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MGM CEO: ‘Japan will be bigger than Las 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 InternationalDenise 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."


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