The next time the year will line up the same way will be in a thousand and 10 years, 3030. If for that fact alone, the year 2020 will be auspicious, but when you add all the events scheduled to happen next year, 2020 will be truly special. On the international scene, 2020 will be a year of change—for the better or for the worse? That’s TBD.
In gaming, we’re not immune to that change, and most observers would agree that the industry is about to evolve radically. From rapidly advancing technology to saturation and competition across the board, gaming will look different in the next few years than it does now. In our annual sneak peek at the things likely to impact gaming in 2020, we’ve called on several experts and astute observers to give their opinions on how and why gaming will change and what it will mean to the rest of us. So get ready; change is coming.
1. The Tipping Point
Defining the future of casino gaming
One of our key takeaways from Global Gaming Expo 2019 was palpable introspection surrounding recent organizational and structural changes among large-cap casino operators, and general confusion regarding the strategic direction of the casino segment—the typical regional or destination bricks-and-mortar casinos—of the gaming industry.
The uncertainty regarding the future direction of casinos and casino companies is the result of several converging influences. First, traditional growth opportunities through market expansion have diminished. Second, with the combination of generational change and the rise of new and in some cases disruptive technologies, there is difficulty in understanding what gaming products and amenities will be most desirable in the future.
This has afforded equipment manufacturers and content providers a seat at the table in charting the future path of the industry. The result of these changes appears to be an understated reorganization, led by large-cap companies that just a decade ago were working through high leveraged positions in the fallout of the Great Recession.
While not an ominous or negative reflection on the industry, there is growing acknowledgement among observers that change is in the air, both in North America and globally. As we explore this thesis, it becomes clear that uncertainty is not so much a question of the survivability of casino gaming as a question of what gaming companies and properties will look like and who their customers and most important sources of revenue will be in the future.
Geographic vs. Technology-Based Expansion
The Innovation Group became active in the gaming industry in the early 1990s when the development trajectory for gaming was straightforward, at least from a North American point of view. The key product was bricks-and-mortar casinos, with emerging markets opening regularly. Although the size and brands of companies varied, they were all offering a similar product to a similar player, namely slot-heavy gaming experiences predominantly in “locals” markets for middle- to older-aged customers.
This is not to take away from the handful of highly successful destination markets, or their influence on the diversification of non-gaming amenity offerings. But the bulk of revenue being generated was and remains in regional markets through high-frequency local players.
So what is changing? First, the insidiously decreasing number of new markets for expansion; and then shifting preferences of new-generation players entering the market.
Few Emerging Jurisdictions
As a practical matter, the number of brand-new casino gaming markets is quite limited. Internationally, Japan remains a high-profile target. Brazil had been a more measured second hot market, but more recently, the route to enabling legislation is unclear. Ukraine is the most recent international growth market to raise its hand, if that says anything about the “world” of opportunities. And in North America, only Virginia stands out as a high-potential new market, among a handful of lackluster expansion programs (Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ontario, etc.) all met with understandable skepticism.
New Technologies and New Players
The prevailing theme for gaming industry growth has clearly shifted from opening new markets to cultivating new platforms. New games fortified by new technologies, with a definitive online emphasis, have taken the spotlight. Over the last decade, online gaming—now including sports betting—is the most visible route for expansion, and is dominating the dialogue. This trend opens new cyber-geographies, and can be more appealing in certain formats than traditional casino gaming to younger players. However, the balance of control remains ambiguous as casino owners and operators, online and sports betting operators, and even regulators (gaming commissions and lotteries) sort out how the opportunities will be divided.
The Limitations of Organic Growth
The shift in growth opportunities from traditional location-based growth markets to online, and the emergence of new generational preferences, have left gaming companies at a crossroads. Some companies are addressing same-store growth by reinvesting in amenities and expansion where gaming is permitted.
However, the return on such investments is generally lower than initial phases of development. Even adding sports betting or other online games within existing properties, an immediate and low-capital opportunity in some markets, offers limited revenue upside. And while exposure to new technologies has forged some congruence with video, social gaming and esports, the route to player engagement and revenue upside is fleeting.
Some companies like MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment—in its prior machination—have attempted expansion outside of gaming in the mainstream hospitality space. While these campaigns seem like a logical way to leverage brands and expertise, they have also been distractions from the core casino business; and hotel competitors have strong loyalty networks built on different consumer touch points which are difficult to penetrate meaningfully.
Future Consolidation or Disaggregation?
So what other growth or operating strategies are available to large traditional casino companies? Here are a few trends we are seeing:
Portfolio Concentration: As Eldorado-Caesars reinvents itself, there seems to be consensus that the company will focus on its stable North American assets, and it has already abandoned several high-profile international efforts. Similarly, Penn National Gaming (now with Pinnacle) has taken a definitively domestic view of the industry. And those larger companies operating internationally (LVS, Wynn, Genting) have refocused on $1 billion revenue plus opportunities, which is pretty much limited to Japan at the moment. We expect to see further disaggregation of domestic and international activity, save some very assertive Native American operators like Seminole Hard Rock and Mohegan Gaming who appear to be leveraging their domestic business advantages abroad.
Real Estate Redux: MGM’s sale of Bellagio to Blackstone is just the most recent, albeit high-profile, sale of underlying casino real estate. The move follows similar transactions at the portfolio and property levels over the last decade. However, there seems to be an acceleration of such sales, and more interest in casino asset accumulation by the real estate sector. We are watching to see whether REITs and real estate-driven private equity funds chart a strategic path in gaming.
New Business Combinations: We believe further consolidation and strategic relationships between casino operating companies and new gaming products and service providers could be rational. The focus on data and customer relationships should be a driver. There have been partial steps here in limited areas: Penn National’s foray into VLTs, or the Rush Street and Churchill Downs syndication of sports betting expertise. Certainly from the equipment manufacturing side of the business, companies like IGT are as much casino operators as suppliers in certain markets.
The casino industry has been arguably insular in many ways since its inception, relying on its tried-and-true business model. Amid the uncertainties that we have painted above, there is also acknowledgement of the resilience of casino gaming. The demise of Las Vegas was predicted as a result of early-stage regional market expansion, and then saturation within those regional markets became the worry. Yet the industry has continued to provide a reasonable return on investment overall. It is true that we do not fully understand what the next generation of gamers or guests will expect. But this issue is hardly confined to casino companies. Drawing from the creativity and ingenuity of this generation itself might be the right antidote. —Michael Soll, President, The Innovation Group
2. And… They’re Off!
Historical horse racing machines fill the void where racing is legal but slot machines are not
Churchill Downs Inc. last month revealed details of its plans for a $300 million hotel and gaming facility at is flagship racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky. Plans call for a seven-story, 156-room hotel stationed at the first turn of the storied race course, with covered balconies allowing hotel guests to watch races from their rooms.
Plans also call for a casino, with a main floor featuring around 1,000 gaming machines. The unusual part of this fact? Slot machines are illegal in Kentucky.
The games slated for the new hotel and gambling parlor at Churchill Downs look and behave pretty much like any slot machine on a Las Vegas casino floor. But they’re not slot machines. They are part of a growing trend in states like Kentucky, Arkansas, Virginia and others where casino gaming is officially illegal, but horse racing is not. They are historical horse racing (HHR) machines, sometimes called instant racing, and the demand for these games is providing a vital shot in the arm for the long-fading horse racing industry.
First introduced in Arkansas in 1999, HHR machines, at their most basic, allow players to bet on the outcome of a random historical race selected from a video library of more than 60,000 previous races. The player can view “skill graph” charts from the Daily Racing Form showing information such a winning percentages for horses, trainers and jockeys entered in the race (without identifying the date or location of the race itself). Thus, the machines qualify as wagering on races, rather than a slot machine.
Early versions of HHR looked more like self-service terminals in a race book than a slot machine. Players would view information, pick their horses, and then watch video of all or a portion of the race picked for them by the machine’s computer.
However, similar to the transformation of electronic bingo games into today’s Class II machines that are hard to distinguish from a slot machine, technology intervened to the benefit of HHR. The key change was a “Handi Helper,” “Auto-Cap” or some other feature allowing the computer to make horse selections on the player’s behalf. Wagers are then placed into “betting pools” for different possible outcomes, displayed—you guessed it—as slot-style reel results.
And of course, just as with Class II electronic bingo, all of this preparation happens in an instant, meaning the actual play of an HHR machine is very similar to playing a slot machine. As the bingo card on a Class II game is now a tiny display on a corner of the monitor, so the video of the race in an HHR machine now occupies a 2-inch square in the corner of the display, or not even visible at all.
Players hungry for slot machines in states without casino gaming are eating these games up, and in states such as Kentucky, with a consistent pattern of failure when it comes to passing casino legislation, HHR is seen more and more as an acceptable substitute for slots to generate revenue for the state—and to subsidize purses and otherwise provide revenue to prop up legendary racetracks like Churchill Downs.
HHR machines have survived a flurry of court cases and legislative battles in various states—starting with the first one, Arkansas, where the assembly altered the law in 1999 to authorize historical racing by removing a requirement that simulcast races be shown live.
In Oregon, HHR machines at tracks were installed, removed and installed again, as the state attorney general worked to shut down the games, which he called illegal slot machines. Eventually, the state passed a law to specifically legalize the racing machines.
Wyoming experienced a similar back-and-forth, with machines at four off-track betting parlors removed after the state Supreme Court ruled them illegal in 2006. As in Oregon, state legislators passed a law in 2013 specifically authorizing the machines, which are now in operation at 14 betting parlors across the state.
But perhaps the most prominent acceptance of HHR machines as a revenue-generator is at the famous home of the Kentucky Derby, which went all-in on the games after that state’s Supreme Court ruled in February 2014 that the Horse Racing Commission could legally authorize the games. (The case settled lawsuits against several Kentucky tracks offering the machines.)
Last year, Churchill Downs opened Derby City Gaming, a trackside, 85,000-square-foot gaming parlor featuring now featuring around 900 HHR machines, along with food service and a bar. The fact the operator is now shelling out for a major hotel addition with a 1,000-machine gaming parlor is itself testament to the popularity of HHR with the state’s players.
Meanwhile, the overall footprint of HHR machines continues to grow. Last April, an HHR parlor opened at the only racetrack in Virginia, Colonial Downs—which had been shuttered since 2014. The Virginia operator, Peninsula Pacific, has opened at least three other off-track betting locations in the state with HHR machines. Other states, including Nebraska, Idaho and Texas, have toyed with the idea of adding the machines, with attorneys general leading battles against making them legal.
While states like Virginia and Kentucky are likely to have real casinos before too long, historical racing is a growing option for states that do not allow casino gaming. —Frank Legato
3. The Cashless Crisis
When will casinos allow customers to live a real life on the gaming floor?
You wake up in the morning, get to the gym, which you paid for three months ago via PayPal on their website. After the workout, you stop at Starbucks on the way home to grab a venti double latté and wave your phone in front of the payment device. For lunch, you get takeaway delivered from the corner deli, with payments going through Grubhub.
In the afternoon, you arrange a business trip to San Francisco, booking a short flight, paid for on the airline’s website. Instead of a hotel, you opt for a nice Airbnb with a view of the bay, all arranged on the Airbnb app. Next comes a business dinner with clients that you reserved through OpenTable, getting you one step closer to a free meal. Finally home, you luck out with a parking space close to your apartment, paid for via SpotHero.
Tomorrow will be more of the same, except instead of a business dinner, you’re going to a casino at night. While you can rent a room, buy a drink and dinner and show, in the casino, none of the apps, cards, or sites will be of any help. You’ll need CASH to play. WTF?!!
It’s a cashless society, and casinos are out of step. Even online casinos have a better track record of payment processing than their bricks-and-mortar cousins. But it’s not going to stay that way.
Joe Pappano is senior vice president and managing director of Worldpay Gaming, and has been working on payment processing in gaming for more than 20 years. He says the goal is to convert casinos to the real world.
“Integrated resorts want to create one unified, one frictionless experience for the consumer,” he says. “And that springs from the rollout of online gaming and sports betting. They want an omni-channel solution. And the common denominator in all that is payments. That becomes the nucleus of moving money in and out, and everyone is aligning toward that same common goal.”
Pappano says payments solutions are highly innovative—you can buy things with a phone, a wearable and even facial recognition.
“The payments industry is moving at this rapid pace,” he says. “And the inflection point has been reached. It’s now part of the integrated resort. The payment companies—Visa, MasterCard, American Express—all now have this tremendous appetite to support this industry, knowing that it’s very good business.”
But the bifurcated activity that is currently required in the casino industry is something of a roadblock.
“There have been a lot of discussions with the regulators,” says Pappano. “But in many of the jurisdictions, regulations don’t allow a financial instrument to be utilized on the gaming floor.”
To get around that, Pappano says more education and awareness is needed. And the issue of problem gambling needs to be addressed.
“We need to develop an ecosystem from purely a responsible gaming perspective that provides a true audit of every financial transaction. This eliminates the anonymous nature of cash coming onto the casino floor.”
Pappano says protections already exist that recognize unusual spending patterns, and casinos would be inheriting these technologies and controls, where gamblers can set limits. He says it’s time make this happen.
“We need to grab the key stakeholders, work with the regulators, line up the ancillary service providers, the networks, and the issuing banks, because now we have the aggressive support from the financial institutions,” he says.
Much of that support has come with the legalization of sports betting. Pappano says several important banks—Citizens Bank, TD Bank and Wells Fargo—have moved to support sports betting via mobile or at the retail sportsbook. He says it’s a huge advance from 2013 when online gaming was legalized in three states and few banks would take the risk. He says that only three major financial institutions need to be convinced—Bank of America, Chase and Capital One.
“We feel quite bullish that BofA and Chase will support the online gaming or sports betting market,” he says. “Capital One may take a bit longer because they are largely credit-centric.”
He points out that Discover and American Express, which have never participated in any type of gambling transactions, are also now on board.
“This is important,” he says. “In the U.S. market, because unlike the rest of the world where there are hundreds of different payment methods and currencies, there’s a common payment ecosystem—a single payment system that works seamlessly among all 50 states. It’s been an industry-wide collaboration to drive change.”
It’s also important, says Pappano, because we are a cashless society today, and if there is ever any hope of capturing the millennial generation, the casino business has to evolve.
“They’re already coming in to the nightclubs and not using cash in there,” he says. “So if they’re every going to infiltrate the gaming floor, how are they going to conduct that activity? We live in a world of instant gratification, and we dictate what we want to buy, how we want to buy it and when we want to buy it. That same consumer experience—at the same time protecting the integrity of those transactions—has to be done responsibly, with the appropriate controls and velocity. If you can do it in other parts of the integrated resort, there’s no reason it can’t be done in the casino.” —Patrick Roberts
4. Too Much Testosterone
Why women in gaming feel like no one’s listening
I was born to a father who I rarely saw sober and a mother who tried with all of her might to stay up with him. They were both also serious smokers. As a baby, every time I was held by either of them, I experienced the smells of alcohol and tobacco. These became the smells of love for me.
At 17, it was time for me to go off to college, and at some unconscious level I knew I needed to get away from the insanity of my family. I picked a place that seemed far, far away from Santa Paula, California. That place was the University of Nevada, Reno.
The first place I went was the Nevada Club, an alleged mob-run joint on the main drag in Reno, and as I walked in, I noticed something totally amazing. I was confronted with the smells of love—alcohol and tobacco. Add to that the scantily clad cocktail servers and I believe it was ordained that night I would spend my life in and about casinos, for it was all about love, and for the last 48 years this has proven true.
I then entered the testosterone-laden industry of casino gambling where women seemed to be props and commodities, and the men in charge were hard-drinking and tough. They certainly did not share their emotions with one another, for weakness, if identified, was a fault to be exploited. This became the sociology of my life, and it is noteworthy I did quite well in this environment, or at least by all outward appearances it seemed I was doing well.
And then I turned 50.
At 50, I had everything a man could want in life. A beautiful and intelligent wife, an incredible living environment, all of the commodities one could ever dream of, and damn near everyone took my calls.
I suspect this is why I thought it was strange I was writing suicide notes.
I chose to consult about this fact with, of all people, the chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, and rather than saying “Let’s go have a drink and talk about this,” he suggested I get in my car and drive to a hospital he knew of in California. I followed his advice.
It seemed I suffered from clinical depression and had developed a million ways to deal with it, and none of them were too healthy. I overdosed on work, poker, relationships, sports watching, sports betting, drinking, and on and on it went. I spent the next few years working to understand my brain and working to ensure it did not destroy me. One of the main things I was told was I needed to make a change, and the thing I needed to change was everything.
I have talked about this often over the last 20 years to industry groups and in numerous classes. One of these environments was at the annual Executive Development Program put on by the University of Nevada. It was a session called Richard’s Lunch, and it was often a hard session for me, for I would sometimes break down in telling my story. I was always encouraged to do this talk by (UNR Gaming Studies founder) Bill Eadington, and only stopped doing it with his death.
Every time I gave this talk, no matter where it was, someone would get in contact with me and suggest I was telling their story, and they wanted a way to deal with it that did not involve the large variety of unhealthy survival techniques many people employ to cope with life. I would try to nudge (or drag) these people in the direction of help. This helped me feel better about me, and I would like to think it helped them.
I came across a man by the name of Father Bob, who was a retired priest. I lived with him for a bit and we also became fast friends. After I moved out of his home, he would often call me and tell me we had to go do some good deeds, and I needed to bring the Bank of Richard along, for often good deeds needed financial aid.
Not only was Bob a priest but he was also a trained psychologist. He also was wise. In our first discussion we talked for a bit and then he suggested what I needed to concentrate on was becoming a man, a strange thing for a “successful” man to hear at 50 years of age. He said I had a terrible notion of what a man should be, probably brought on by my father and my industry of choice. He suggested that what I had become was a mere caricature of what a man should be.
I have thought about this statement continually for the last 20 years, and in my own inimical way, I have been trying to become a man. It has been a long and slow haul.
Several years back I began writing about the industry of gaming with an approach that was a bit unusual. I tried to be direct and I tried to be honest. The industry is very good at applauding its benefits, but criticisms seemed to belong in a black hole, and to discuss them in writing was apparently treasonous.
One of the topics I have worked to address in my writing is the role of women in the industry of gambling, but I think it morphed in my mind as being about the treatment of women in the industry—and I think the treatment of women in our industry is terrible. I have learned of a large number of slights, both big and small, that women are subjected in the workplace daily. Women from all over began sharing with me and helped me understand what it is like for them to work in the industry. It has been a wakeup call.
At this point I am of the opinion the industry is broken with respect to its gender issues, and aside from some cosmetic efforts, it is not changing. I would also suggest if you do not believe this you are probably a male, probably terrible at statistics, can’t see well, and are suffering a huge case of denial. This is unfortunate, for discrimination against a class of people is a terrible thing. Moreover, eliminating the voice of women in leadership decisions is a fool’s errand in terms working to unleash the value of an enterprise. In short, it is bad ethics and it is bad business.
What is the fix? I am not particularly optimistic here, for my diagnosis is simply that many men do not care. Moreover, they have learned to act like they do care with the smallest of gestures, but without working toward material change. In essence, the system works well for them, and that apparently is good enough.
I believe that Father Bob would suggest that this is not how a man behaves, but it is a caricature of a man. —Richard Schuetz
5. Warning Shots
Why taking responsible gambling seriously is the only option
Until recently, neither government nor the gaming industry has taken responsible gambling very seriously. A number of trends are likely to converge in 2020 that will challenge the status quo on responsible gambling, particularly around the expansion of sports betting.
One development is that leadership in responsible gambling is coming from many areas besides the casino industry. For example, by the end of 2020 almost half of U.S. lotteries will have their responsible gambling plans certified by the National Council on Problem Gambling through our Responsible Gambling Verification program.
On the casino side, though, United States casino operators rely almost exclusively on self-regulatory codes rather than independent, objective third-party assessment. Looking globally, innovative, tech-savvy gaming companies in Canada, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom are applying artificial intelligence to predict customers who are at risk for problems and provide appropriate interventions.
Furthermore, international casino companies vying for licenses in countries like Japan are realizing that responsible gambling standards are much higher in many overseas jurisdictions. Furthermore, lax practices in their U.S. operations reflect poorly on their suitability and sustainability.
At the same time, public backlash in a number of countries has led to advertising bans, additional compliance requirements, aggressive regulatory oversight and substantial fines, along with other restrictions. The U.S. casino industry runs the risk of losing its lead in responsible gambling issues to other segments such as the state lotteries or to international competitors in global markets.
Sports Betting Expansion, Backlash
In NCPG’s November 2018 National Survey of Gambling Attitudes and Gambling Experiences (NGAGE), two-thirds of the 28,000 respondents agreed that both government and the gaming industry “should do more to help people with a gambling addiction.” Looking at this in terms of the high-profile and rapid expansion of sports betting, additional public attention is needed with regards to integrity and addiction concerns, particularly involving youth and college athletes.
Additionally, the NGAGE survey found adults who have bet on sports at least once in the past year are twice as likely to report problematic behaviors as other gamblers. Other research from the U.K. shows that mobile wagering, allowing for instantaneous and immediate gambling, is associated with increased gambling problems. Further risk factors for problem gambling include high-frequency live in-game and proposition betting, increased advertising, perception of sports betting as a skill, being young, male, a veteran and/or an athlete.
Everyone talks about avoiding the backlash we are watching unfold in real time in the U.K., but few are actually actively working to build responsible gambling into their operations or provide support for the only U.S. problem gambling safety net, which is run by NCPG and primarily funded by gaming companies, not government.
Responsible Gambling Programs Rely on Problem Gambling Services
We rightly celebrate high-profile casino programs, like Caesars Responsible Gaming Ambassador program or MGM’s GameSense, and applaud the comprehensive regulation found in the Massachusetts Gaming Commission’s Responsible Gambling Framework 2.0. Yet these success stories may obscure a fundamental flaw—that many states and companies do little or nothing on problem gambling and responsible gambling issues. This results in an extremely uneven patchwork of responsible gambling programs and problem gambling services with significant variations among states and companies.
The gaps may be widening as progressive gambling executives, far-sighted regulators and aggressive advocates push those who are already doing well to do more. Between 2013 and 2016, eight states cut their problem gambling budgets, one eliminated funding entirely, and seven more stayed level. They joined nine more states plus Washington, D.C. which dedicated no public funds. This means in fully half the country, problem gambling services are stagnant, sinking or non-existent.
It is upon this uneven foundation that states, gambling operators and leagues are rushing to legalize sports betting. Expanded gambling is often accompanied by increases in gambling problems, especially when there are few if any harm minimization measures in place. Even states that provided additional funds for problem gambling in their sports betting bills are often starting from scratch, and it often takes years to develop comprehensive programs.
The rising tide of responsible gambling continues to sweep across the gaming industry, and companies that do not to step up increasingly risk being swept away. Other industry verticals are outpacing the commercial and tribal casino industry in responsible gambling. United States operators seeking licenses overseas are encountering heightened expectations for responsible gambling programs in some of the most lucrative development destinations while witnessing significant public, political and regulatory backlash in others.
The rapid expansion of sports betting in the U.S. will result in an increase in the rate and severity of gambling problems because most states have not developed adequate problem gambling infrastructure and only a few casino companies have supported responsible gambling efforts that go beyond basic compliance. A large majority of the public expects the industry to do more. All these trends will likely accelerate in the coming year.
The good news is that more and more companies are taking responsible gambling seriously. How? By creating dedicated corporate responsible gambling positions, hiring senior executives to fill them, formalizing responsible gambling plans, allocating in-house funding and external funding, and pursuing partnerships with organizations like the National Council on Problem Gambling to certify their responsible gambling efforts. All these actions help fill gaps in problem gambling services and the safety net. —Keith Whyte
6. Follow the Leader
Will sports betting boost iGaming?
The legalization of sports betting in states where it wasn’t already permitted has been a boon for the gaming industry. It created new excitement that land-based casinos can use to attract new players to their bricks-and-mortar facilities. The thrill of the Super Bowl, March Madness, the Stanley Cup, or Game 7 of the World Series can now be translated to actual dollars for casinos, whether it’s wagers on the games or ancillary benefits from rooms, food and beverage.
Mobile betting has proven to be the cash cow of sports betting. In New Jersey, more than 80 percent of sports betting revenue comes from mobile devices in a state where visits to a casino or racetrack to register and bet isn’t always feasible. While some of the recent states legalizing sports betting are requiring a casino visit to register, it’s generally just for a few months, and mobile registration will be accepted after that time. So mobile platforms will continue to be the preferred method to wager on sports in the U.S., just as it is in Europe.
And while it seems like billions of dollars are being wagered on sports—because it’s true—the taxes that are derived from those wagers will be substantially less. States that are expecting a windfall from sports betting will be disappointed. Casino companies are not immune from the low profits. In a business where a 3 percent-5 percent profit is considered outstanding, the money that falls to the bottom line is reduced even further by the partnerships with sports betting technology companies that further slice up the profits.
In a GGB Podcast last spring, however, Richard Schwartz, the CEO of Rush Street Interactive, said that a substantial number of first-time sports bettors migrated to the company’s online casino in states where both kinds of wagering are permitted and where the profits are more substantial. He said the key is keeping the platform for sports betting and online gaming simple and allowing players to make the move with as little difficulty as possible.
Once states realize that their taxation dreams are only catnaps, will they understand that online gaming has a greater potential for yet more taxes? In most cases, the legalization of sports betting occurred in a vacuum with no connection to online gaming. In Michigan, online gaming was recently dropped from a sports betting bill (although it was passed as a separate bill) because of opposition from state politicians—and some tribes—who don’t want their players betting online.
And since by its very name online gaming is conducted on devices, whether it’s a computer, tablet or mobile phone, the popularity of sports betting on these devices may spur more participation by online sports bettors in online gaming. Some sports bettors have never played casino games, so a crash course in casino gaming may be necessary.
But nothing can happen without legislative momentum. The powers-that-be need to be made aware that, just like sports betting, there are illegal online casinos that are taking bets from their constituents. They can justify legalizing online casinos to destroy the illegal casinos and to create more tax revenues for the state.
In most states, casinos have the rights to sports betting licenses. The same can happen with iGaming. Again, New Jersey provides the model. Online gaming revenue has increased every month since it was legalized in November 2013. It took a while to figure out how to market it effectively, but with the help of licensed affiliates and targeted marketing, online gaming continues to grow in New Jersey.
And when you consider the extra revenue produced, it is substantial. The Golden Nugget Atlantic City now produces almost as much online gaming revenue as it does at the land-based casino. Granted, that’s somewhat of an outlier in the New Jersey gaming market, but it’s evidence of what is possible in other states.
So all hail sports betting, but understand that the opportunity to bring more profits to your casino resort via online gaming is still out there and available for the taking. —Patrick Roberts
7. Rising Sun
Japan begins to enter the homestretch in 2020
Like the cherry blossoms in the spring in Japan, integrated resort developments will begin to emerge into full bloom starting in January 2020. The coming year will see significant progess at the central government level that will then launch the RFP process at the prefecture level.
If the level of activity in the second half of 2019 is any indication, 2020 will prove to be a very robust year. However, there is still a lot of work to do before Japan awards up to three of the coveted IR licenses established through the IR Promotion and IR Implementation Acts.
Since the market began to emerge some 20 years ago, Japan appears to be in the homestretch for the initial round of development of integrated resorts. The movements not only by operators but also by interested prefectures will continue to evolve in the coming weeks and months.
Heading into 2020, two jurisdictions are currently in the process of a Request for Concept (RFC) to see which operators may be interested in a specific market and how they may meet some of the initial framework that a city or prefecture desires as they look to host an integrated resort. These jurisdictions include Yokohama and Nagasaki (through its site in Sasebo). There are a few other areas of the country that are beginning the process of Requests for Information (RFI) as they begin their journey into being a potential IR host. This is coming off the heels of Osaka completing its RFC process earlier this fall.
One of the biggest and necessary steps will be the formation of the Casino Administration Commission. Once confirmed by the Diet, this five-member body will help finalize the regulatory structure and oversight of the three IR licensees. There are still several key aspects that need to be decided through the regulations, as well as laying out the path to the awarding of the three licenses allowed in the first round. This will all culminate with the launch of the full RFP process at the end of 2020.
As the process rolls out, there are two things observers of the market should watch. The first is the locations that emerge and officially put forward a full RFP process. The second is how operators play their cards in terms of whether they commit to one market or decide to make a play in multiple markets. The markets of Osaka, Kanagawa (through Yokohama), Chiba, Aichi, Hokkaido (through Tomakomai), and Nagasaki (through Sasebo) have already acknowledged their interest.
The question is whether other markets come into play. Does Tokyo raise its hand late in the process shortly after Governor Koike is potentially reelected, right before the start of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo? Does the alliance in Kyushu hold and put Fukuoka and Kitakyushu off until a potential round two process? Next year may provide a wild card by a jurisdiction that has not been anticipated in the process so far. Operators will continue to lay out their partnerships, plans and community involvement in order to win the approval of the local jurisdiction to move on to the next level in 2021.
The responsible gaming structure should not be overlooked at all in this debate, as it will be a fundamental part of the market and needs to be established across all forms of gaming, whether IR-based or non-IR-based. This includes pachinko and pachislot, which are largely still classified as “entertainment.”
The initial use of evidence-based research will be essential to form the framework for a responsible gaming environment that develops training and exclusionary programs through the use of technology. It will be important to use technology as a medium to connect all forms of gaming under one system.
We are still more than five years away from the opening of an integrated resort, but the industry and Japan are ready to move forward together to finally lay the cornerstone for Japan’s gaming market. This will all lead into the very robust 2021 with the selection of up to three operators receiving licenses to open up the next iteration of integrated resorts. It’s fitting that in the year of the Tokyo Olympics, we can finally say, let the games begin. —Brendan D. Bussmann
8. Home and Away
Prospects for Las Vegas in 2020 hinge on a variety of issues
To conclude a successful season, performance depends on what happens both home and away.
In 2019, Las Vegas waited for a domestic economic slowdown that didn’t happen. Many long-term decisions were put on pause, but growth-hungry investors and capital markets continued to make decisions. However, in 2020, what happens in Vegas will rely not just on wider capital markets, macroeconomic trends and national policy, but things in which it has zero control or influence.
Las Vegas and casino companies will continue to reap the rewards of a strong national economy. If the cost of capital remains low then the acquisition trend will continue, whether this is the likes of properties trading up and down the Strip in generational moves, mergers and acquisitions continuing or reinvestment in assets becoming the norm.
Casinos as a legitimate asset class are now established and are now staple investments for real estate investment trusts. With few exceptions, the “opco-propco” model is standard for what we know as the portfolio casino owners. The remaining casino companies that hold their own assets may seek to streamline accordingly to make efficient use of the REIT arrangements and capital structures, or just to release equity to their shareholders. The REITs may then seek to drive further revenue via investment for development or active asset management.
Las Vegas visitation will remain stable, despite the slow uptick in prices and “hidden” costs across the portfolios, as the range of offering, including new investments, remains compelling.
If the U.S.-China trade conflict eases, the flow of Asian tourists to Las Vegas will continue, keeping the shops, hotels and casinos busy. A positive outcome will also see movement in the price of steel, even making new casino resort construction viable.
2020 will be a solid, if unremarkable year for Las Vegas. The biggest news will be in the business side of the Strip.
Away from Las Vegas, 2020 will see the beginning of the next gold rush; sports betting will come to a town near you.
As early states deliver their product to market, expect millions, if not hundreds of millions of micro-transactions on cell phones. Those Las Vegas casinos that have taken the leap into this new area should benefit financially and in terms of customer loyalty and engagement.
The long-term effect and benefits may be more like the online poker boom, where the customer can bet at home, on their cell or with friends, but the best and most fun way will be in Las Vegas.
With so much of the global economy precariously balanced, any one of a hundred unrelated events could have a direct negative effect on Las Vegas. The tipping point for many disasters is not far away.
The most hazardous and pronounced for Las Vegas is the Saudi-Iranian tension.
Las Vegas’ core market for the past 50 years has been the southern Californian drive market. Many resort operators have done a stellar job in recent years at alienating this market, most notably in car parking charges and resort fees, ignoring the realities of a competitive environment.
The under-40 drive market, that provided so much non-gaming growth, saw Las Vegas as a cheap weekend away. Today it is less so. For the over-40 gamblers, there are many closer (and better-value) tribal alternatives that have enhanced their offering dramatically in recent years.
In 2018, Californian visitation fell to 23 percent. Southern Californian overall visitation fell to 19 percent, the lowest levels ever recorded, and repeat visitation has fallen from 1.8 times per year to 1.5. A gas increase, plus the systemic alienation of traditionally core customers, may prove fatal for Las Vegas.
Likewise, a further freeze in U.S.-China relations may have consequences in terms of international tourist flow, which will disproportionately affect the big six resorts that rely heavily on baccarat play. If things really chill, there may be consequences for the Las Vegas companies (LVS, Wynn and MGM) that operate in Macau.
Elsewhere, how the U.S., Mexican and Canadian relations will look by year-end 2020 is anyone’s guess. Brexit and the European uncertainty have already led to the demise of Thomas Cook (and the 60,000 passengers from the U.K. to Las Vegas annually), and predicting currency is more of a gamble than anything found on a casino floor. With a strong dollar and weak sterling and euro, expect a decline in European visitation.
As a strategist, I suggest that we go into 2020 with our eyes wide open, aware not just of the U.S. domestic economy, where many analysts expect some kind of economic slowdown (just like last year) that may or may not happen, but the real dangers that are overseas. —Oliver Lovat
9. Getting Tripped Up
Sports betting integrity needs connectivity
The gaming industry, anxiously looking for the next catalyst for growth, was quick to embrace last year’s reversal of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act with several states immediately embarking on the opportunity.
Legalization of sports wagering across several states creates new challenges and complexities that were contained when wagering on sports was only legal in the state of Nevada. It is now time to put safeguards in place to address the concerns facing the business to demonstrate that the industry can regulate itself and does not need federal legislation.
One of the issues facing sports wagering is that if an operator is unable to balance its book it will be exposed to the outcome of a game that is beyond its control. This was not a major problem in Nevada when the state had a monopoly power, with a small number of cooperating operators controlling the business. Fixed odds sports wagering is against the gambling industry’s basic principle of only taking risk on games that have a house advantage. With legalization and competition between states and operators, jurisdictional limitations box casinos inside state boundaries and deprive them from controlling their risks.
Geographical restriction on an operator is a burden in combating the wise guys who can freely maneuver within different operators, arbitraging between their lines to get an edge on their already thin margins. A structure that lets professionals extract profit out of sports wagering will hurt the business in the long run.
We saw this in poker, where the big fish ate the small fish until the supply of small fish dried up. Over the years, the casino industry has learned establishing an optimum house edge for a game is a delicate job, and it has to walk a fine line in determining how quickly it should take money out of a player without affecting the player’s long-term value. If on average, fans lose more than 5 percent of their wagers, it will adversely affect their appetite to continue at the same pace.
Overall, sports wagering should be a zero-sum game between sports fans betting on each side of an event. The only outlay should be the commission paid to the operators for the entertainment value they provide.
In a desired setting, an average punter should have a 50-50 chance to win. Any leakage to wise guys will hurt the business over the long haul. Diehard fans placing several wagers every week, while losing more than 5 percent, will get disappointed after a while and will limit their wagers to special events. By adopting a system that provides uniform odds, the industry will prevent professionals from making profit at their expense by arbitraging between them. Until then, the industry needs to address sports integrity with the highest priority.
Sports integrity is not just about match-fixing, point-shaving or insider wagering. It covers all activities that result in illicit benefits received from wagering on a sporting event, with money laundering being the greatest threat. Currently, there is no connectivity between sportsbooks in two different states to help identify suspicious activities. The industry has established the Sports Wagering Integrity Monitoring Association (SWIMA), designed to detect and discourage fraud and other illegal or unethical activities related to betting on sporting events.
SWIMA’s mandate is to collaborate between its members and regulators to identify and investigate suspicious wagering activities. However, with large volume of wagering transactions going through different systems of different operators in different states, it is not hard to figure out that until the industry adopts a common protocol, it needs to use an interim portal to monitor large and suspicious sports wagering activities. Without such a solution, a manual process requires a tremendous amount of manpower to detect illicit wagers.
Currently bad actors can slip under the radar if they spread their wagers between different operators in different states. For example, money launderers can hedge their own bets knowing they are guaranteed to get 95.5 percent of their money back, and match-fixers can spread their wagers between different books in different states without getting noticed.
A wager essentially is a futures contract between a patron and a casino, not much different than futures contracts traded through the Chicago Board Options Exchange. To overcome the integrity issues, sports wagering needs a national clearinghouse that establishes odds and allows participating operators to process larger wagers while detecting suspicious activities.
Until a centralized network is developed, the industry can use a private portal that uses encryption technologies such as blockchain that secure privacy of proprietary data and create interconnectivity among the leagues, operators and regulators. The technology can connect the dots between the data points captured by the leagues during a game, and the wagers received by operators to flag suspicious activities to SWIMA for further investigations.
Overall, the industry needs technical connectivity to detect and deter fraudulent activities; otherwise, it will be implicated by the media and federal lawmakers that it should have known about money laundering opportunities but did not address the issue because it was benefiting from the additional wagers made by arrested money launderers confessing to the scheme. —Bruce Merati
10. Update on Downturn
How will the economy and politics impact the gaming industry in 2020?
The old advice is to go ahead and make a prediction, just don’t put a date or a number on it.
That admonition might well apply to 2020 with its 1) worries about a looming recession and 2) concern for what next fall’s elections will do to gaming.
Simply, we will have an economic recession. We just don’t know when. In late summer it was almost a given that the United States was heading into recession. By the time the last pitch of the World Series was hurled, the stock market was leaping and economic indicators were suggesting that, well, maybe recession isn’t quite around the corner.
So, whether a recession is in the 2020 cards can’t be seen with 20/20 vision, but a recession is going to happen sometime.
The bigger question is: What will the inevitable recession do to the gaming industry?
In the past, recessions have, in a way, been good for gaming. It was the 1990-91 recession, after all, that caused states in the central U.S. to take the radical step of legalizing riverboat casinos to open new revenue streams without having to raise taxes.
In other words, that recession gave birth to the proliferation of commercial casinos throughout the country, just like the Great Depression led to Nevada legalizing gaming. That eventually resulted in a casino industry that, along with construction of Hoover Dam, turned the remote railroad town of Las Vegas into an international city and capital of a multibillion-dollar industry.
By the time of the Great Recession, there was almost a complacency about economic downturns and casinos. Recession is good for casinos as states will legalize and liberalize to raise tax revenues, the thinking went.
Unemployed people might not buy cars or houses, but they will want to spend a Friday night escaping their woes by spinning slot machine reels, the thinking went.
Boy, were they wrong. Gaming got slammed. Revenues dried up. Mountains of debt went into default. Casino projects halted in mid-construction not to be completed even to this day.
So, what does the next recession look like?
Well, it isn’t likely to be the wedge to dramatic gaming expansion as gaming already appears in most of the jurisdictions where it’s likely to be. And, even if new states open or existing gaming states authorize gaming expansion, we’re at a point where new casinos do more to cannibalize markets than to grow them. As evidence, look at the new casinos of New York and Massachusetts underperforming projections.
On the flip side, existing casinos are not as likely to be hurt by the next recession as companies have become leaner operators. In the past, marketing, for example, was about growth, bringing more people into a property. Today, it’s more about bringing profitable people into a property. It’s about spending less to get more.
This new approach of managing to yield profitability is likely to protect casino companies in a coming recession. They’ll suffer, but not fatally. Further, a repeat of the Great Recession doesn’t appear likely. That was a debt recession and the bursting of a giant financial bubble. The next recession is more likely to be a typical cyclical decline.
In that circumstance, most gaming companies should ride out the recession like consumer discretionary industries do.
So, what about the elections?
Again, a lot of the big battles are over in the country’s statehouses. Gaming is here and, while some states might legalize casinos or legalize sports betting or online gaming, upcoming changes are more likely to be incremental rather than revolutionary.
Perhaps the biggest difference in legislative attitude towards gaming today compared to the early riverboat years is that casinos have transformed from suspicious interlopers into constituents to be protected.
Go back to the early ’90s again. Legislators did everything within their ken and power to make sure casinos would be harmless tourist attractions and not mini-Nevadas. Remember the two-hour cruise limits? Loss limits? Requirements that riverboats sail and meet Coast Guard sailing standards?
That is almost all gone. In its place, casinos now are seen as employers of thousands of a legislator’s constituents and, just like other businesses, the No. 1 job of a legislator is protecting his constituents’ jobs.
This legislative protection ranges all the way to the halls of Congress. Never mind the headlines about bills to ban online gaming, for example.
There was a time when Congress could pass sweeping anti-gaming legislation knowing that only the small Nevada delegation would object. Then it was New Jersey’s delegation. Today, restrictive or anti-gaming legislation will find fierce opposition from congressional delegations from as far afield and as diverse as Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois and more.
In summation, there will be no elections in November that threaten the health and the future of America’s gaming industry. —Frank Fantini