Maryland Live's billboards went up even as the rival Horseshoe Casino Baltimore rose in the gritty Carroll-Camden area near M&T Bank Stadium. "Everything is better live!" shouts one.
In the spring, the Horseshoe sent a flatbed truck into the Maryland Live parking lot hauling a mobile billboard promoting the Horseshoe and jobs there.
"When you're dealing with casinos, we have thousands of cameras, so we were aware pretty quickly of the truck and, being private property, we asked them to leave," said Robert Norton, president and general manager of Maryland Live, which within weeks had dispatched a truck of its own to carry a billboard outside a Horseshoe job fair in Baltimore. "We sent a truck down to circle their job event just to let them know if they were doing those things, we will play."
The dueling signage, reminiscent of a political campaign — or perhaps a high-school homecoming prank — kicked off a mounting competition for the hearts and minds of potential patrons and employees of the sprawling casinos just 12 miles apart.
"Yeah, it's been a little competition already before we opened up," said Chad Barnhill, general manager of the Horseshoe.
The question remains whether Baltimore is big enough for both, though the competitors say it is.
Maryland Live has a two-year head start. It opened in June 2012 and has become one of the more successful casinos on the East Coast. The $442 million Horseshoe opened Aug. 26 with some of the announced crowd of 15,000 waiting more than three hours to get in.
The first skirmish was over landing the best workers. Maryland Live employs about 3,000 people and recently recruited in Atlantic City, where several casinos are closing because of increased competition. The Horseshoe has roughly 2,200 employees.
Analysts say casinos value workers experienced at dealing with customers and spotting cheating or theft.
The next, more critical contest is to win over customers.
The stakes could hardly be higher. The largest of the state's five casinos, Maryland Live had $58 million in revenue from slots and table games in July, up 11 percent from the same period a year earlier.
A November 2013 study by Cummings Associates of Arlington, Mass., projected that the Horseshoe's arrival could mean a 16 percent decline in Maryland Live's slots revenue and a 25 percent drop in revenue from table games.
"The tables at Maryland Live will be affected more than its slots because the Horseshoe will offer nearly the same number of table games as Maryland Live, but only a little more than half as many slot machines," the study said.
Maryland Live has 4,222 slot machines and 189 table games, according to the state. The Horseshoe operates 2,500 slots and 122 table games. Each casino is open around the clock and features entertainment and multiple restaurants.
Asked about the study, Norton said: "As a general rule, I'm not commenting on what I think is going to happen. I feel very confident about our position. I feel confident about what our facility is."
Alan Woinski, president of Gaming USA, which publishes industry newsletters, said: "I wouldn't cry for Maryland Live yet. They're going to be more hurt by the National Harbor property, which will kind of take Washington and Virginia."
MGM's $925 million casino and resort at National Harbor — about 44 miles from Baltimore — is expected to open in 2016. It will be Maryland's sixth casino, and Woinski said he wonders whether Maryland and other states are overreaching.
But David Cordish, chairman of the Cordish Cos., owner of Maryland Live, said he expects the casino to continue to thrive. "My three sons are the fourth generation at the Cordish Companies and, as strong an asset as Maryland Live is, I would expect their kids to own the casino and hotel that will be added," he said in an email. "As to competition with Horseshoe, generally suburban sites do extremely well versus urban locations."
Barnhill countered: "You can throw up billboards, but it's going to be very hard to replicate what we have. From our perspective, we feel like we have a great product."
The casinos have a different feel. The Caesars-owned Horseshoe is designed as an urban oasis surrounded by service stations, a convenience store, a public storage unit and M&T Bank Stadium. It has more windows than most casinos, a brick-lined "marketplace" of Baltimore restaurants instead of a buffet, and outdoor terraces with slot machines to accommodate smokers.
The more suburban Maryland Live is adjacent to Arundel Mills mall, with a more standard, inwardly focused design with several signature restaurants, a buffet and show stage. It "is located in possibly the best location in the U.S. for a casino, with perfect access from two major highways and 13,000 free parking spaces," Cordish said.
Largely because of the casinos' proximity, "I think they will be targeting the same market in general," said James Karmel, a casino analyst and history professor at Harford Community College. "There is a lucrative market in the Baltimore suburbs. They will be looking at Anne Arundel County, Baltimore County, Howard County, Harford County. Right now, a lot of those folks don't typically venture into Baltimore except for a game. Traffic and parking is key. [The Horseshoe] has got to be as easy as it is to pull into Arundel Mills."
Ultimately, consumers might benefit as each casino tries to lure patrons by offering incentives, Woinski said.
Among the beneficiaries already is Baltimore Washington Billboards, which has a fleet of 12 billboard trucks and has been getting business from both sides in the casino war. "Driving your business past your competition" is one of its slogans.
"They both used us for a recruitment campaign for employees," said Michael Mobilio, the company's managing partner, in an email.
"They have multiple billboards up," Barnhill said. "I think it's probably a tactic that I would take if I were outside the city of Baltimore and you had the billboards available. [For us], there weren't billboards specifically located as close around the Maryland Live property, and our only opportunity was to do some mobile billboards. It was just hiring information."
Even as the competition accelerates, representatives of the Horseshoe and Maryland Live insist that they won't mount negative, "whisper" campaigns about the other.
"It's absolutely a directive of ours to management and staff that we're not going to engage in any sort of mudslinging in social media or any kind of media," Norton said. "That doesn't mean we're not going to market and have some fun with messaging."
They also plan to aggressively protect their turf — even if it means going to court.
The day before the Horseshoe opened, Maryland Live filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that one of its VIP hosts copied a list of the casino's best customers before taking a job at the Horseshoe. The Horseshoe was not named as a defendant.
The employee, Helena Wong, testified in a preliminary hearing Aug. 29 that she had gathered the names of 19 players in the course of her job — an act she said did not qualify as theft.
"I absolutely am not a thief," Wong testified.
The casinos' burgeoning marketing war could leave some people feeling stuck in the middle.
Connie Del Signore, CEO and president of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Conference and Visitors Bureau, said the organization promotes Maryland Live, located in Anne Arundel County, and that the Horseshoe also is interested in a marketing partnership.
"We have to look at our policy for out-of-county properties and see if we are able to include them in our advertising mix," Del Signore said.
She didn't want to discuss whether that could alienate Maryland Live.
There is nothing new about casino competition, even outside traditional gambling hubs such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
In Indiana, gambling revenues dipped after an Ohio casino — a Horseshoe in Cincinnati — opened last year. In West Virginia, the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, already challenged by Maryland's existing casinos, faces a stern test from MGM in a few years.
"I don't think you should put a casino within 50 miles of another casino," Woinski said.
But if the Horseshoe and Maryland Live are too close together, it's too soon to determine how the rivalry will shake out. Casino watchers will be poring over casino revenue data released by the state every month.
"In a month or so, you're going to start seeing who is going where," Woinski said.