(Disclaimer: I consider gambling a sportslike activity. It's a combination of entertainment, skill, luck and excitement that for many of us scribes—remember the adage that those who can't play, write about it—is as close as we're going to get to the sporting life.)
For a metro area that can't seem to get a Dave & Buster's to open here and has just one legitimate miniature golf operation, we should consider ourselves lucky that we somehow have four casinos.
To have more than one of the same type of business is great for a community because the competition usually means customers benefit from the battle for your almighty dollar. The idea is to see what your competitor is doing, and either match it or up the ante with your own draw-them-to-us tactics.
This should result in a win-win for us, the lemmings and sheep who flock to casinos to gamble, drink, dine and cut loose. But, sadly, only one of our local casinos puts in a full effort.
The Pascua Yaqui and Tohono O'odham nations each operate two casinos in the Tucson metro area. The Yaquis' Casino of the Sun almost doesn't count because it's pretty much just a slot parlor and pales in comparison to the tribe's more grandiose (albeit poorly named; let's just call it the same as the other one, but this time in Spanish!) Casino Del Sol.
The Tohono casino names aren't much better. Each is known simply as Desert Diamond. Er, rather, Desert Diamond Nogales Highway and Desert Diamond Interstate 19. Catchy and memorable, huh.
But this isn't about casino names. It's about everything within the casinos, the stuff that's meant to draw you in and—most important—keep you coming back. And that's where there is a massive difference in quality, with Casino Del Sol towering far above both Desert Diamonds.
This weekend is probably the only time all year the Diamonds have the upper hand on del Sol, and that's only because Del Sol closes for four days to allow its tribal members to celebrate Easter.
After roughly 19 years of visiting local casinos—which either qualifies me as an expert, a degenerate or (my opinion) a healthy balance of both—this is my best assessment of the discrepancy: Desert Diamond is run by tribal officials who may or may not have gaming, hospitality and entertainment expertise. Casino Del Sol is run by gaming, hospitality and entertainment experts who may or may not be tribal.
How else can you explain how one establishment (Del Sol) seems to make decisions based on keeping its customers happy, while the others make decisions that are approved by their gaming office? Or how both Del Sol and Desert Diamond have loyalty programs, complete with fancy player's club cards, but while Del Sol's program actually provides you with benefits — comps based on your play in all forms of gambling, not just the slots—you can spend 12 hours playing poker at Desert Diamond and when you check your card's comp balance the next day, it hasn't changed?
All the casinos try to tempt you with billboards, emails and direct mail solicitations, but only Del Sol's make you want to actually take advantage of what's being offered. That is, unless you're part of that target audience of 13 people in this metropolis of 1 million that's really excited Desert Diamond is the first casino in Arizona to have the Cheers slot machine.
I've been a member of both rewards programs since 2005, yet I can't remember the last time I was excited about something the Diamond card would give me. I got a brief thrill when Diamond started the "Cats Win You Win" promotion with the University of Arizona, but it quickly faded when I learned you got free play only if you had a ticket to the last basketball or football game ... and waited until the next day to hit the casino.
Desert Diamond announced earlier this year it was overhauling its rewards program to make it better for players. So far, that has resulted in ... changing the color of the card from dark pink to blue. Nothing else. As of last weekend, no date has been set for when any other improvements would go into effect.
More goes into the wide gap in performance between Del Sol and Desert Diamond than just gaming. I know many people who only go to the casinos for the entertainment or to have a staycation. And nearly every one of them chooses Del Sol.
The entertainment preference doesn't surprise me, since Del Sol manages to get real, still-relevant acts (Phoenix, Rodriguez, Larry the Cable Guy, Tony Bennett and LL Cool J are all on the schedule in the next few months), while the last shows Desert Diamond managed to book were Kix Brooks and ... The Dazz Band?
It probably doesn't help that the Diamond concert hall isn't located at the same place as its hotel. But when your hotel doesn't have room service, has a pool the size of a Motel 6's (Del Sol's is so large it's becomes a Sunday party destination in the summer) and somehow doesn't offer a shuttle to the airport despite being adjacent to and in the flight path of the airport, getting top-line entertainment probably isn't conceivable.
It's really quite sad that Desert Diamond is performing as poorly as it is, since it used to be so much better. But a series of poor decisions (building a second casino too far south of the city; then all but forgetting that one to redo the one on the edge of town; then trying to bill an airport hotel as a resort when it's clearly an airport hotel) have run it into the ground.
The only thing keeping Desert Diamond relevant is its proximity to the city. Since the main knock against Del Sol is that it's considered "far away" despite being only five miles from I-19, Diamond is still able to cling to its one remaining advantage.
That is, until the Pascua Yaqui Nation finds a way to designate as reservation land the former Century movie theater complex at Grant and I-10 that it bought in 2011, then turn the complex into a casino. When that happens, it'll be so long, Desert Diamond.