Singer-songwriter Jewel performs Jan. 30 at Riverwind Casino in Norman.
From Sunday’s Outlook special section of The Oklahoman.
In their efforts to become top-shelf entertainment destinations, casinos aren’t betting on just slot machines and blackjack tournaments.
In Las Vegas, casinos play host to movie premieres, the Academy of Country Music Awards and even the Miss America pageant.
In the same vein, Oklahoma casinos are continuing to build on their entertainment offerings, bringing in famous musical acts, art festivals and professional sporting events.
“We want to be the destination location. We want to be the Las Vegas of Oklahoma,” said Angel Green, marketing manager of Riverwind Casino in Norman. “We want to be like Vegas, so when you think about Las Vegas, what do you think about? You think about gaming and you think about the entertainment aspect. So we want the people in Oklahoma and the surrounding areas … to spend their dollars here.”
Tony Bennett, Kid Rock, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Travis, B.B. King and Ron White are among the diverse musical and comedic talents who have played the 3-year-old Chickasaw Nation casino. Upcoming shows include the Oak Ridge Boys, the B-52s and Lee Ann Womack; many concerts sell out well in advance.
“When people think about Riverwind, we want them to think about top-notch entertainment … that hasn’t ever played Oklahoma, that could only play here ever so often or hasn’t played here in a long time,” Green said.
Even when a performer has already played the Ford Center or Zoo Amphitheatre, Riverwind’s Showplace Theater seats only 1,500, making it a more intimate concert experience, Green said.
Sporting events also are a big part of Riverwind’s entertainment slate. For the third year, Riverwind this summer is hosting the Women’s Professional Billiard Association’s U.S. Open, the largest tournament on the association’s tour. It brings in all the top-ranked female professional pool players, attracts fans from across the country and airs on ESPN.
“That is huge for us, and it growing by leaps and bounds. We’re already getting phone calls now and the event’s not until July,” Green said.
The casino also is looking into other sports ventures, including a combination bass fishing/poker tournament, cagefighting and boxing. The focus is on bringing high-level, professional sports that can possibly get TV exposure.
The casino even hosted in 2006 a benefit premiere of the movie “Apocalypto,” featuring director Mel Gibson and the stars of the film. Charity events hosted by celebrities Toby Keith, Tommie Harris and Adrian Peterson also have come into the Showplace Theater.
People can also eat dinner, hear a local lounge act perform and see or participate in a poker tournament. With the opening of the new Riverwind Hotel, they can turn their night out into a “staycation,” a short, close-to-home vacation, she said.
Brian Zanazanian, senior marketing manager for the Chickasaw Nation’s WinStar World Casino, echoes that point: “Our goal is to be a destination point. With the economic times that we’re in, not too many people can afford to fly to Las Vegas or Atlantic City. And our commitment and attitude is ‘Why should you?’”
At 519,000 square feet, the Thackerville casino is the fifth largest in the world. The 4-year-old casino will partially open a 115-slot RV park in summer and 400-room three-star hotel in fall, he said.
WinStar takes advantage of its prime position on Interstate 35 when it comes to booking popular musical and comedy acts, including Brooks & Dunn, Jeff Foxworthy, ZZ Top and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. Upcoming shows include Hank Williams Jr., Leann Rimes, Rodney Carrington and the Beach Boys.
“People come for the entertainment value of what a casino offers,” he said. “An added value is our music … and we work very hard to make sure that we appeal to all different varieties (of music lovers), all different demographics, that we offer something for everybody.”
The casino offers an 18-hole golf course, and WinStar also is looking to offer sporting events such as sanctioned – and hopefully televised – boxing and cagefighting.
Mixed-martial arts events, concerts, Vegas-style theatrical reviews, art festivals, car shows and comedy acts have been offered at the seven Cherokee Casinos, located in Tulsa, Roland, Tahlequah, West Siloam Springs, Fort Gibson, Sallisaw and the Will Rogers Downs racino in Claremore.
Creedence Clearwater Revisited, Three Dog Night, Eddie Money and comic Bill Engvall are among the famous talents that have performed in the casino chain. David Stewart, CEO of Cherokee Nation Enterprises, said the casinos strive to provide entertainment that guests want and expect, especially acts that aren’t available elsewhere in the market.
“Cherokee Casinos offers a variety of entertainment options for its guests, not just gaming. That can include concerts, live music and dancing at our nightclubs, to movie and art festivals, and even a wide variety of dining options,” Stewart said in an e-mail. “Our goal is to offer our guests a total package of a night or weekend’s entertainment.”