Plastic Fantastic

King Cash is dying, but how will gaming respond?

Consumers today prefer to pay with credit, debit or online transactions. Whether it’s the local convenience store, where plastic buys a cup of coffee, or online where you pay for your eBay purchase with PayPal, cash is fading away more rapidly than we can imagine. Some studies (reported by credit agencies, granted) say consumers prefer by more than 80 percent to pay for purchases with some alternative payment method.

So, where does that leave casinos, which are hobbled by requirements that players use cash to play slot machines or buy in at table games, even if they are granted credit by the casino?

The answer could be a system that has recently concluded a successful beta test at Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut and is now in full operation across the slot floor. Sightline Payments has designed the Play+ platform to allow players to deposit money into an account and play that money from their casino player’s club card. Money can either be transferred from a credit or debit card, ACH from their checking account or deposited at the casino cage.

Sightline created a unique partnership with Vantiv Gaming Solutions, Scientific Games and Mohegan Sun to roll out Play+. Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority President and CEO Bobby Soper says Play+ has been well-received.

“It’s a technology that allows us to provide a service to our guests, especially those guests that like to play high-denomination games, and don’t want to keep putting in $20 and $100 bills,” says Soper. “They can pre-load their card, don’t have to withdraw cash, and don’t have to deal with tickets. It’s cleaner. It’s certainly quicker and more efficient. And based on the beta test, they do like it.”

Kirk Sanford, the founder and CEO of Sightline, explains the genesis behind Play+:

“Various forms of account-based wagering have been talked about or attempted for a number of years,” he says, “without much success, for a number of reasons, whether that was regulatory or technology limitations, poor product design, or responsible gaming issues. And the gaming industry is one of the last remaining industries to still have an inefficient and expensive cash-based ecosystem.

“Today, there is literally more than a trillion dollars of green paper activity across the worldwide gaming industry. And it’s become our mission here at Sightline to convert that green paper into electrons. If you take a look at the broader retail economy, today, less than 14 percent of all purchases are made with cash. Conversely, by sad comparison, in the gaming industry, 95 percent of gaming activity is done with cash.”

Sanford says Sightline started from scratch more than three years ago, assembling a team of payment specialists, banks and technology experts to create a solution to a complex problem, given the technology and regulatory constraints. But in the end, the system is rather simple, which, for user acceptance and casino deployment, is critical.

The player signs up for the casino’s loyalty club or adds some information if they are already signed up. This takes place online, on a mobile app, or in person at the casino. It’s a process that takes less than a minute and links the Play+ account to the existing casino loyalty card account.

The second step is to load money into the Play+ account, either from a cash deposit at the cage or through a mobile phone or PC transfer of money from a credit or debit card or bank ACH. Step three begins when the player sits down at a machine and inserts the loyalty card as usual. A message pops up asking them if they want to access their Play+ account. They can then move funds in and out of a game in an instant.

But there’s one more step that is a final benefit for the player, says Sanford.

“So the customer doesn’t feel that the money is stranded only for gaming purposes, the customer will receive a casino-branded Discover card in the mail seven to 10 days later, which will allow the consumer to access the Play+ account at millions of merchants and ATMs worldwide,” he says.

“Account-based wagering has failed in all its previous iterations because it blocked consumers from using their own funds as and when they choose. This is the fundamental problem which has now been solved. Consumer freedom and flexibility to their own monies outside of the casino was the critical missing link.” In addition, he says, patron funds are always held at an FDIC-insured bank, providing safety and comfort.

Sightline clients get information about those purchases, giving them valuable data on the behavior of their customers. Clients also get a financial benefit from those transactions.

Mohegan Sun General Manager Ray Pineault says it wasn’t a hard sell for Sightline.

“After we met with the Play+ guys and really talked about what this technology was going to provide us, just the ease and convenience for the guest, we were sold,” he says. “Guests don’t have to carry money around with them, and worry about losing money, and how they account for their money. They are able to sit at a machine and bring in their budgeted amount, download it right at the machine, not have to worry about going to ATMs, not have to worry about keeping receipts. And then they can backload it back onto their card and then go spend it wherever they want—anywhere that Discover card is accepted. The convenience and creating that experience for the guest, we thought, was a fantastic opportunity.”

For financial services, Sightline has set up a partnership with Vantiv. Joe Pappano, senior vice president and general manager of Vantiv Gaming Solutions, says his company plays an important role in Play+.

“Vantiv includes the value-add service that provides financial services in a seamless, safe environment to the customers,” he says. “When someone wants to move money in and out of the Mohegan Play+ account to conduct a cashless transaction, we are the engine that allows the utilization of a debit and/or credit card. We allow the funding to occur.”

Gaming Breakthrough

Geoff Freeman, the president and CEO of the American Gaming Association, believes the Sightline system has tremendous implications for the gaming industry.

“This kind of technology will allow us to tap into what the next generation of consumers is looking for, and that is alternative forms of payments and conducting business,” he says. “It’s critical for our industry as we aspire to bring in new customers and keep existing customers. What I’m excited about is that Sightline and other players active in this space are giving customers the ability to enjoy our product in the way that they want to enjoy it.”

Freeman says the industry has to look ahead if it wants to grow.

“The gaming industry today is swimming against the current,” he admits. “That can’t possibly be good for traffic, new customers and maintaining the customers we already have.”

Some believe this new system is the most significant change in payment processing since the introduction of ticket-in, ticket-out (TITO) technology in the late 1990s. But where TITO took several years to truly take hold, Sanford believes Play+ will catch on more quickly.

“I think you have to ask yourself this question,” he says. “If you fundamentally believe that less cash and utility of mobile phones will be a continuing trend with consumers, then I think you have to believe Play+ is going to play a significant role in shaping the future of cashless gaming. We think it’s not ‘if’ but a ‘when’ we’ll gain the success like TITO did. It took TITO five to seven years from its initial inception to become the industry standard. Much like TITO, which had initial failed iterations, so did cashless, and Play+ changes that paradigm.”

He believes, however, that Play+ won’t necessarily replace TITO.

“I think it is also important to understand that in some ways, we are complementary with TITO,” he explains. “Patrons may still choose to use TITO when moving from machine to machine, but for beginning their play and ending their play, which is where most utility for Play+ will be driven, those are the points where cash has historically played its role. Early indications make me optimistic that we can follow a similar trajectory as TITO, but time will tell.”

Soper says the acceptance rate initially is encouraging.

“Certainly there’s always an education process, like there is with any type of new currency methodology,” he says. “But based on the early feedback we received just in our rollout, it seems to be easily understood. It doesn’t require a lot of education. And from our perspective, because everybody’s used to debit cards and using ATM machines and engaging in transactions without paper checks and currency, I think it’s going to be easily adaptable.”

Derik Mooberry is CEO of Scientific Games’ gaming division, which partnered with Sightline to develop Play+ and integrate it with the Bally systems. He believes Play+ is complementary to TITO.

“We don’t anticipate cashless replacing TITO for years to come,” he says. “It’s similar to the Starbucks payment model. Some patrons will still want to use cash, others will embrace this program. It’s important to give your patrons every option available, and this is just one.

“I view Play+ as evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. It will take some time to gain acceptance among players and operators.”

Technology Challenges

To match up with Play+, a casino must have an updated casino management system (CMS) that can send messages to the service modules on the face of the slot machines. Sightline initially partnered with Scientific Games, which uses its Bally CMS to communicate with slot machines of all brands. Sightline is now working with slot manufacturers who run different systems to integrate Play+ with those systems.

If the operator is running some of the more current systems, Sanford says the cost for Play+ is generally rather nominal.

“In the case where a casino does not have the systems version required, it will result in additional cost to upgrade, which can vary significantly,” he says. “And that is usually, to us, the single biggest resistance factor from operators. But, at the end of the day, we think it’s a game-changing product. It resonates well with forward-thinking operators like Mohegan Sun and others, who see where the consumer trends are going, and have chosen to lead instead of follow. And as we build more compelling results, the ROI we think will clearly justify the expense.”

Mooberry says the technical challenges were overcome by a good working relationship between the two companies.

“There was some software development required so that Play+ integrates with our casino management system,” he says.

The advantages of Play+ to the casino are many fold, Mooberry says.

“First, it will reduce costs, allowing the casino to spend less time and money deploying, collecting, reconciling and transporting cash,” he explains. “And by storing and reading data from a loyalty card, casinos can reduce the cost of printers, consumables and labor.

“It also makes it easier to bring money to the player by enabling electronic funding from anywhere: online, mobile phones or at the game.

“Play+ also allows casinos to collect more data to see how your customers spend on and off property, and provides a single view of the player. It tracks both gaming and non-gaming activity, enabling casinos to better understand customer spending, measure engagement, pinpoint markets, tailor coupons, incentivize behavior, reward loyalty and strengthen retention.”

Pineault says there was one overriding factor for Mohegan Sun.

“No. 1 from us was as a guest service driver,” he says. “We’re all about what’s best for the guest, what’s most important for the guest, what creates a fun, convenient experience for the guest. And this is it. Obviously, no more filling out papers, no more carrying stock. Hopefully you get to that point where it gets adopted by all your guests and you have to carry less paper.

“Yes, there’s savings for us, but most important is the guest experience, and how we create that. Interaction with our team members is much simpler now, because rather than having to get these paper tickets, now they can have it downloaded right onto their card, and accounting for it at the end of the year, when they want to do their tax returns, is going to be much easier because it’s accounted for just like any other card.”

Pappano says technical hurdles were only part of the complexity of the process.

“With Vantiv being a financial services company and Sightline being a gaming company, you had two highly complex, highly regulated industries coming together,” he explains. “So educating the gaming regulators, the various legislators, the credit card networks and everyone in this ecosystem was a key part of this process. Getting everyone to understand the MCC designation, the flow of funds, what compliance is required, what customer protection is necessary… This was crucial. But we were able to create the education and the awareness that drove the change to gaming regulations that was necessary in this environment.”

Sightline will soon roll out a Play+ table-game application that allows a player to use a tablet-like device to access their account. The dealer then issues chips from the rack. At the conclusion of play, the player will “cash out” right at the table, loading the value of his remaining chips back into his account via the tablet. This move should also save the casino time and money as chip fills at the table will become less frequent as more players use Play+.

Responsible Operations

Most jurisdictions will not allow credit or debit cards to be used in slot machines or gaming tables because the threat to a problem gambler would be too great. Freeman believes, however, that the industry needs to keep pace with payment solutions while at the same time protecting the vulnerable.

“We can’t do a ‘one size fits all’ kind of solution,” he insists. “Remember the vast majority of people can enjoy our products in a responsible manner. For those who are able to do that, it seems unlikely that a speedier transaction would cause them to become problem gamblers.

“But for those who are vulnerable or have addiction disorders, you can understand how this might become another component of that problem. Perhaps the model today is something akin to what you see at the airport at the security checkpoints. Those who fly frequently are ushered through much more quickly than infrequent travelers. So maybe we allow those who do not have gambling disorders to access their payments more quickly.”

From systemically imposed funding limits, to maximum account balances, and most importantly, automated funding delays, an electronic payment ecosystem like Play+ allows for great flexibility around responsibility. Sightline worked and continues to work with national and regional responsible gaming groups as well as gaming regulatory bodies to make sure the integrity of the player and the gaming operator is protected. 

Pappano says his company has many reasons to ensure that Play+ is used responsibly.

“At Vantiv, we have always been focused on ensuring the integrity of the transaction,” he says. “We process over 23 billion transactions each year and have a responsibility to make certain that every transaction complies with state and federal regulations as well as card network mandates. With gaming transactions, this means we work closely with clients to secure the very best technologies available for identity management including know your customer, geolocation and age verification as well as anti-money laundering.”

For a variety of reasons, Sanford says the use of credit cards at slot machines or gaming tables is unlikely to occur. That’s why he’s so confident that Play+ will become a universal solution, with the right education of the players and casino employees.

“One of the great benefits of having Mohegan as a partner is they’re an extremely disciplined organization, and focused on making sure that their customers are having a great experience,” he says. “So training employees across the enterprise was critical, and something that our team at Sightline worked very closely with the Mohegan team to accomplish, over a number of months.”

The results of the Mohegan launch of Play+ have been encouraging, says Sanford.

“Play+ is proving to be a product that casino customers want, so casinos that have it are at a distinct competitive advantage over casinos that don’t,” he says. “It also allows them to really engage with their customers through their mobile phone, which is something that consumers already do for many things in their daily life. For example, at Mohegan, 84 percent of the funding is being done through the patron’s mobile phone.”

Pineault believes that the partnership has been fruitful.

“We’ve worked very closely with the Sightline team for a significant period of time,” he says. “They’ve been very patient with us from regulatory issues, from the consumer protection issues, from the guest interactions, from a team member understanding to make sure we rolled it out right. We didn’t want to roll out something that was going to inconvenience, confuse or upset the guest. So they wanted to make sure that we rolled it out in a manner that was easy and comfortable for everybody. They did some programming to make sure that it works properly, that we weren’t having issues. So, as a team, it’s been a great partnership.”

For Soper, it’s the data that Play+ will gather that is so enticing.

“One of the benefits of this technology is that it’s not only on-site, where we’re able to track and manage data relative to the behaviors of our guests, but off-site as well,” he says. “We’ll learn a lot from their behavior off-site, and we benefit in that we receive monetary remuneration from transactions that occur on that debit card off-site, not only on-site. So, there’s both a direct monetary benefit, and perhaps even more importantly, a benefit in obtaining data that we’re going to be able to use to serve our guests even better.

“If we’re effective in managing and using that data, then certainly there’s an opportunity to tailor offers, provide services and benefits to those players, based on their behaviors. And that’s certainly our goal, when leveraging this technology.”

Roger Gros
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.