More than two years removed from the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. gambling industry is setting records. Retail casino, online gambling and sports betting all continue to grow, even as larger economic factors impact other industries.
Bill Miller, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association, spoke about the state of the industry during his keynote address to the 25th East Coast Gaming Congress & NextGen Forum in Atlantic City. Following his speech at ECGC, the chief executive of the commercial gaming industry’s largest trade group sat down with PlayCA. He discussed what’s next in gaming, how the industry has changed because of COVID and what’s going on with California sports betting.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following transcript has been edited for clarity and context.
The state of the gambling industry
PlayCA: What are your thoughts on the current state of U.S. gaming right now?
Bill Miller: I’m pretty bullish on it. Commercial gaming — and I have every belief for tribal gaming as well — we’re looking at record revenue increase all the way through July. We (know) there’s a lot of macroeconomic headwinds. But (year-to-date through) July was pacing 15% ahead of (YTD through July) 2021 and $34 billion in revenue. I think the industry continues to benefit from consumer demand for travel and entertainment. And also the ongoing return of business and international travel and then some conferences and conventions, too. So there’s a lot to feel good about.
PlayCA: What are your expectations for the industry going forward? Can the industry continue to experience the current level of growth? Or will there be a leveling off?
Bill Miller: It’s very difficult to forecast in the immediate aftermath of what we just went through with the pandemic, right? I do think that there is probably some continued overexuberance that is the result of people being locked in their homes for a year and a half, almost two years. So, I do think that there will be a leveling off in some regard. But I also think that the industry’s demographics have gotten younger.
If you think about the people that were most negatively impacted during the pandemic, it was older people and people with health issues. Now, certainly, the older cohort has been a mainstay for the industry for years. So that cohort is coming back. That’s additive to us, as an industry, embracing the digital options for younger audiences and the ability for us to capture those younger audiences. And the evidence shows that they’re staying in the gaming space.
Can sports betting help the gambling experience?
PlayCA: Where does the gaming industry have opportunities for growth?
Bill Miller: Well, I think it’s pretty remarkable that, in the sports betting sector, we’ve gone from no states other than Nevada in May of 2018 to 37 states plus (Washington) D.C. legal. We did survey research showing that about 47 million Americans will bet on the NFL this year, legally. Our view is that this is a really important segment. And, I think that during the pandemic, operators, specifically the brick-and-mortar operators, understood that they needed to enhance their digital offerings in order to stay afloat when all 989 (U.S.) casinos were closed.
So there has been, in my opinion, an important evolution in thinking about online and digital as it relates to whether it was a threat or whether it was additive. I think that the consensus view among the industry leaders is that it’s additive. (Casino operators) may physically only get an individual to come visit (their) property, whether it be regional or Las Vegas, five times a year or 10 times a year. But you can stay in touch with them as a customer in a digital dynamic 365 days a year. And it’s not all just for gaming.
It’s a better understanding of the customer (and) what foods they like, or what bands they like, what sports they enjoy, or what types of amenities they enjoy on property, and creating a dialogue that’s an omnichannel experience. That was really pushed to the fore during COVID and I think it’s been a great benefit as we’ve come out of it as well.
Lingering operational issues at casinos
PlayCA: Are the operational efficiencies currently seen at brick-and-mortar casinos a new normal in the industry? Or are they just a temporary byproduct of coming out of COVID?
Bill Miller: It’s a hard question. But I’ll attempt to answer it from the perspective (that) we all went through this very difficult situation, on both sides, from the business operation side as well as the employee side. And what I see as much as anything among the operators that I have the opportunity to work with is supply chain and labor shortage are the most challenging dynamics among many, many different dynamics that exist in the economy today. The lack of workforce is probably the single largest contributor to a lack of offerings. If you can’t get enough restaurant workers to staff seven restaurants, you might only open five.
I think that that dynamic still exists today. And the challenge of supply chain in terms of replacing appliances or furniture fixtures, all that stuff has gotten better. But it’s still a challenge. So I don’t know that the new normal is a less amenity-oriented experience. I just think there are still challenges to bringing back those amenities, primarily due to lack of available labor.
The challenge of legalizing sports betting in California
PlayCA: California and Florida are having difficulty finding a way to offer their residents legal and regulated sports wagering. Why are there so many challenges in those states? What is the path toward an amicable solution?
Bill Miller: Both Florida and California have unique circumstances. Florida is really more for the courts to sort out. California, (they have) this ballot initiative, (Propositions 26 and 27). California has been home to many, many expensive statewide ballot initiatives. None as expensive as this one. So, I think if the conventional wisdom holds here, that both of them or that neither of them passes, then it will be up to the collective parties to regroup and, hopefully, go up to Sacramento (with a clean) slate and posture to figure out what can work for all of the different stakeholders.
It’s been a very costly endeavor, certainly for the tribes as well as the commercial operators. I think that if you ask every one of them they all say that we all believe that we’re going to lose. So that’s a very expensive and mostly unproductive utilization of capital. My hope is that after we get past the elections that there’ll be conversations had that might be able to solve this issue.
What path to legalization is best?
PlayCA: California has tried to implement legal sports betting through both the legislative process and, now, through ballot referendum. Is one way better than the other?
Bill Miller: I don’t know. I’ve been in government or lobbied government most of my life. At the end of the day, you can make the argument that (introducing legal, regulated sports betting) is something that the people should decide. Or you could also make the argument that these are the tough decisions that we hire, through our votes, legislators to wrestle with and come up with solutions. Different states handle these issues differently. California is somewhat unique (when it comes to) why all these big issues always get punted to the voters. I think it had to do with the railroads (having) too much power in Sacramento. They said, “You know what? We’re not going to let the railroads determine big picture policy for the state and so we’re going to put these big issues before the voters.”
So you end up having (these expensive referendum battles). But nothing like (California Prop 26 and Prop 27). But I don’t think it is an indictment of the system. It’s just that you have to get the stakeholders to find common ground. We have a lot of that in Washington, too, right? The inability to find common ground. So it’s certainly not unique to California.