LAS VEGAS — Financial problems plaguing Caesars Entertainment and its casino empire have the company considering a trip to bankruptcy court, possibly as early as Thursday.
It doesn't necessarily signal the end of this faux Roman Empire, though.
If all goes according to the company's plan, drawn up with its most senior creditors, it should be business as usual for customers — its doors will remain open, the slot machines will still sing, chips will rest atop tables.
"Caesars is, in a certain sense, a Nevada version of 'too big to fail,'" said Michael Green, a history professor with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
It's still a gamble.
U.S. casino-hotel companies are dependent on extra cash in a person's pocket, but perhaps none more than Caesars, which waded into the recent economic downturn already burdened by more debt than any of them — a by-product of a buyout in January 2008 that was largely a wager using other people's money.
While competitors found fortune in Asia's casino growth as stateside gambling in Las Vegas and Atlantic City waned, Caesars missed out. And as other companies built arenas and shopping districts on the Strip or casino-hotels in newer gambling markets across the country, analysts say Caesars was reluctant to spend.
It went private, then public again to raise cash and created new related companies, shifting its properties from one to another to free them up from the debt cordoned off in one spot, its Caesars Entertainment Operating Co. That's the company now headed to bankruptcy court.
Regardless of the maneuvers, "the fundamentals were not there to support the amount of debt that they had," said Keith Foley, an analyst with Moody's Investors Service.
Apollo Global Management LLC and TPG Capital LP did what a lot of private equity firms were doing at the time when money and loans were easy to come by, buying companies with promise — relying mostly on debt — to add to its portfolio. The gambling industry looked promising.
The deal to buy Caesars (then known as Harrah's) was first announced in 2006 during the heyday of Vegas tourism and development. But the deal didn't close until January 2008, several months before Lehman Brothers would go bankrupt, shaking the economy to its core. And it was a nearly $30 billion deal with the two firms taking on more than $10 billion of existing debt and relying on several billion more in bonds to pay for the company.
In between, the company had cut about 200 people from its corporate staff. Before the year was done, Caesars was cutting more staff and looking for new cash to make its interest payments.
Among its casino peers, Caesars' empire remains the largest, employing some 68,000 people worldwide at more than 50 casino-hotels, including Caesars Palace on the Las Vegas Strip.
While Caesars Entertainment has seen a steady $8.6 billion or so in revenue since 2009, it's been outpaced by Las Vegas Sands Corp., which went all-in in Macau, China, and grew every year to post revenue of $14.5 billion in 2013.
Las Vegas Sands made a $2.3 billion profit that year. Caesars lost $2.9 billion.
Caesars has lost money each year for the last five years.
Still, the company unveiled its High Roller observation wheel and newly renovated hotels on the Strip: The Linq and The Cromwell. It hired headliners for shows at The Colosseum inside Caesars Palace.
All the while, it was shifting and shuttering other assets.
Last year, the company closed properties in Atlantic City, London and Mississippi and said it would cut its global workforce by less than 1 percent.
"They're going to have to become a little leaner," said Chris Jones, an analyst for Union Gaming Group. He added that he doesn't expect any more properties to shut down and expects the plan will free up Caesars to reinvest where it hasn't, including the gambling floor.
The company faces irked creditors, a few who have tried to force the casino giant into bankruptcy against its will this week. Others have sued, claiming the company ransacked Caesars Entertainment Operating Co. of most of its valuable assets. Caesars called the claims meritless and alleges some of its holdout creditors are hoping for the company's demise in order to win wagers predicting as much.
Despite the acrimony, the company says that after months of negotiations it has more than 60 percent of the holders of its first-priority debt on board with its plan.
The plan would shed $10 billion in debt from its weighed-down operations division, leaving it with $8.6 billion and winnowing its annual $1.7 billion in interest payments to $450 million. Senior creditors who OK'd the plan would get cash and new debt to make them whole.