For more than two months last spring, casinos across the U.S. shut down in response to the growing coronavirus pandemic. But for those living or visiting New Jersey, an alternative existed for blackjack, slots and other casino staples.
Online casinos. iGaming.
iGaming has been part of the New Jersey gaming landscape since 2013, but it took a giant leap forward during the pandemic. April 2020 internet win rose 118.6 percent from $36.6 million in 2019 to $75.9 million. May’s win jumped 124.1 percent from $38.3 million to $85.9 million. The figures for June posted $84.9 million, a 123.1 percent gain compared to the prior June.
For all of 2020, iGaming generated $970.3 million in New Jersey, 101 percent ahead of 2019. During the same time frame, casino win in brick-and-mortar properties in Atlantic City dropped 43.7 percent.
Online gaming in the state continued its record pace as 2021 dawned. Golden Nugget Online Gaming led the pack in January, eclipsing the $1 million-per-day mark at $31 million, up 5 percent from December’s $29.4 million. Borgata ranked second with $28.7 million, a gain of 5.5 percent over December.
Anyway you dissect it, those are eye-popping numbers.
Jersey the Giant
It’s not just New Jersey. The four states offering online gaming in 2020—Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New Jersey—brought in $1.55 billion, up 198.9 percent from 2019.
“While iGaming is still limited in scope, it showed strong growth and was a bright spot in an otherwise difficult year for the gaming industry,” says Casey Clark, senior vice president of strategic communications for the American Gaming Association. “iGaming was very valuable to states offering it in 2020, providing a source of tax and gaming revenue, as well as a safe, legal alternative to the often predatory illegal market.”
Playing online eliminates the camaraderie of sitting at a table or sharing a row of slots with fellow gamblers, but the essence of the games remains, as do the wins and losses.
“We find that the success of online gaming only complements the brick-and-mortar business, allowing our customers to take a bit of a gaming experience home with them when they leave.” —Steve Callender, President, Casino Association of New Jersey, and President, Eastern Region, Caesars Entertainment
“Last year’s stay-at-home orders offered customers—both new and existing—a way to enjoy a gaming experience online while our brick-and-mortar casinos where shuttered,” says Steve Callender, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, and leader of the Eastern Region for Caesars Entertainment.
With the pandemic declining as spring approaches, in part due to vaccine rollouts, in part due to successful controls including masks, social distancing and capacity limits, will iGaming fall off, become a novelty? Experts think not, and can point to the experience in New Jersey as proof.
“We’ve found that our online casino product further enhances our connectivity to customers throughout New Jersey, who are able to enjoy convenience gaming anywhere in the state,” Callender says. “The outstanding success of New Jersey’s online casinos has helped catapult the state as a leader in gaming here in the U.S., surpassing a record-breaking $100 million in revenue for the month of January.”
Callender points out that the convenience of gambling in your living room does not replace the experience of visiting a live casino hotel in Atlantic City, which offers full-service resorts with celebrity chef restaurants, shopping, spas, entertainment and luxe hotels in addition to gambling.
“Therefore, we find that the success of online gaming only complements the brick-and-mortar business, allowing our customers to take a bit of a gaming experience home with them when they leave.”
Resorts Digital, part of Resorts Casino Hotel, has two strong online links with partners DraftKings and PokerStars: Resortscasino.com and Mohegansuncasino.com.
Resorts CEO Mark Giannantonio does not expect a falloff as the capacity limits fade and casinos operate at 100 percent.
“Online sports betting and online casinos are poised to continue to grow as more people become introduced to this option of entertainment,” he says.
Rather than seeing iGaming as a threat, Giannantonio says the online gaming component drives business from one to the other through promotions and other marketing tools.
“Resorts collaborates closely with our online business to ensure players are provided the very best product and service,” he says.
Pennsylvania launched online casinos in July 2019, well before Covid-19 was born.
“We got off to a good start primarily because of the partnership between online operators and brick-and-mortar casinos,” says Kevin O’Toole, executive director of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.
The pandemic helped fuel growth to an extent, he says. “But in our first six months, Pennsylvania increased to five platforms and added five more in the next six months, and three more the six months after that. We’re still learning. But we don’t expect a noticeable dropoff after the pandemic. We have had a tough winter, but that has had no effect in online play.”
“iGaming was very valuable to states offering it in 2020, providing both a source of tax and gaming revenue, as well as a safe, legal alternative to the often predatory illegal market.” —Casey Clark, Senior Vice President of Strategic Communications, American Gaming Association
In January 2021, total gross gaming revenue for online casinos in Pennsylvania was $80.4 million, compared to $13.9 million the same month in 2020. January also eclipsed December’s figure of $71.6 million by 11 percent. For all of 2020, online casinos produced $565.8 million, with poker accounting for $35.6 million, table games $152.2 million, and slots $377.7 million.
Board reports show that the combined total revenue generated from all forms of gaming, along with fantasy contests, in December 2020 was $168.7 million, a 42.2 percent decline compared to revenue generated in December 2019.
Statewide, online casino revenue in December 2020 rose 574 percent, with Hollywood Casino growing 1,289 percent and Rivers Philadelphia up 551 percent, to cite two examples.
The downside of such growth is the ease by which some players can let their gambling get out of hand. 2020 was a difficult year to pinpoint the impact online gambling has had, says Josh Ercole, executive director, Council on Compulsive Gambling of PA, Inc. The warning signs will likely be similar between online gambling and gambling in a casino, but in a virtual platform, it may be more difficult to be identified, he says.
While the call volume to the compulsive gambling hotline has remained about the same in 2020, the number of chats/texts rose 200 percent from 2019 figures.
There are several studies focused on iGaming and gambling addiction, most notably, studies that tend to focus on increased access, and ongoing participation, Ercole says. “iGaming offers a very fast and recurrent opportunity that requires very little to access (no travel, etc). Having this increased ease of access is a concern. While most people will enjoy this, for someone who is not able to maintain control, this could be problematic.
“Over the past year, we have seen a very significant shift in the percentage of calls for help outlining sports and internet gambling as the most problematic type for callers. We have also seen an increase over the past year in 24-35-year-olds reaching out for help. Typically, the highest numbers have fallen in the 35-55 range,” he says.
Then again, iGaming can allow for better responsible gaming measures to be put into place through the added use of technology, says Brendan Bussmann, a partner with Global Market Advisors, LLC. “Players can put limits on their spend or exclude themselves from playing. This carries over from the online world to the brick-and-mortar space for a comprehensive solution.”
Michigan Ramps Up
The fifth state to launch, Michigan, shows how quickly iGaming can take off. The state opened for internet business on January 22. Through January 31, internet gaming produced gross receipts of $29.4 million, says Michigan Gaming Control Board Executive Director Richard Kalm.
“While this really is just a glimpse of what may happen, it’s off to a good start,” he says.
Authorized internet games include, but are not limited to, poker, blackjack, cards, slots, games played with dice and/or tiles, roulette, craps, pai gow, and other games typically offered at a casino, Kalm says.
The Detroit casinos have been open at limited capacity since late December because of public health concerns, and many of Michigan’s tribal casinos are located in areas frequented by tourists during warmer months, but not so much during the state’s cold winters, he says. “Internet gaming provides another option for bettors. It’s likely many were curious initially and wanted to test the options.”
By law, the internet gaming operators are tied to the three Detroit casinos or the 12 federally recognized Native American tribes running casinos in Michigan. Three more tribal operators will be added to the market, each with iGaming access: Gun Lake Casino, FireKeepers Casino and Soaring Eagle Casino.
“Providing online access from a mobile phone, tablet or personal computer adds an entirely new dimension to the gaming and sports betting experience,” says Four Winds COO Frank Freedman. “This new platform will enable us to bring the fun and excitement from inside our Four Winds Casinos to the homes of our loyal guests and players throughout Michigan.”
West Virginia legalized online casino gaming in 2019 with the passing of the West Virginia Lottery Interactive Wagering Act, with a tax rate of 15 percent. The first online casinos opened for business the following year.
“Our state legislature was forward-thinking when it comes to iGaming. We’re doing very well with two operators and several more in the pipeline,” says Randy Burnside, assistant director, West Virginia Lottery. “Each casino can have three mobile operators.”
Currently, the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town, in partnership with DraftKings, and the Greenbrier Resort in conjunction with BetMGM operate online casinos, according to Burnside.
West Virginia’s $2.8 million in revenue in January rose 9 percent over December, and December jumped 62 percent over November. The win contributed $420,000 in taxes to the state, up from $382,000 the month before.
Delaware’s iGaming revenues amounted to $738,525 in January, a 5.5 percent increase over December. Slot games took in $584,443, a 15.7 percent increase compared to December. Table games generated only $114,449.27, still good for a gain of 6.9 percent from January 2020, according to CDC Gaming Reports.
“iGaming is uniquely able to meet people in their homes, which has proven vital in this time of social distancing and rolling closures,” says Christopher Justice, president, Global Payments Gaming Solutions, which provides a cashless way to move money between a bank and an account for online and land-based casinos as well as mobile sports betting. “This is not to say the future is 100 percent iGaming, but it does underscore the need to ensure online, land-based and every other form of gaming offers a digital component to meet the digital-first patron through their preferred channel.”
The success in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the three other states begs the question: why haven’t more states jumped on this like they did sports betting?
“An online casino is simply a more complex issue, both in terms of the politics of approving online casinos and in terms of the industry’s highly fragmented attitude toward the relative wisdom of authorizing online casinos,” says Chris Grove, a gambling industry strategist. “It is a lot harder lift to not only educate stakeholders on how iGaming works and its benefits but getting all of those same parties to want to move forward to legalize within a jurisdiction.”
The results win the revenue argument, Bussmann says. “But there is a different mindset and perception than sports betting. Legislators are more comfortable legalizing sports wagering since it has become mainstream just by turning on any broadcast. It’s different than allowing someone to have any casino game on their phone while they sit in their house.”
Still, Grove thinks you’ll see legitimate conversations in most states that authorized online sports betting. “I’d put Illinois and Indiana near the top of that list, although Indiana won’t be moving anything this year.”
Bussmann says, “While there are discussions of potential movement in other states, those will likely wait until 2022 to make a move into full debate. Illinois may be the only state to move significantly because of its desire for additional tax revenue, but should be careful on how overall gaming revenue from other sources could be impacted through an additional expansion.”
Approval is not as easy as it seems.
In January, state Senator Jon Ford introduced S 417, which would allow Indiana’s 14 casinos and racinos to offer internet gaming, along with online poker. The money end would produce a nice chunk of change, according to PlayIndiana.com.
Under the legislation, casinos and racinos would pay $500,000 each for an interactive gaming license, renewable every year for $50,000. Each casino can partner with up to three online brands, or skins. Those operators would be charged $100,000 for an initial license, and $25,000 a year.
The state would charge 18 percent tax on gross gaming revenues, including 3 percent for local governments, and 3.33 percent of state tax revenue collected would go for an addiction services fund.
“We’re estimating between $65 million and $80 million in annual tax revenue, so that certainly helps the argument,” Ford tells PlayIndiana. “Also, our casinos are still at 50 percent capacity with no food and beverage. We should want to do this bill to help the casino industry that has been down quite a bit this year.”
But the legislation died.
“We’re very disappointed that the bill did not move in the 2021 legislative session,” says Matt Bell, president and CEO of the Casino Association of Indiana. “Now that companies are launching online in Michigan, we really would have benefited from iGaming as a way to reintroduce our properties and bring in new patrons.”
Despite the setback, Bell has high hopes for 2022.
“I still think there’s interest in legalizing iGaming in the legislature,” Bell says. “I think it’s a matter of timing, not policy. We will continue to educate lawmakers and make a great case for iGaming in 2022.”
Will the same fate await Illinois?
Introduced last month, HB 3142, if passed, would create the Internet Gaming Act, which would permit iGaming through Illinois casinos and racetracks, according to CDC Gaming Reports. The bill also contains provisions for age verification, location of wagering, responsible gaming, and other key stipulations. Additionally, the bill would require a 12 percent privilege tax to be paid into the state gaming fund.
An initial license would be $500,000 with a $250,000 renewal fee, along with less costly fees for management service providers, suppliers and other licensees. The bill has been referred to the Rules Committee, its fate unknown.
Not even the gaming capital of the universe offers iGaming.
“Key stakeholders don’t see a benefit in authorizing online casino,” Grove says. Indeed, the late Sheldon Adelson tried his best to stymie such moves elsewhere.
“iGaming has always had a handful of opponents in Nevada as they continue to believe that iGaming competes instead of complements brick-and-mortar gaming,” Bussmann says. “If done properly, it can boost overall revenue to an operation. Until these operators are open to these opportunities, Nevada will continue to be surpassed by other states in terms of game offerings and regulation.”