November 15, 2021 Legal, Online, Land Based

Will The Digital World Still Need Bricks-And-Mortar Casinos?

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Following his recent induction into the American Gaming Association’s Hall of Fame, Jeffrey Silver, Of Counsel with Dickinson Wright and regular Gaming America contributor, asks an all-important question for US gaming firms.

My stepson just graduated from college and (thankfully) found a job, which meant that his mom then handed him the invoice for his upcoming insurance renewal with the family’s insurance carrier. It was at that point the shining light of “independence” was illuminated, because $1,800 for a six-month renewal was no small sum for a person starting out and just barely making over minimum wage. Undeterred, he immediately went online for a solution and found a relatively new, internet-based insurance company with a new concept. The carrier monitors your driving habits for 30 days through an app on your phone. The app records your speed and compares it with the posted limit. It looks for the abrupt application of the brakes and makes sure you’re not texting while the vehicle is in motion. If it determines you’re a “safe driver,” it will provide coverage for a fraction of the cost charged by a “conventional company.”

Instead of having office locations in virtually every city and 56,000 employees nationwide, the internet-based carrier has no bricks-and-mortar locations and a total of 800 employees, most of whom are engaged in processing online sign-ups and answering text messages. It may take a little longer to respond to a claim, unless it was accompanied by a compelling Tik-Tok video; but hey, this is bare-bones coverage to satisfy state law and it does offer towing as part of its package!

This comfort and confidence that the digital world offers for solutions to every want or need got me thinking about the future of bricks-and-mortar casino operations; especially all of the locations that don’t necessarily offer the “resort experience.”

A recent drive across country had me passing by casinos in New Mexico and Oklahoma that were barely more than a tent or a pre-fab building. Would these locations continue to have the same level of visitation as the younger generation becomes more connected with “being connected?”

The most recent RFP processes in other states and international locations all require a substantial investment in bricks-and-mortar. Some refer to it as the “resort experience” or “integrated resort.” In adopting their legislation, political leaders recognize that if land-based offerings are to have any “staying power,” they must rely upon an abundance of amenities and/or events.

The main aspect of land-based properties that cannot be simulated is the personal interaction and camaraderie at nightclubs and the day club social pools that go by names like “Stadium Swim,” “Mandalay Beach,” “Garden of the Gods," and "Elia Beach Club.” What fun! That cellphone can order a gourmet meal delivered to your door, but it will likely be lukewarm and far from the glamorous ambiance and scintillating aromas found in a restaurant setting. This counter-marketing strategy is evident in Las Vegas with its emphasis on “being there,” with the action of major events, sumptuous dining and exquisite suites… Oh, yes, and both live-action sportsbooks and traditional gaming.

One need look no farther than the newest offerings, Resorts World on the Las Vegas Strip with its restaurants  and attractions, and the Circa hotel in Downtown Las Vegas; which has elaborate pools and a full-sized stadium sportsbook  that is the envy of the industry.

One weekend this summer in Las Vegas, there were over 125,000 visitors as onsite spectators for four separate sporting activities all in sold-out venues (the Las Vegas Raiders NFL team at Allegiant Stadium, a NASCAR race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the Las Vegas Golden Knights hockey team at the T-Mobile Arena and the Las Vegas Aviators AAA Baseball team).

Add to that the standard-yet-spectacular amenities, and Las Vegas definitely appeared to be open for business following a year of emptiness and lockdowns. Given the other plentiful diversions, it is unsurprising that online sports wagering in Nevada has a much smaller share of the State’s total gaming revenue compared with other jurisdictions.

According to the UNLV Center for Gaming Research, as of 2020, there were 192 sportsbooks in Nevada with a few more added since that survey was published. The total number of land-based sportsbooks nationwide is approximately 300, so you can see Nevada is the place where in-person wagering is still dominant.

Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, Delaware, North Carolina, Arkansas and New York only allow in-person wagers and do not permit any online wagering. Perhaps this is due to a more “protectionist” view towards the bricks-and-mortar industry, but it certainly puts all of the regulatory accountability in one basket.

However, the UNLV report said that the total revenue earned from all Nevada sportsbooks in 2020 was only approximately $7m ($12m in 2019), whereas, according to legalsportsbetting.com, since 2018 the revenue derived from mostly online sports wagering nationwide totaled over $3.3bn, with New Jersey and Pennsylvania leading the way. Online sports betting revenue nationwide appears to be strong and growing with analysts seeing it as a $40bn market.

It used to be “location, location, location” but this old real estate adage has been replaced by “cash flow, cash flow, cash flow!” This is reflected in the investments in online wagering made by the dominant land-based gaming companies which do not intend to leave this sector to others. In April 2021, Caesars Entertainment completed its $3.7bn purchase of the British bookmaker William Hill, which already had a large share of the US online betting market. MGM Resorts International has disposed of its real estate holdings in favor of a cash flow model in virtually all of its land-based casinos.

The excess cash generated by these property sales appears headed toward an Integrated Resort (IR) in Osaka, Japan, where future projections of cash flow are expected to rival Macau. Not to be outdone, Caesars Entertainment just announced a partnership with a Toronto-based investment company to operate an IR resort in Yokohama, Japan.

MGM Resorts, which recently acquired the remaining 50% in the Aria Resort from Dubai World, continued its focus on cash flow rather than property appreciation, by entering into a contract to acquire the Cosmopolitan Casino in Las Vegas. Thereafter, eschewing real estate portion, it will operate both facilities and sell the Aria property to the Blackstone Group and the Cosmopolitan property to the Cherng Family Trust. I had a chuckle to see how things have come full circle when this was announced, because the Trust, formed by Andrew and Peggy Cherng, are the founders of the fast-food chain, Panda Express. Years ago, when I was President of the Riviera Hotel, I put the first fast-food restaurant, a Burger King, into a casino, much to the disbelief of the other operators!

BetMGM, a partnership between MGM Resorts and industry giant Entain Holdings, has become the exclusive betting division of MGM, for both online and in their land-based locations. Its operations are already approved in at least 11 other jurisdictions; and the company has entered into alliances with major sports leagues such as the NBA and WNBA, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, National Hockey League, as well as individual teams, restaurant chains and publishing companies.

Also riding the wave to sell cashflow expectancies is Scientific Games which just announced that its online sports betting entity, Open Bet, would be sold to the Endeavor Group, the owner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

DraftKings, another giant player in the online sector, whose land-based presence has been to operate sportsbooks within existing bricks-and-mortar casinos or stand-alone sportsbooks where permitted, recently offered an astounding $22.4bn to purchase Entain Holdings (although this was laster withdrawn). Earlier this year, MGM Resorts made an $11bn offer to purchase the Entain subsidiaries and thereby gain full control of BetMGM, but that offer was rejected. It is unclear whether MGM Resorts will jump back into this bidding war, but it are said to have a veto power over control of BetMGM.

Not to be outdone, FanDuel, the DraftKings rival in fantasy sports, has recently announced it will offer sports wagering in the state of Washington.

Another question in the evolution of online sports wagering is whether cryptocurrencies will become permitted legal tender. There are already discussions leaning in that direction; but given the volatility in value, a future bet, sometimes for an outcome occurring the next day, would also involve currency speculation if the winnings would be paid out in Bitcoin units that were worth substantially more… Or less. (At this time of writing, China had just declared all cryptocurrencies to be illegal causing Bitcoin and Ether to tumble). Nevada Gaming Regulators do not permit wagering with any currency that is not US legal tender.

Although sports wagering is the hot topic for today, it does not encompass the entire sustained popularity in traditional gaming. In-person wagering on video lottery terminals (VLTs), which are referred to as slot machines in Nevada, are still wildly popular across the country, whether they be located in bars or casinos with full amenities. While as a Nevadan, I would view them as an accompaniment to something else (whether it is to pass time before a meal, a show or just to hang out with friends) there are some who are mesmerized by the sounds and flashing lights of these devices and can be engaged for hours. While this may be a separate discussion about problem gambling left for another day, the question is whether staring at a tiny, hand-held mobile device would carry the same cache, loyalty and attention. I have always said there are so many more elements to the gaming experience, that I find it difficult to imagine the current generation of smartphones could hold anyone’s interest for more than a few minutes, let alone hours. That is not to say something more interesting in terms of inventive software isn’t on the horizon.

With that said, here are my personal predictions for 2022:

  1. With pent-up demand for fun and entertainment, together with the relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions and the availability of new treatment regiments, the bricks-and-mortar casino industry overall will have its best year in history.
  2. Contrarily, given the continuing travel restrictions on international visitors and the controversy over renewal of licenses in Macau, the international casino industry may not see the same kind of strong recovery.
  3. There will be a continuing interest in sports wagering, but as US inflation rises and worries regarding disposable personal income grows, not every competitor in the space will be successful. I would also note that inflation and supply line problems are becoming a real issue in the US (recently, one of the largest “dollar store” chains, Dollar Tree, announced its merchandise, which traditionally sold for $1, could be increased to as much as $1.50!)
  4. Low interest rates will continue to fuel the consolidation of gaming assets, as valuations also continue to escalate; however, there will be a realization later in the year that higher taxes and less spendable income will pare back that enthusiasm.
  5. Las Vegas, with its sporting and entertainment event marketing, together with the return of major conventions, will lead all US markets in the gaming recovery.

Of course, all of this is predicated upon gaining control over Covid, the People's Republic of China reining in its fiscal woes, and the continuing support of the gaming industry by political leaders, wherever they are serving. With that hope, I am wishing everyone a safe and prosperous 2022.

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