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Of Michael Jackson and a disappearing Mirage

Commentary: Michael Jackson and a name change—one day, two big moves at MGM Mirage

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A Michael Jackson-themed Cirque show is in the works from Cirque du Soleil.
Photo: Joel Ryan/AP

It’s not often that a major corporation is involved with both one obviously prescient decision and another possibly shortsighted one within the span of hours. Yet such was the case on April 20 as MGM Mirage formally brought Michael Jackson into its family and then, in a wicked MJ-worthy dance move, kicked traces of Steve Wynn out.

The MJ news is a bit of a no-brainer. In fact, many people, including yours truly, predicted within hours of Jackson’s death last June that a Cirque du Soleil show featuring the Gloved One’s music on the Las Vegas Strip was inevitable and potentially brilliant. It’s a little odd that Cirque and the Jackson estate struck this deal so quickly and that it involves a touring arena show first, by next year, and then a Vegas production by 2012. In January, Cirque CEO Daniel Lamarre told me he felt there needed to be a cooling-off period after the latest round of Jackson-mania; could the money-grubbing Jacksons have forced Cirque to move quicker than was ideal?

But by 2012, MGM Mirage—or whatever it’s going to call itself—will need some good news. If Cirque avoids Jackson’s radioactive biography and sticks instead to the music and dance moves, the show’s a can’t-miss. Lamarre predicts an immersive 3D extravaganza, but Cirque also promised to reinvent magic with Criss Angel Believe, so let’s see what they actually end up doing.

Meanwhile, on the same day, MGM Mirage announced it would ask shareholders in June to rename the company as MGM Resorts International because the world’s second-largest gaming corporation wishes to be known more as a hospitality brand from this moment on.

That is, a company is renaming itself in anticipation of a product it does not now offer and for which it cannot predict what the business future might be. It no doubt was a deliberative, focus-group tested decision, and MGM Mirage CEO Jim Murren says there are numerous deals in the works to deploy the MGM Grand, Bellagio and SkyLofts names in nongaming resorts in several nations.

Yet it’s also peculiar for the company to give up 21 years of brand equity, harkening back to the 1989 opening of the first modern Vegas megaresort, the Mirage. It may not seem front-and-center anymore, but the recent pre-earnings filing for the first quarter of 2010 showed the old workhorse is MGM Whatchamacallit’s second-biggest earner (per hotel room) behind Bellagio, the runaway leader. Ask people around the world to name a few Strip resorts and, after Caesars Palace and Bellagio, the Mirage is usually mentioned next, not the MGM Grand.

What’s odder still? That the company replaced “Mirage” with the words “Resorts International” which, incidentally, is a failed casino company whose decrepit Atlantic City flagship is now in foreclosure.

I know Murren has a plan here, and we’ll all see soon enough whether it works. But it’s hard not to also see this change in the context of the rivalry between MGM and former Mirage Resorts CEO Steve Wynn. Last year, Murren bristled when I referred to CityCenter as all his company had built in Vegas as MGM Mirage, because it had built itself over the prior decade by acquiring Mirage Resorts and the Mandalay Resort Group:

“It’s a total understatement of our capabilities to say that other people like Steve Wynn are the great visionaries and the only one who can open something here. … We not only open things, but we operate them better than anybody.”

Thus, it must smart at least a little to have this irony noted: The MJ deal is great for MGM, but whose idea was it to bring Cirque to Vegas in the first place? Oh, right. Mr. Wynn. Just saying.

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