MGM CEO: 'Japan will be bigger than Las Vegas'

Japan gaming, bigger than Vegas?

No one is a bigger player in Las Vegas than MGM Resorts. But as the Strip makes a slow recovery, results there continue to be dwarfed by MGM's success in Macau.

The casino giant is now looking for the next big market.

As 2014 began, Chairman and CEO Jim Murren sat down with CNBC. While the company is in its quiet period before announcing earnings, he discussed a broad range of opportunities and challenges for the gaming industry.


Japanese legislators are pushing to finally legalize casino gambling in that country. This is the next big bet in Asia, Murren said.

"Japan will be bigger than Las Vegas," he said.

MGM Resorts and its rivals have been laying the groundwork in Tokyo and Osaka to win a license if the Japanese government issues them.

"Everyone's going to say they have an inside track," Murren said. "No one has an inside track."

Meanwhile, back in Las Vegas ...

People are starting to spend more on retail, entertainment and restaurants in Vegas, he said, with nongambling revenue across the Strip growing faster than gaming revenue.

(Read more: This chart could mean big casino profits in 2014)

"Every indicator that I see is that we'll be correct in the assumption that we're going to have a very strong double-digit increase in convention business, and room rates are going to be up sharply in the first quarter," Murren said. "The question will be—can we keep that momentum for the balance of the year? No one knows the answer to that, because booking windows are still pretty tight."

"Domestically, the story in 2013 was a 'good but not great' year," he said. "Internationally, it was another great year. Going into '14, I would expect domestically to be a bit better than '13, and I think the international business will be great again."

Jim Murren, chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts International
Denise Truscello | WireImage| Getty Images

Building in Sin City

There are at least $9 billion worth of projects in development in Las Vegas. One is an arena MGM Resorts will build in a joint venture with AEG that could eventually be home to an NBA or NHL franchise.

"The fact that people are willing to invest again in Las Vegas, I think, is an affirmation that people see this recovery," Murren said.

(Read more: The next driver for Japanese stocks—casinos?)

Malaysian gaming giant Genting may build a casino resort in Las Vegas pending approval from the state. That property would target Asian gamblers spending big money on games such as baccarat, a strong growth driver for established players like MGM Resorts.

"Genting is a fine company, but we have 50 percent of the baccarat business in Las Vegas," Murren said. "I think Genting is going to bring more people to town, which is great because we have the most to gain from that, but I'm not intimidated by competition on the high end."

Younger gamers

Murren agreed with a report from Deutsche Bank indicating that younger gamblers "are not inclined" to play slot machines, which account for 80 percent of gaming revenues in Las Vegas.

"We have to evolve that product, and I think we will," he said. "This is a time when the gamers—the younger people on their smartphones—have to be addressed from a gaming perspective. I think you're going to find in 2014 and '15 far more interactive games ... that will allow customers to be on Facebook while they gamble, while they check their fantasy sports teams, while they do games that are not the traditional slot machine games."

Will 2014 be lucky for Las Vegas?

Online gambling

Nevada has legalized online gambling for in-state residents, and New Jersey is rolling out a similar program. But Murren doesn't expect Internet gaming to hurt destinations like the ones MGM is involved in.

(Read more: New front line in China-Taiwan conflict—a casino)

"I think the online gaming business is going to grow rapidly; I think it's a five, six, seven billion-dollar business," he said. I think it will hurt some of the brick-and-mortar casinos around the country that I'd call more convenience gaming, where it happens to be near where I live.

That's not our business model," Murren said. "I don't think people are going to stay home in their bunny slippers and play video instead of coming to Bellagio."

The Harmon

A high-rise hotel whose construction was halted indefinitely in 2008, The Harmon remains unfinished, an empty blue-glass shell that is part of MGM Resorts' CityCenter development. The company and the builder continue a court battle over compensation. Murren's ready to see it gone.

"We're going to take it down as soon as the judge lets us," he said. "Having an unfinished building that can never be finished appropriately on the busiest corner of Las Vegas is not good for us, not good for the city. ... I expect 2014 will finally be the year when we can say, 'Enough is enough, the lawyers have made enough, and let's resolve this.' "

Las Vegas on New Year's
Image source: Las Vegas News Bureau | Darrin Bush

Buy The Cosmopolitan?

A hotel and casino owned by Deutsche Bank, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas is surrounded by MGM Resorts properties. Its owners have always planned to sell the gaming destination once it was financially attractive to do so. At least one analyst has wondered aloud whether Murren might want to take a run at it.

"We look at anything at the right price," he said. "We have not looked at The Cosmopolitan. We know it's for sale. I think it will sell over the next two or three years. I think we'll probably get one of the early calls, given that we surround it ... [but] I think what Wall Street wants us to do, what our shareholders want us to do, is continue to deleverage. So I would never make an acquisition that's leveraging, I'll just put that right out there."

(Read more: Sports gambling's major match-ups)

Maryland and Massachusetts

Right now, Murren is focusing much of his attention on winning a gaming license in Massachusetts, and he's moving forward with the new MGM National Harbor in Maryland, which is on the Potomac 12 miles from Washington.

"You have to pick your spots regionally," he said. "I'm not suggesting that gaming is going to grow in every market in the United States. I think those days are long over."

—By CNBC's Jane Wells; Follow her on Twitter: @janewells