard Rock Atlantic City, and it has only been there for three years. The property itself has been there since 1990, but was the Trump Taj Mahal for most of its life. Hard Rock purchased it in 2017, and launched its online casino the following year. That made it quite a latecomer to the market, as the first NJ online casinos went live in late 2013.

Of course, forming HRD won’t change the legal situation in the states where Hard Rock has a physical presence. It will, however, make it easier for it to enter other states as a purely online entity. In most cases, that will mean partnering with local land-based companies, but not necessarily direct rivals.

For instance, the Michigan online casino and sports betting market is likely to be one that HRD will be eyeing. The potential partners remaining there are tribal gaming organizations that don’t operate anywhere Hard Rock has a property, and which Seminole Gaming is presumably on friendly terms with as fellow members of the National Indian Gaming Association.

Former TSG execs tapped to manage HRD

Perhaps the most important part of the plan is that Hard Rock has recruited some veterans of the online industry to manage HRD. Many of these are former executives of The Stars Group (TSG) or Fox Bet, TSG’s joint venture with Fox Sports.

TSG, once known as Amaya, was acquired by the international online gambling conglomerate Flutter earlier this year. Its CEO, Rafi Ashkenazi, was originally tapped to become COO of Flutter as part of the deal. That plan was scrapped in March for unspecified reasons. Ashkenazi instead became a non-executive director and consultant for the process of merging the companies. He then stepped down from the board in August.

Now, he will serve as Executive Chair of HRD. Helping him out as fellow Executive Directors will be Marlon Goldstein and Matt Primeaux. Goldstein was the Chief Legal Officer of TSG under Ashkenazi, while Primeaux was its Senior VP of Strategy & Operations, and later the President of Fox Bet. The team will report to a board of directors chaired by Jim Allen, who also leads the board for the parent company.

“We are honored to join forces with Hard Rock International on this new venture,” said Goldstein. “Hard Rock International is consistently at the forefront of innovation and vision in the gaming industry and the ‘Hard Rock’ gaming, hospitality and entertainment venues are iconic worldwide.  We look forward to providing an authentic, digital experience for Hard Rock’s global fan base within a comprehensive, omni-channel offering.”

Separation of retail and online business is a major trend in the gambling industry

Though New Jersey and Delaware legalized online casinos in 2013, few other states seemed interested in following suit until sports betting became an option with the repeal of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. Now, the twin tides of legal sports betting and iGaming are having a disruptive impact on the US gambling industry.

One major result of that is a series of major business deals and corporate restructuring, as companies adjust to the new landscape. Mergers and acquisitions are one facet of that. The formation of new online divisions is another.

In some cases, the new online companies have been made public to raise additional capital. Golden Nugget Online Gaming is one example of this, and one which has created a lot of buzz. Rush Street Interactive, which operates the BetRivers and PlaySugarHouse brands, will soon be following suit. There’s even speculation that Flutter will do this with FanDuel Group, despite the fact that Flutter itself is already a public company.

HRI isn’t in this boat. Rather, the purpose seems to be more about independent decision making and expertise. The closer comparisons would therefore be with Caesars Interactive Entertainment and Roar Digital. Caesars has kept its interactive division entirely in-house, while Roar is a joint venture between MGM Resorts International and Entain (formerly GVC), which supplies MGM with its online experience much as the former TSG execs will do for Hard Rock.

Other casino owners are lining up to follow suit. Wynn Resorts, which recently launched its first online casino, announced similar plans last month. Parx and Century Casinos are two other companies that haven’t yet taken this step, but have begun online operations. They’ll be ones to watch in coming months, as it may be only a matter of time before they join the club too.


- Alex is a journalist from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. Now site runner for Online Poker Report, he has been writing about poker and the online gambling industry in various capacities since 2014.
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