The coronavirus pandemic may have been detrimental to some businesses, but that’s certainly not the case with the tribal casino industry. California tribal casinos and across the United States enjoyed record revenue in 2021.
It remains to be seen how California sports betting will impact revenue at the state’s tribal casinos moving forward. Voters could decide to allow both in-person betting at casinos and mobile sports betting across the state, reject one or the other, or vote down both ballot initiatives in November.
Figures published by the National Indian Gaming Commission last week indicate revenue increases at more than 500 casinos run by Native Americans, particularly in Sacramento, northern Nevada and Oklahoma.
Across the nation, tribal casinos and other venues reported record gross gaming revenue (GGR) of $39 billion for fiscal year 2021. That’s a 40% increase over the $27.8 billion collected in FY 2020, a period hard hit by COVID-19.
Surprisingly, 2021 was 12% higher than FY 2019, which had set the all-time revenue record at $34.8 billion.
‘A resilient industry’
Indian gaming commission Chairman E. Sequoyah Simermeyer highlighted the rebound in a video statement Wednesday announcing the results.
“I’d like to state that, in general, Indian gaming is doing very well. You have rebounded from the industry-wide challenges faced during the pandemic. If fiscal year 2021 has shown anything, it has demonstrated that Indian gaming is a resilient industry.”
Simermeyer also noted that while the industry may have weathered the storm, COVID-19 still had an impact. A record number of casinos shut down.
In spring 2020 when COVID-19 set in, tribal casinos throughout the country shuttered their gaming facilities to keep their communities and customers safe. As a result, gross gaming revenues fell to historic lows, declining by 20%.
Yet, swift operational measures taken by the tribes to address issues of health, safety and other challenges saw them back in the game in no time. Some, however, have only recently been able to fully resume operations.
NIGC Vice Chair Jeannie Hovland spoke about the challenges tribal casinos had to overcome in 2020-21.
“When taken together, these challenges, negotiating a clear path to achieving and maintaining revenue growth, may seem daunting. But it’s clear: Tribes know what is best for their community.”
Regions with the highest gains
Data show that Sacramento proved to be the most lucrative territory. All in all, California and Northern Nevada tribal venues brought in $11.9 billion in revenues. That’s nearly a third of the overall $39 billion reported by tribes.
California’s capital is a hotspot of sorts for gambling, with several Northern California casinos all within easy driving distance of Sacramento. A new one, Sky River Casino, recently surprised patrons by opening earlier than expected after a major expansion.
Other large percentage gains happened in Oklahoma. The Oklahoma City region enjoyed an increase of 49.9%, while the Tulsa region grew by 46.9%.
The Washington D.C. region, which includes all tribal gaming facilities in Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York and North Carolina, reported a total GGR of $8.1 billion.
Surprisingly, large gains also came from the Rapid City region, home to 41 tribal casinos in the states of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. GGR there rose by 56%.
Some regions still lagging behind
While the general trend was upwards for most regions last year, a few didn’t quite recover to pre-pandemic levels. For instance, Phoenix and St. Paul both reported numbers below those recorded in fiscal year 2019.
Casinos in the St. Paul region, which includes Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin, generated $4.8 billion last year. That amounts to a 2.7% drop, about $135 million down from its 2019 total.
Having achieved a GGR of $3.2 billion for 2021, the Phoenix region, which incorporates Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Southern Nevada, reported similar losses, nearly $58 million less than its 2019 count.
Analyzing the data more closely reveals that 43 casinos accounted for most of the GGR generated in 2021. These 43 operators represent 8.4% of all tribal casinos and they each generated revenues of at least $250 million for the fiscal year. By contrast, 55% reported a GGR of less than $25 million.
In short, the top 8% represented 52% of all tribal GGR last year – more than $20.4 billion of it. The bottom half produced just 6%. Hovland pointed out that revenue was uneven across the industry.
“Tribes engage in gaming for a variety of reasons and have different ways to define an operation’s success. Not all gaming operations saw as great a rebound in revenues. Location, regional dynamics around competition and other regional economic characteristics – like workforce and tourism opportunities – can all shape operators’ individual strategies and the pace of recovery.”
During FY 2020, just 4% of operators reported revenues of $250 million or more, while 64% collected GGR totals of less than $25 million,
According to the NIGC, the 2021 fiscal year figures were documented from 510 audited financial statements representing 243 tribes.