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Picture Perfect

What's the answer to longevity and stability?

When I was working at my previous gaming magazine, I worked with my then-wife Barbara Errickson. She was a photographer, and did an exemplary job documenting the early days of the Atlantic City casino industry. But because we had two sons and scarce revenue, I was still working as a dealer, while I was writing for the magazine in my spare time.

My last stop in the casino industry was as a dealer at Showboat. I had quit the Golden Nugget after it was sold by Steve Wynn, and followed one of my pit bosses who had been named a shift boss. He promised me that after a month or so, I’d be elevated to the lofty position of a supervisor. But after three months with no promotion and a very dysfunctional management, I had had enough. I quit and threw my fate to the wind, and to my ability to write.

It worked out OK for me, but when Barbara passed away in March, she left me a box with some pictures she had taken that related to my career. One box included a set of photos from the opening of Showboat (entertainer Bob Hope was the special guest at the ribbon cutting). While there was a great picture of me sitting with two other colleagues at a dead baccarat game, it was pictures of the casino floor that captured my imagination. The table games and slot aisles were jammed with people, three deep in some instances. It made me remember the excitement of a new Atlantic City casino and the enthusiasm of players for a new joint.

Now, let’s not forget that the Showboat opened in 1987, a full eight years after the first casino debuted in Atlantic City. The mystique of casino gaming was long gone, but there was still so much demand that the Showboat thrived for the first few years, like every other casino in Atlantic City.

Last month, the first casino opened in Massachusetts—Plainridge Park Casino, owned by Penn National (football player Doug Flutie was the special guest and restaurant owner). While I didn’t attend the grand opening, the company provided pictures that included some that were eerily reminiscent of the Showboat photos. The slot aisles (there are no tables at Plainridge) were jammed, and according to all reports, the excitement level was equal to that day back in 1984.

So, when you consider that the Showboat lasted 30 years until it closed last year during the worst summer Atlantic City has experienced since the 1930s, I got to wonder how long Plainridge Park would hang around. Yes, the casino is the first in Massachusetts, and while we know the first casino in any jurisdiction has an edge, it’s a different gaming world in 2015.

Plainridge is just the latest entry into an already crowded New England market. What will happen when MGM Springfield opens in two or three years, possible Wynn Boston in three or four years, or a commercial/tribal casino in the southeastern region of the state? And if New Hampshire OKs a casino? If Connecticut opens yet another tribal casino?

Yes, there is no guarantee these days. Plainridge is gaming plain and simple—horse racing and slots. It’s not a very innovative model, and when full integrated resorts open in Massachu-setts—not to mention the behemoths of Connecticut, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun—what market share is left?

I look at the faces of the photos from Showboat and Plainridge. They’re smiling, full of hope, full of anticipation. But that hope and anticipation moves on to the next new property or the next new jurisdiction unless you’re willing to make the investment that will create brand loyalty and reasons to return.

But you can’t blame Penn National for limiting its investment. All the things I mentioned previously have convinced the company that it’s more than risky to overbuild.

So what’s the answer to longevity and stability?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t rest with the gaming industry. It depends upon the sagacity of politicians in a certain jurisdiction. And I would never build a business that depended upon politicians because (a) politicians don’t really care about anything but their own careers, and, (b) politicians change and political realities change all the time.

So while the “picture” of the future for Plainridge Park isn’t pretty, it could be successful with some intelligent strategy by politicians in Massachusetts. (But did I just use “intelligent” in the same sentence as “politicians?” Sorry for the non-sequitur.)

Roger Gros is publisher of Global Gaming Business, the industry's leading gaming trade publication, and all its related publications. Prior to joining Global Gaming Business, Gros was president of Inlet Communications, an independent consulting firm. He was vice president of Casino Journal Publishing Group from 1984-2000, and held virtually every editorial title during his tenure. Gros was editor of Casino Journal, the National Gaming Summary and the Atlantic City Insider, and was the founding editor of Casino Player magazine. He was a co-founder of the American Gaming Summit and the Southern Gaming Summit conferences and trade shows. He is the author of the best-selling book, How to Win at Casino Gambling (Carlton Books, 1995), now in its fourth edition. Gros was named "Businessman of the Year" for 1998 by the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Gaming Association in 2012.

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