Cashless gaming and digital payments are moving into the casino world

At the 2018 Global Gaming Expo, Everi Holdings had a hidden back room at the company’s trade show space with displays of prototype products for cashless gaming and digital payment systems.

Most of the major manufacturers conceal from the competition their games not ready for casino floors. Cashless technology falls into that category; a visitor needed an invitation from an Everi representative to enter.

The secret room wasn’t unusual. Most of the major manufacturers hide their newest products not ready for casino floors from the competition during the industry’s largest annual gathering.

Cashless technology was one of those products and a visitor needed an invite from an Everi representative to view the technology.

“We showed them this is what it looks like, and this is how we view the experience,” Everi Executive Vice President Darren Simmons said in a recent interview at the gaming equipment and financial technology provider’s Las Vegas headquarters. “Our customers were curious.”

The concepts displayed in secret three years ago will be front and center when the week-long G2E opens on Oct. 4 at the Sands Expo and Convention Center. Everi will no longer be alone in displaying a much wider suite of cashless gaming and digital payment products — heralding the transition of one of the final cash-dependent industries.

“Early adoption (of cashless gaming) is going to be a learning curve, but customers are very interested in what is being developed,” Intentional Game Technology Senior Vice President Ryan Reddy said.

In the two years since American Gaming Association CEO Bill Miller emphasized cashless gaming innovation as a priority technology endeavor for the casino industry, major manufacturers have responded by developing a wider array of products that are now being slowly rolled out across the U.S.

“The conversation we were having three or four years ago was really just wrapping our heads around what it exactly all meant,” Simmons said. “It’s truly e-commerce, which has been around for years. Online booking, online purchasing, that’s e-commerce. Moving this into the gaming industry is what we have long discussed.”

Most gaming equipment providers have developed or are in the process of creating mobile wallets — smartphone apps that store payment cards and other information in a digital format.

There are several components to cashless gaming, such as the backend technology used to securely transfer funds from a bank account or credit card into the wallet, and then back to an account or another form to use outside that casino, such as a debit card. Those funds are protected by FDIC rules and regulations.

“Everyone is working diligently to get operators and gaming regulators into the digital world faster than you would think,” said Aristocrat Technologies Global Vice President Boris Amegadjie.

COVID-19 also played a role in speeding up the transition to cashless transactions as casino operators looked to reduce the use of items that could be touched by multiple patrons as health and safety operating guidelines were put into place by gaming regulators.  

In the mid-2000s, the casino industry buzzword of “server-based gaming” was used to describe computer systems that managed all games across a casino floor.  Similarly, cashless gaming and digital payment systems have to incorporate multiple games and product development by all manufacturers regardless of origin.

The gaming industry has adopted the term “omnichannel approach” to cashless technology. In addition to transferring funds, the digital systems are designed to allow customers to easily wager across all platforms — in-person slot machines and table games, sports betting and internet casino gaming in the four states where it is legal.

“We’re in the very early innings of the cashless rollout,” said Scientific Games Executive Vice President Matt Wilson. “In three to four years, more than half of the (casino) operators in the country will have some sort of omnichannel presence. We believe the future is building that digital wallet and allowing the customer to take that wallet and make transactions across all those platforms.”

Miller said eight states have adopted cashless gaming and digital payment options for commercial and tribal casinos – Nevada, California, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio and Florida.

“We think that number will grow,” he said.

Scientific Games Executive Vice President Matt Wilson discusses the company’s latest cashless gaming products at the company's Las Vegas showroom on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Pandemic was a cashless accelerator

During his keynote address at G2E in October 2019, Miller challenged the gaming industry to expand the use of digital technology to replace cash by saying casinos shouldn’t be using the same basic payment methods used by flea markets.

Five months later, as casinos across the country began closing due to COVID-19, removing the use of cash from the gaming world became an industry-wide endeavor.

The AGA released research in June 2020 showing 57 percent of casino visitors said digital or contactless payments on the casino floor are important to them because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Another 59 percent of casino customers said they were less likely to use cash in their everyday lives out of coronavirus concerns.

“The pandemic has created a lot of horrible dynamics,” Miller said. “This is one of the dynamics that has been a major accelerator for a priority I had coming into this job. The health and safety of our customers and our employees coalesced into something that is really important for the industry.”

Miller said cash will always have a place in the casinos, but the industry is transforming into a place that allows customers “to decide how they want to transact.”

Boyd Gaming IT Product Manager Nathan Hirschi demonstrates how the company’s mobile wallet will allow a player to buy in at a table game with a mobile app at Aliante Hotel Casino in North Las Vegas on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Nevada’s importance

Cashless gaming has been active in Nevada since the state’s launch of mobile sports betting in 2010. Customers have to sign up at a casino and attach a funding account, such as a credit or debit card. The 2018 Supreme Court ruling on legalizing sports betting opened the rest of the U.S. to the activity, with online and mobile systems used in most of the 26 states that offer legalized sports betting.

IGT offers a cashless gaming system across several wagering channels in international markets, primarily for its online lottery in Europe. Reddy said the company has processed $1 billion in payments across its different gaming businesses since 2018, with more than half of those transactions coming in the last 12 months.

Gaming equipment providers and payment processing companies met with Nevada gaming regulators last year to discuss the use of cashless wagering technology and offered advice on potential regulations. The control board and Nevada Gaming Commission approved the use of digital payments in June.

A year later, the $4.3 billion Resorts World Las Vegas opened with a multi-tiered digital technology system to provide a cashless payment program for both gaming and non-gaming activities throughout the property. Five gaming technology providers created the system, which also marked the first time in the state that a gambler could digitally purchase chips from a table game dealer.

Miller said the newest Strip resort has become a live showroom for the potential of cashless gaming.

“Resorts World operators said they would have been doing an unbelievable disservice if they didn’t incorporate payment modernization,” Miller said. “They didn’t just build a casino. It is a modern version of a casino.”

Las Vegas-based Sightline Payments serves as the financial conduit at Resorts World, moving funds from a customer’s debit card, bank account, PayPal account or another source into the mobile wallet.

“Consumer adoption is going well, and we are continuing to work to make this a better experience for the customer,” said Sightline co-CEO Joe Pappano.

He said a cashless system provides safeguards for anti-money laundering rules and the background needed for “know you customer” requirements. Customers can also set withdrawal limits on their accounts.

“Cashless gaming technology has answered many of the initial questions raised,” Pappano said.

Other major gaming operators are moving forward with their own versions of cashless systems. Boyd Gaming recently completed a field trial test of a mobile wallet at the company’s Aliante Casino in North Las Vegas that began during the summer and was overseen by Nevada gaming regulators. Customers were able to make wagers through a digital payment system on the property’s slot machines, using mobile devices.

Aristocrat Technologies provides the casino management system for Boyd’s casinos and developed the mobile wallet, which is titled Boyd Pay. Sightline Payments processes the financial transactions.

Boyd Gaming Chief Information Officer Blake Rampmaier said the system, which was created by Aristocrat Technologies and Sightline, has since been expanded to slot machines at the Cannery in North Las Vegas, as well as to Suncoast and Main Street Station in downtown Las Vegas. He expects the system will be live at Gold Coast and Orleans by early October.

Rampmaier said the company “quietly” approached loyal Aliante customers to try out the cashless system; the same approach is taking place at other casinos that are beginning to launch their own cashless wagering systems.

“We have had positive feedback from our customers,” he said, adding that Boyd would begin a marketing effort in Southern Nevada for the system over the next few months.

The company, which also launched cashless wagering at its casinos in Indiana and Pennsylvania, is awaiting approval from Nevada gaming regulators to begin a field trial for cashless wagering on Aliante’s table games.

Aristocrat Technologies Vice President Thomas Castleberry said Nevada “has taken a very detailed and measured approach to digital payments. Some jurisdictions are a little more aggressive than Nevada and have adopted (regulations) that allow this activity to be implemented much faster.”

Amegadjie said continual implementation at Boyd properties will spur increased use of cashless systems at other properties in Nevada.

“When operators start seeing the benefits of Boyd Pay, it will drive others to the technology as well,” he said.

Wilson said the mobile wallet technology developed by Scientific Games and other manufacturers still requires additional development time.

“We’re not promoting our unified wallet to players just yet,” Wilson said. “We’re still trying to iron out the wrinkles. This is all still a work in progress.”

Sightline co-CEO Joe Pappano said cashless gaming technology can “create more new revenue” for the gaming industry during an interview at the company’s headquarters on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Investors take notice

Everi, which also develops slot machines and offers casinos the technology for customer loyalty programs, was created nearly seven years ago through the merger of a cash access provider and a traditional slot machine developer.

The company provides cashless gaming capabilities at 11 casinos in four states, which is expected to increase through its partnership with Penn National Gaming. Everi’s mobile wallet interfaces with a casino management system from Las Vegas-based Acres Manufacturing.

Penn National operates 43 casinos in 20 states, including M Resort in Henderson and two casinos in Jackpot, Nevada near the Idaho border.

“We’re able to adapt for all jurisdictions,” Simmons said.

B Riley Securities gaming analyst David Bain said in a research note last week that investors are underestimating the importance of the digital wallets for companies such as Everi. He said the financial opportunity from “the casino fintech evolution (is) now underway.”

Truist Securities gaming analyst Barry Jonas told investors in late August that Everi could become “a consistent growth story” following its deal with Penn and another agreement to provide cashless gaming at two Ohio casinos operated by Jack Entertainment.

“While it’s too early to share specific metrics around cashless, Everi management did suggest higher volumes and ticket sizes for early adopters,” Jonas said. “Interestingly, Everi management had expected more hesitancy around the older cohort to use the mobile wallet, but adoption has been greater than expected.”

At Penn National’s new casino in York, roughly 100 miles west of Philadelphia, Bain said the company has seen increased use of mobile wallets after managers ran a promotion offering a free smartphone to high value customers who signed up for digital wallet.

Privately held Sightline completed $240 million in funding in August, on top of $100 million in funding earlier this year. Investors include Cannae Holdings, the investment arm of Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley.

Pappano, who spent 30 years in the payment processing industry before joining Las Vegas-based Sightline in July 2020, said cashless gaming companies have an opportunity to educate an industry “that is ripe and salivating over what will be the next new revenue driver that will help in accelerating the replacement cycle from a systems perspective.”

“I think the whole industry is going to be demonstrating how they can better leverage data,” Pappano said. “We have to show we can create more customer loyalty and how cashless solutions can create new revenue.”

Indy Gaming: Expanding usage of mobile wallets and cashless payments requires education for players and casino staff

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Gaming newsletter, a weekly look at gaming matters nationally and internationally and how they tie back to Nevada.

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Sightline Payments Executive Vice President Omer Sattar compared the initial use of digital payment technology on casino floors to the rollout two decades ago of the now familiar ticket in-ticket out system on slot machines.

Acceptance by players was initially mixed.

Customers missed the clinking of coins into a tray and didn’t understand why they received a voucher when they cashed out from a game after feeding the machine real dollar bills. Slot players had to be taught to take the ticket to a kiosk or casino cage for payment. They also needed instruction on using the receipt at another gaming device.

“There was a lot of learning and education for both players and casino staff,” said Sattar, a co-founder of Las Vegas-based Sightline, a financial technology company that launched more than a decade ago.

Today, casino customers are hard-pressed to find coin-operated slot machines other than downtown in the historical second-floor gaming area at the D Las Vegas, inside the El Cortez and at a handful of rural Nevada properties.

The expanding use of digital wallets and cashless gaming in casinos will require a similar educational effort to the ticket in-ticket out system. But Sattar believes the technology will soon become commonplace.

Last week, Sightline completed $244 million in financing that will fund the company’s training efforts for casino staff, pay for technology upgrades and expand usage of digital payment products. Earlier this year, Sightline completed a separate $100 million funding round that was partly utilized to acquire a digital platform for customer loyalty programs.

Sightline Executive Vice President Omer Sattar. (Courtesy photo)

“Educating frontline casino staff is key to rolling out digital payment products,” Sattar said. But that’s just part of the effort. “It’s a one-two punch. Not only do we have to build out our core product, but in rolling it out, we need to provide technology upgrades across the casino floor.”

The good news is that unlike the rollout of ticket in-ticket out technology, gaming customers in 2021 are accustomed to paying for many products and services through digital wallets or credit cards linked to mobile devices.

“We use apps for everything, but the functionality of most casino apps has been confined to checking loyalty points or viewing maps of the casino floor,” Sattar said.

With digital payment systems expanding everywhere, upgrades to casino apps are necessary improvements, he said.

The American Gaming Association’s nearly two-year advocacy effort to modernize the industry and move casinos away from cash-centric gaming into a digital payment world was fast-tracked by COVID-19. Research conducted last year by the Washington D.C.-based trade organization found that more than 60 percent of casino customers wanted cashless or digital payment options.

Sightline’s initial business was to provide payment systems and processes for legal online gaming. It grew quickly through the 2018 legalization of sports betting. States adopted mobile sports wagering along with retail sportsbooks.

Sightline’s recent funding came from Cannae Holdings, the investment arm of Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley, along with Resorts World Las Vegas owner Genting Group of Malaysia, Point Break Capital Management and Walter Kortschak, the company’s founding investor. Previous funding came from hedge fund Searchlight Capital Partners.

“I think of Sightline as a company bridging the past and the future of the gambling industry,” Eilers & Krejcik Gaming analyst Chris Grove said. “I think the industry needs more of those bridges in order to strike a balance between continuing to serve the customers of today while welcoming the customers of tomorrow.”

Macquarie Securities analyst Chad Beynon credited Sightline, along with publicly traded gaming equipment providers Everi Holdings, International Game Technology and Scientific Games, for helping the gaming industry “advance the customer experience” with cashless and mobile wallet technologies.

“The pandemic has certainly served as an accelerator for gaming technology and cashless is one of the most important advancements the industry has seen for years,” Beynon said.

Sightline was valued this month by its investors at $1 billion, making it Nevada’s first “unicorn,” a financial term referring to private technology companies with an appraisal of $1 billion or more.

In a statement, Foley said he was “more bullish than ever about Sightline’s ability to be at the forefront of the digital transformation afoot in the North American gaming, sports, and entertainment ecosystem.”

Foley commended Sightline for its part in the June 24 opening of the $4.3 billion Resorts World Las Vegas. The company was one of five gaming technology providers involved in the roll-out of cashless gaming capabilities for the new Strip property’s slot machines, table games and the sportsbook.

Sattar said Sightline gained a valuable understanding of the ins and outs of the endeavor in launching cashless gaming throughout the casino. Staff from Sightline and other companies were “on the ground for weeks” as part of the training effort.

Sightline is also part of Boyd Gaming’s cashless wagering rollout on slot machines in partnership with Aristocrat Technologies. A Boyd-branded mobile wallet has soft-launched at five regional casinos: Blue Chip and Belterra in Indiana; Valley Forge in Pennsylvania; Belterra Park in Ohio; and Aliante Casino in North Las Vegas.

Boyd Gaming CEO Keith Smith said in July that its mobile wallet could be live in 21 casinos by the end of the year, pending regulatory approval. He said the digital payment system was being tested in non-gaming areas of Aliante and could be available for table games as early as this fall.

Which brings Sattar to an immediate aim for Sightline — reducing the amount of time it takes for a customer to download the app and establish an account. He said the goal is lowering the time to three minutes or less, an industry standard.

“We’re getting close,” he said.

The office of social gaming developer PlayStudios in Summerlin. The company went public on the Nasdaq in late June 2021. (Photo courtesy of PlayStudios)

Stock price decline doesn’t alter analyst’s view of social game developer PlayStudios

Eilers & Krejcik Gaming analyst Adam Krejcik offered investors a positive outlook on Las Vegas-based social game developer PlayStudios in a research report released last week, despite a nearly 50 percent decline in PlayStudios’ stock price on the Nasdaq since going public at the end of June.

Krejcik, a principal in the Southern California-based firm who follows the digital and interactive gaming industry, said the company’s stock was battered as part of a market-wide sell-off by investors holding shares in special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs), a vehicle that took PlayStudios public.

“High redemptions rates and a flood of new companies has caused investors to sour on this space,” Krejcik wrote.

He noted that PlayStudios, which he ranked as the eighth largest company in the roughly $7 billion-a-year social gaming sector, has a “strong” balance sheet with $230 million and another $150 million available in a revolving credit line.

“We believe PlayStudios will be very aggressive when it comes to [mergers and acquisitions] and is likely evaluating multiple targets,” Krejcik said. “Management has stated the ability to execute [on mergers and acquisitions] was the primary reason for going public.”

PlayStudios is headquartered in Summerlin and led by Chairman and CEO Andrew Pascal, a former casino and gaming equipment company executive. PlayStudios operates a large portfolio of free-to-play casual mobile and social games including myVegas Slots, my KONAMI Slots, myVegas Blackjack, POP! Slots and recently released myVegas Bingo.

Last month, PlayStudios said its release of Kingdom Boss would be delayed until the fourth quarter. The game will serve as the company’s first new title outside of the social casino category, Krejcik said. PlayStudios reduced its 2021 full-year guidance for revenues and cash flow because of the delay.

Krejcik said the market for acquiring mobile games “remains extremely competitive with a number of large digital game companies, all with significant liquidity, vying for high-growth and scaled targets.” He cited Zynga and Playtika as PlayStudios’ primary competitors.

Although he doesn’t provide stock recommendations or price-targets on companies, Krejcik said the shares of PlayStudios are “trading at a significant discount relative to the peer group.”

PlayStudios controls the playRewards loyalty platform, where online and mobile players can earn real-world rewards from more than 95 partners and 290 entertainment, retail, travel, leisure and gaming brands.

PlayStudios merged earlier this year with Acies Acquisition Corp., a SPAC created by former MGM Resorts Chairman and CEO Jim Murren and two former Morgan Stanley investment banking executives. Shareholders own 64 percent of the company, and institutional investors control a combined 18 percent. Murren and the Acies sponsors own 3 percent. Following the merger, PlayStudios put 15 percent of the company on the open market.

Murren joined the board along with current MGM Resorts CEO Bill Hornbuckle.

Other items of interest:

Las Vegas-based Marker Trax, a cashless system for issuing casino markers, landed a partnership with gaming equipment provider Scientific Games. Marker Trax was founded in 2018 by gaming industry veteran Gary Ellis. The product scores and approves players for credit. The system is currently in place in Nevada at Ellis Island Casino in Las Vegas, properties operated by Golden Entertainment, including Strat Resort and Tower, and the Wendover Nugget in rural Nevada. Two Southern California tribal casinos also use Marker Trax. Scientific Games Senior Vice President Rob Bone said the system would be added to the company’s cashless gaming technology. “We have followed the evolution of Marker Trax and we see low friction, player credit offerings as a compelling addition,” Bone said. “This partnership enhances the player’s gaming experience.”

Japan’s casino expansion efforts took another nosedive over the weekend. Yokohama elected an anti-integrated resort candidate as its new mayor, ending the city’s quest for one of the country’s potential casino licenses. Japan has debated adding casinos for more than a decade. The departure of Yokohama was a blow to Resorts World Las Vegas owner Genting Berhad of Malaysia, which had put all its chips into the city’s efforts. In February, Wynn Resorts took itself out of the running for a Yokohama casino after withdrawing from the Osaka process in 2019. Las Vegas Sands withdrew entirely from the Japan effort in 2020. MGM Resorts remains heavily invested in Osaka, which one Japanese management predicted would be the only city to legalize an integrated resort.

Lyle Berman. (Courtesy photo)

Lyle Berman has the distinction of being a member of three gaming industry halls of fame: The American Gaming Association’s Gaming Hall of Fame, the Poker Hall of Fame and the Mississippi Gaming Hall of Fame. Last Friday, Golden Entertainment announced in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing that Berman, 80, was retiring from the company’s board. Berman’s Lakes Entertainment and Las Vegas-based Golden Gaming merged in 2015, and Berman served as a board member and consultant. He also was a co-founder in Grand Casinos, which helped establish Mississippi’s casino market. In poker, Berman won three World Series of Poker individual event championship bracelets and helped create the World Poker Tour.

In an interview with reporter Tony Batt of (paywalled) Vixio Gambling Compliance, Nevada Gaming Control Board Chairman Brin Gibson said remote registration for sports wagering remains a challenge in Nevada despite its usage in other states. Nevada requires anyone signing up with a mobile sports wagering company to do so in person at a casino sportsbook. “What it really comes down to is that remote sign-up — I think some see it as sort of a camel’s nose or incremental step toward potentially allowing operators that have not made the investment in brick and mortar to enter the marketplace here,” Gibson said. Remote registration has been proposed, but has received harsh criticism from several casino operators. Gibson said support for remote registration is “still out there. It’s still alive, and I don’t know that it’s going to go away.”

A day after MGM Resorts set an Oct. 15 deadline for employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, Las Vegas-based casino operator Golden Entertainment issued a similar mandate. In a letter to employees dated Aug. 17, Golden President Charles Protell wrote the company is preparing “to require unvaccinated staff at certain properties and corporate offices to present either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test on a weekly basis.” In Nevada, Golden operates the Strat Tower and Resort, two Arizona Charlie’s properties in Las Vegas, casinos in Pahrump and Laughlin and more than 60 taverns statewide. The company also has a casino resort in Maryland. Protell said Golden employees would receive more information on the requirement. MGM Resorts, which has 57,000 employees, was the first large nationwide casino operator and first Nevada casino company to require salaried employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of employment. The company is exploring an extension of the vaccine mandate to cover hourly employees and other positions.

In 1989, Deadwood, South Dakota became the nation’s third legal casino market, following Nevada and Atlantic City. Voters legalized sports betting at the old west town’s small stakes casinos last year. Now, casino giant MGM Resorts International is getting into the game. The company said last week that BetMGM, its 50-50 sports betting joint venture with Entain Plc., will open retail sportsbooks and provide mobile sports wagering to the small Tin Lizzie and Cadillac Jack's casinos operated by Liv Hospitality. Pending regulatory approval, BetMGM will be available in South Dakota next month, just in time for the NFL and college football seasons. South Dakota is one of 10 states that has legalized sports betting but has yet to launch operations. Sports betting is legal and active in 22 states and Washington D.C.

Gaming incubator Black Fire viewed as UNLV’s contribution to Nevada’s economic diversification

Visitors to UNLV’s Black Fire Innovation research institute will find much of what they might expect inside a 15,000-square foot showroom dedicated to newly created products for the gaming and hospitality industries.

In addition to games and systems for the casino floor and sportsbook, a working eSports venue also serves as a Ted Talk-style amphitheater. Innovative creations for hotels are displayed, such as a laundry-free bed linen product that is broken down and reconstituted as new bedding after a single usage.

A translucent television designed to double as a hotel room window is prominently exhibited.

A personal “Gita” robot can be tested. Adorned with Las Vegas Raiders logos, the device follows its user around the facility, carting the visitor’s belongings in its storage area.

Gaming is a featured element in what is expected to become a university-run innovation hub tasked with bringing new business and industries to Southern Nevada. Black Fire Innovation is the first building within the 122-acre UNLV Harry Reid Research and Technology Park, located in the southwest area of Las Vegas and roughly 11 miles from the UNLV campus.

Through Black Fire, the gaming industry serves as a connection to the overall vision for the technology park. The reach, however, goes far beyond the Strip.

UNLV Vice President of Economic Development Bo Bernhard stands in front a board displaying the logos or companies associated with Black Fire Innovation at the UNLV Harry Reid Research & Technology Park in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

UNLV Vice President of Economic Development Bo Bernhard said Black Fire is the initial piece of an academic inspired innovation center similar to facilities associated with universities around the country, such as the Research Triangle in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina near the state’s three universities.

A building projected to house medical research and development was completed at the Technology Park this year. Other facilities will follow for what is best described as a location that mixes entrepreneurship with the business and financial community.

“This is Nevada’s innovation hub,” said Bernhard, who added the economic development position to his long-standing responsibility as executive director of UNLV’s International Gaming Institute.

“The idea is to create a meeting space between industry and academia,” he said.

Black Fire Innovation and a co-working space cover more than 43,000 square feet of the top two floors of the four-story building.

UNLV President Keith Whitfield, responding to emailed questions from The Nevada Independent, said the research and technology park will become “an unprecedented resource” and a center of “new cutting-edge” products and activities.

“Because it will connect UNLV faculty and students with tech companies – both established and startups – research and development large companies, and financial entities looking to serve as startup or angel funding, it will be a unique environment that will provide a number of synergies for those who work on that new campus,” Whitfield said.

New casino products are displayed at Black Fire Innovation at the UNLV Harry Reid Research & Technology Park in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Filling up

Office space in the Black Fire building has been leased to a diverse cross section of tenants.

US Capital Global, a San Francisco-based asset manager and investment bank, is relocating its back office, analysts and due-diligence teams into Black Fire. Digital payments provider Sightline plans to share office space at the location with Vancouver, Canada-based GeoComply, a geolocation, fraud protection and cyber security business.

“We're a tech focused investment bank with some hospitality stuff and we’re in the medical tech and FinTech (financial technology field as well,” US Capital CEO Jeffrey Sweeney said. “It's a good move for us out there. The goal is to use Las Vegas as an economic hub for companies that want another location that’s a little more cost effective. We have companies from Europe that want a U.S. presence.”

Sweeney said US Capital is moving one of its clients, Sounzone, an Italy-based music streaming service, to Las Vegas.

Sightline Executive Vice President Omer Sattar said Black Fire allows the financial technology business a location where it can collaborate easily with casino operators and other technology companies working in an industry effort toward cashless gaming and digital payment technology. Sightline is one of five gaming technology providers that created a cashless payment program for both gaming and non-gaming activities at Resorts World Las Vegas.

“Our partners are there, and we are working with the (International Gaming Institute), so we see this a good collaboration,” he said.

Sattar said taking space in Black Fire allows Sightline to consolidate all its Las Vegas employees into one location and that sharing space with GeoComply “made sense” because the companies “have grown up together in the space and are working with similar customers.”

Also, the Association for Gaming Equipment Manufacturers, the trade organization for the casino suppliers, is building office space at Black Fire.

Whitfield said the university will work to create additional partnerships with gaming companies.

“There is no innovation ecosystem like Black Fire,” he said.

Black Fire Innovation is located at the UNLV Harry Reid Research & Technology Park in Las Vegas, seen on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Reid secured the site

Economic development in a community is often connected to a university and academia, Bernhard said. Attempts to diversify the Southern Nevada economy in the past often led to “seeds being thrown out into the desert, hoping to take hold.” The infrastructure wasn’t there and efforts fell short.

UNLV first eyed the land as an innovation zone and economic development vehicle in 2004 when then-Nevada Sen. Harry Reid pushed legislation through Congress and secured the acreage from the federal government near the I-215 beltway and the intersection of Sunset Road and Durango Drive.

The UNLV effort now involves more than just the school. To highlight that point, Bernhard listed more than 70 companies that have current or planned offices at Black Fire, products on display, or have donated to the university’s effort.

The combined net worth of those businesses is valued at more than $1 trillion.  

Casino giants Caesars Entertainment, MGM Resorts International and Boyd Gaming, as well as international gaming technology companies including Slovenia-based table game provider Interblock and Entain Plc, a United Kingdom-based sports betting and online gaming operator, are among the group. That’s expected, said Bernhard.

But the list also includes non-gaming businesses, such as Panasonic, LG, Adobe, Intel and Zoom.

“This is not just about gaming,” Bernhard said.  

UNLV Vice President of Economic Development Bo Bernhard touches sheets created by Purlin, a laundry-free linen product, at Black Fire Innovation at the UNLV Harry Reid Research & Technology Park in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Gaming is still the draw

Access to the casino industry through Black Fire is the lure to entrepreneurs. But the reach is beyond the Strip.

Since 2013, the International Gaming Institute’s Center for Gaming Innovation has filed more than 50 patent applications with the U.S. Patent Office for new games and casino products developed by students. Nearly two dozen applications have resulted in patents with eight products being used in casinos.

Black Fire, Bernhard said, will work side-by-side with the Center for Gaming Innovation, providing students access to resources that can help bring their ideas to market. UNLV graduates with ideas for products or business ideas will be recruited to Black Fire, allowing them to continue to work with experts to create a start-up business.

For example, the bed linen product was created by Purlin, one of five 2020 winners of UNLV’s Lee Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

“On campus, we have labs. That’s where the stuff is invented. This is where it is commercialized,” Bernhard said. He noted that today’s students are far more entrepreneurial than previous generations.

“Making your own future has gone from option C to option A for many graduates,” he said.

Bernhard said students have the ability to get their products “in front of the right people” at Black Fire. “We never had resources like this before,” he said.

Bernhard, who has a Ph.D. in sociology, has long viewed the Strip as one of the greatest laboratories in which to study humanity. Today, he views the location as a stepping off point for degrees of separation in economic development.

He cited the move to Las Vegas by the Raiders last year as “one degree of separation from the Strip.” The team, which is playing in the $1.9 billion Allegiant Stadium, “is a new industry to Las Vegas,” but using the market’s expertise in hospitality and special events as “part of its ecosystem.”

At the same time, the emergence of the NFL and the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights created the need for the development of sports medicine, which he said will become part of UNLV’s Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine.

Medical innovation, he said, leads to another degree of separation from the Strip.

“By the time we’re at six degrees, we can’t even see the Strip,” Bernhard said. “That is how economic diversity works — and we’re getting started.”

As for the gaming industry, Bernard believes Strip resorts will benefit from developments at Black Fire and the technology park in the same manner the Hollywood film industry has fed off the innovations created at the University of Southern California Film School.

“As much as anything, the film school has been responsible toward maintaining Hollywood’s status as the global intellectual capital of a certain type of entertainment, film making,” Bernhard said. “This is what UNLV needs to become.”

Whitfield expects UNLV will continue to provide the platform for economic diversification in the region and nationally.

“Black Fire will be an incredible resource for innovation and entrepreneurship in our students, a real-world learning lab if you will, that will provide students an experiential leg up with competing in the workforce as they graduate,” he said.

An eSports arena doubles as a Ted Talk venue inside Black Fire Innovation at the UNLV Harry Reid Research & Technology Park in Las Vegas. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Indy Gaming: Nevada sportsbooks headed toward a record year even as more states legalize the activity

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Gaming newsletter, a weekly look at gaming matters nationally and internationally and how the events tie back to Nevada.

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Sports betting is legal and regulated in more than half of the U.S.

But despite the competition, Nevada’s sports betting industry has thrived.

If the first six months of 2021 are an indicator, Nevada sportsbooks are on pace to shatter the state’s annual records for wagers and revenues that were recorded in 2019. Through June, sportsbooks collected $3.3 billion in bets, an increase of 32 percent compared to 2019. Total sports revenue of $207 million is already 56.2 percent ahead of the 2019 total.

Only three states – New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Illinois – have recorded higher sports betting revenue figures than Nevada through the first half of 2021. Only New Jersey has seen higher sports wagers with $4.1 billion through June.

Eilers & Krejcik gaming analyst Chris Grove said the growth of legal sports betting nationally in the last three years, following a 2018 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court opening the activity to states beyond Nevada, could be similar to the expansion of poker in the last decade.

“It's possible that increased interest in sports betting will grow the national revenue pie sufficiently to allow Nevada to grow alongside states where sports betting has recently been legalized,” Grove said. “That, of course, relies on the state's casinos continuing to build and expand one-of-a-kind sports betting experiences.”

In 2019, Nevada sportsbooks took in $5.319 billion in wagers, the 10th consecutive all-time state record. Revenues collected by the books from those wagers totaled a record $329.1 million. 

The COVID-19 pandemic caused the state’s first annual decline in sports betting in more than a decade. Total wagers fell to $4.3 billion in 2020, and revenues dipped to $262.8 million.

But last week’s release of the state’s monthly gaming revenue figures by the Gaming Control Board confirmed the state’s sports betting industry is back on track.

Twenty-two states and Washington D.C. have legal and regulated sports betting. Another 10 states could launch as soon as this year in time for the college football and NFL seasons.

California voters will consider a referendum in 2022 to allow tribal casinos and racetracks to offer retail sportsbooks. In Florida, an agreement between the governor and the Seminole Indians could bring sports betting to the tribe’s casinos. However, several groups are contesting the legality of the revised compact.

Grove said it was inevitable that Nevada sports betting figures would be eclipsed by New Jersey and other jurisdictions, because of the state's relatively small population. Sportsbooks at Northern New Jersey racetracks and the state’s approval for remote mobile sports wagering draws business from populous New York City.

“There's little to suggest that the growth of sports betting in other states is causing a decrease in Nevada's sports betting revenue,” Grove said.

Record high sports bettings totals in 2021 have also been assisted by the changed calendars for several sports leagues pushing games into 2021 and benefiting sportsbooks. The result was a record for June in both wagers ($545.2 million) and revenues ($29.2 million).

“The strong monthly totals were bolstered by an unusual sports calendar that saw NBA playoffs action, which typically ends in early June, throughout the entire month,” Grove said.

Mobile sports wagering has accounted for more than 60 percent of all the sports bets placed in Nevada this year. Global Market Advisors Partner Brendan Bussmann suggested mobile wagering would grow if Nevada gaming regulators allowed remote registration, an effort opposed by Station Casinos.

“One of the biggest opportunities for Nevada to drive additional sports betting revenue is to remove the in-person requirement,” Bussmann said. “Technology continues to provide advancement for knowing your customer and anti-money laundering initiatives. Geolocation for sports betting and iGaming in other states have surpassed Nevada’s current regulatory structure. It’s time for us to push forward.”

The absence of DraftKings and FanDuel is another dynamic in Nevada’s sports betting universe.

The companies, which jumped into legal sports betting following the Supreme Court ruling, are considered the nation’s top two sports betting operators. DraftKings is in 14 states and FanDuel is in 10 states, which includes a partnership with Las Vegas-based Boyd Gaming Corp. in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Mississippi.

The companies gained a larger national presence in April when they were selected as official sports betting partners of the National Football League along with Caesars Entertainment. The designation gave the businesses exclusive rights to utilize NFL trademarks within their operations and engage with fans through NFL-themed free-to-play games.

Prior to 2018, the companies operated as daily fantasy-centric businesses and had trouble gaining acceptance from the traditional sports betting community. In October 2015, Nevada gaming regulators told DraftKings, FanDuel, and other daily fantasy suppliers they had to be licensed as sports betting operators if they were to continue providing the activity in the state.

Neither has made inroads into Nevada’s casino market. DraftKings maintains a large office presence in the Town Square complex on south Las Vegas Boulevard for its nationwide back-of-the-house support services. Boyd has a 5 percent ownership stake in FanDuel, but the partnership doesn’t include the company’s 10 Las Vegas-area casinos.

In April, Boyd CEO Keith Smith was non-committal concerning a potential move into Nevada for FanDuel in connection with the company’s casinos in the Las Vegas Valley and downtown.

“It’s a possibility in the future, but for now the relationship is with the non-Nevada properties,” Smith said following Boyd’s quarterly earnings conference call. “The reason we did the deal is that we knew they were a winner, long term.”

The 57,400-seat Arizona Stadium in Tucson, home of the Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl, is seen in 2016. (Howard Stutz/The Nevada Independent)

College football bowl game naming rights is a new outreach for sports betting

Barstool Sports, a digital media platform that serves as the sports betting extension for regional casino operator Penn National Gaming, has a new business venture – name sponsor for a college football bowl game.

The announcement last week that the Arizona Bowl in Tucson will be renamed the Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl starting Dec. 31, marked the first time a sports betting brand was being paired with a college bowl game. Terms of the multi-year deal were not announced.

“The Barstool and Arizona Bowl partnership is a first of its kind collegiate-level opportunity to integrate content and a sports betting brand,” said Maryland-based sports betting consultant Sara Slane. “It is a creative way to blend the two without doing a direct deal with a college team. I expect additional cutting-edge integrations as NIL (name, image, likeness) college modernizations continue to progress.”

According to the Arizona Daily Star, Barstool founder David Portnoy said sponsoring a college football bowl game "has always been a dream of mine." 

The New Year's Eve game between teams from the Mountain West and Mid-American conferences will be played at the 57,400-seat Arizona Stadium on the campus of the University of Arizona and broadcast on Barstool’s digital streaming platforms.

Barstool’s personalities produce hours of sports-related videos, podcasts and social media posts covering news, lifestyle and gambling information for various digital outlets. Portnoy said the group would be in Tucson for the game.

Penn National, which operates 42 gaming properties in 20 states, spent $163 million in January 2020 to acquire 36 percent of Barstool to utilize the brand as the company’s sports betting venture for both retail and online operations.

With more than 66 million followers, the Barstool demographic was viewed as a way to attract a younger demographic to Penn, whose customer base is predominantly an older audience.

Penn National operates M Resort in Henderson and two small casinos in Jackpot near the northeastern Nevada border with Idaho.

At the outset of the pandemic last year, Penn sold the Tropicana Las Vegas, which it has owned since 2015, to Gaming and Leisure Properties. The real estate investment trust leased the Strip resort back to Penn, but the operations are in the process of being sold to Bally’s Corp.

Penn is expanding the Barstool sports betting presence to 10 states, but Nevada is not part of the growth plan.

The Barstool mobile wagering app is live in four states – Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Other deals in the pipeline, including Arizona, where Penn National signed a deal with the Phoenix Raceway to build a Barstool sportsbook at the track and launch mobile sports betting throughout the state.

Nevada has a connection to the Arizona Bowl through UNR, which is the only school to have twice played in the contest. The Wolf Pack won the first Arizona Bowl in 2015, beating Colorado State 28-23. In 2018, UNR beat Arkansas State, 16-13.

Other items of interest:

Screenshot of the Caesars Sportsbook App. (Courtesy Caesars Entertainment)

Caesars Entertainment has rebranded its sports betting operation as Caesars Sportsbook and unveiled a new mobile sportsbook app under the same name. The change was expected after Caesars paid almost $4 billion in April to acquire United Kingdom-based William Hill. Caesars plans to sell William Hill’s non-U.S. operations. Caesars already owned 20 percent of William Hill U.S. through a previous transaction. The Caesars Sportsbook mobile app is now live in eight states (Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, New Jersey, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia), with three states (Arizona, Maryland and Louisiana) pending regulatory approval.

In Nevada, Illinois and Washington, D.C., where customers are required to be at or near a Caesars sportsbook retail location to register, bettors will have access to the Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill app. A Caesars spokeswoman said Nevada sportsbooks operated by William Hill outside of Caesars-owned resorts will remain under the William Hill brand and the William Hill Nevada app will remain active.

Macau gaming revenues hit $1.1 billion during July, well below the region’s pre-pandemic numbers of roughly $3 billion a month. Las Vegas Sands, Wynn Resorts, and MGM Resorts International are the only Nevada casino operators in the Macau market. Macau’s Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau said on Aug. 1 the figure was down 66 percent compared to July 2019 and 29.2 percent from two months ago. Through the first seven months of 2021, Macau gaming revenues are down 67 percent compared to 2019. During 2020, Macau experienced six straight months of 90 percent gaming declines. Stifel Financial gaming analyst Steven Wieczynski said he was encouraged by visitation trends during periods of less restrictive travel mandates to and from the Chinese Special Administrative Region. But that hasn’t resulted in gaming revenue increases. “At this point we believe investors just have to write off 2021 and start to focus on 2022. With additional virus lockdowns probably coming, we believe any material recovery is now a 2022 story,” Wieczynski said.

Bet MGM and online news network Cheddar News are launching Cheddar Bets, a weekly program that combines sports betting and the financial markets. Airing Thursdays at 1:30 p.m. P.T. beginning August 19, Cheddar Bets will look at the sports calendar through a sports betting perspective and how the action could influence Wall Street. BetMGM oddsmakers will appear on the program. “Through Cheddar Bets we'll provide informative and entertaining programming to engage new audiences,” said BetMGM Chief Revenue Officer Matt Prevost.

San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane denied allegations this weekend that he bet on NHL games, including against his own team. The charges, which the NHL said they would investigate, were made on social media by his estranged wife. Kane, writing on Twitter, said, “I have NEVER gambled/bet on Hockey, NEVER gambled/bet on a Sharks game, NEVER gambled/bet on any of my games and NEVER thrown a hockey game.” Kane was the defendant in a 2019 lawsuit filed by the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas over alleged non-payment of $500,000 in a line credit he received from the Strip resort to gamble at the property. The lawsuit, which was dropped by the casino, led to some “only in Vegas-style” taunting by Vegas Golden Knights fans when the Sharks played at the T-Mobile Arena. During the game, when Kane took to the ice, fans chanted loudly, “Pay your markers.”

The Reno City Council agreed to sell two downtown land parcels to Jacobs Entertainment after the owner of the Sands Regency increased the purchase price of the sites and offered the city a profit-sharing agreement. According to the Reno Gazette-Journal, the parcels will be part of the Reno Neon Line, a mixed-used development proposed by the company to renovate a rundown area of the downtown corridor that will include housing, retail, lodging, dining and gaming.

Quotable:

"Being part of the BetMGM family is dope and an honor. Plus, with ambassadors like Barry (Sanders), (Wayne) Gretzky and Jalen (Rose), I think da' kid is in good company, ya know what I mean?"

-Former NFL running back and new BetMGM brand ambassador Marshawn Lynch in a statement released by the company

Las Vegas locals casinos ‘clearly booming,’ exceeding pre-pandemic gaming numbers

Executives from Boyd Gaming and Red Rock Resorts painted an upbeat picture last week of the Las Vegas locals casino market that is exceeding the pre-pandemic revenue levels from 2019.

The Gaming Control Board confirmed those statistics.

Casinos operating in unincorporated areas of Clark County, along the Boulder Highway, Henderson and North Las Vegas – which cater to customers from nearby neighborhoods and communities – reported combined gaming revenues of more than $1.4 billion for the first six months of 2021, or 16.6 percent higher than the figures recorded in the same six months of 2019. Analysts and others have used 2019 as a baseline for gaming revenue statistics, as 2020 numbers were skewed by COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, operating restrictions and capacity limitations.

In June alone, total gaming revenues for those locations hit a combined $269.8 million, a single-month record and 42.9 percent higher than June 2019.

Control Board Senior Research Analyst Michael Lawton said the locals market produced single-month gaming revenue records in March and May.

Given that gaming revenues from Strip casinos are down 11.3 percent through June, research analysts took note of the region.

“The Las Vegas locals market is clearly booming at this point, and we see no reason why it should slow down anytime soon,” said Stifel Financial gaming analyst Steven Wieczynski. He added the market’s key operating factors have remained in place despite the disruption during 2020.

The reports were released ahead of the resumption of a mask mandate that went into effect on Friday.

Wieczynski cited Nevada’s “favorable” 6.75 percent tax rate on gaming revenues, Southern Nevada’s growing retiree base and diversified amenities offered in the properties.

“We view the economic tailwinds that drove outsized growth in the greater Las Vegas economy ahead of COVID-19 as structural in nature,” he said. “Thus, (we) expect them to reemerge as the virus headwinds dissipate.”

Deutsche Bank gaming analyst Carlo Santarelli said the market’s July numbers should mirror the previous month’s figures. Both Boyd and Red Rock are seeing increased visitation from a younger audience who is spending more time and more money on gaming activities. Also, the properties have reported recent improvements in revenues from non-gaming attractions, such as restaurants and movie theaters.

Boyd Gaming CEO Keith Smith told analysts the company’s locals business “is largely gaming-centric.” He expects non-gaming revenues to pick up as restaurants return to full operations.

“We have a minority of our revenue coming from non-gaming amenities,” Smith said. “That will continue to grow, but it should grow in a profitable way, albeit at maybe lower margins.”

Red Rock Resort, a Station Casinos property, is located in Summerlin. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Macquarie Securities gaming analyst Chad Beynon said regions across Nevada, but primarily the Las Vegas locals market, had some of the best gaming results in the U.S. during June.

Boyd and Red Rock beat all the expectations for cash flow predicted by analysts during the quarter.

“We like the locals market, given the underlying strength in the Nevada consumer and growth ahead,” Beynon said.

Combined, Boyd and Red Rock operate nearly two dozen casinos in the Las Vegas Valley, far more than any other competitor.

In the quarter that ended June 30, Boyd said its locals casinos produced $236.1 million in total revenues over the three-month period, up 6.9 percent over the same quarter in 2019. Red Rock’s operations in Las Vegas during the same period produced total revenues of $426.4 million, a decline of 7 percent over the 2019 quarter.

Boyd is a regional casino operator with 28 gaming properties in 10 states. The primary business comes from the company’s southern and Midwest casinos, which produced a combined $618.7 million in the last quarter, nearly 70 percent of Boyd's total revenues.

Casinos still closed

Boyd Gaming operates 11 casinos throughout the valley, including three downtown resorts whose quarterly financial results are separated from the company’s locals gaming business. Red Rock Resorts is currently operating six of its locals casino properties in addition to multiple Wildfire branded small casinos.

Both companies have kept some locations closed since last year due to the pandemic. Boyd has yet to reopen Eastside Cannery on Boulder Highway and Main Street Station in downtown. Red Rock has kept Texas Station and the Fiesta casinos in Henderson and North Las Vegas on the sidelines. The company is in the process of selling the off-Strip Palms Casino Resort to Southern California’s San Manuel Indian Tribe for $650 million.

Boyd and Red Rock executives said they are waiting for continued improvements in the operating markets before reopening the casinos.

“Main Street’s future is all about downtown business and the Hawaiian business returning,” Smith said. “Eastside will just depend on volumes.”

Red Rock CEO Frank Fertitta said the company “continues to evaluate” the closed locations and will only reopen the properties “when we think they can add to the absolute profitability of the company going forward.”

The Palms won’t reopen until San Manuel takes over. As for the other three properties, Wieczynski speculated “that some if not all of them might never be reopened.”

The future site of Stations Casinos resort beside Durango Road south of I-215. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Expansion plans

Even with three properties still closed, Red Rock is giving increased attention toward developing a hotel-casino on one of six land parcels the company controls throughout Las Vegas. The sites total nearly 367 acres and include 96 acres just west of Interstate 15 near Tropicana Boulevard that had been master planned as the Viva Resort in the early 2000s.

A site on 71 acres off Durango Boulevard and the 215 Beltway in the southwest area of Las Vegas has been dubbed “Durango Station” by analysts. The property could be under construction by early 2022, said Red Rock Chief Financial Officer Steven Cootey.

A budget is still being determined for a facility that would include 200 hotel rooms, a 100,000-square-foot casino with 2,000 slot machines and 40 table games, a sportsbook and four food outlets.

“Our primary focus right now has really been on Durango, which we think is a great development opportunity in the most underserved part of the Las Vegas Valley,” Fertitta said.

Truist Securities gaming analyst Barry Jonas said Red Rock would use proceeds from the Palms sale to pay for the project’s development costs.

“The 71-acre Durango parcel is the only non-restricted gaming location within southwest Las Vegas, one of the fastest growing areas of the city,” Jonas said.

Masks not an issue

Neither analysts nor gaming operators expressed any concern over the potential of a return to mask wearing. The Control Board told casino operators in 12 counties, including Clark and Washoe, that employees and customers – regardless of their vaccination status – are required to wear facial coverings while indoors. The directive was issued in response to spiking COVID-19 numbers and follows a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation.

Smith said Boyd employees “accepted” a workers’ mask mandate “without any reaction. (It) hasn’t created any issues, pretty much business as usual.”

Red Rock Vice Chairman Lorenzo Fertitta said the company “didn’t really see any change in our business” when customers wore masks after casinos reopened during the pandemic last summer, up until the requirement was removed in June.

“We navigated some much more difficult situations than we currently have in front of us here,” he said. “There was no significant upside when people didn’t have masks or didn’t have to wear masks.”

Wieczynski told investors he didn’t believe there would be any “material downswings” due to the mask mandates. Still, “we aren’t trying to sit here and say that there is zero variant risk,” he added.

PHOTOS: After more than a decade of starts and stops, $4.3 billion Resorts World Las Vegas is open

The opening last week of Resorts World Las Vegas added to the landscape on the Strip’s north end and ended an 11-year-drought of new megaresort unveilings in Las Vegas. Since 2007, the 88-acre land parcel has had two owners and for eight years was an unfinished structure that sat untouched.

Thursday evening’s grand opening celebration for Malaysia-based Genting Berhad’s $4.3 billion property included a traditional Asian lion and dragon dance, drum performances and a ribbon cutting. But the big event in the porte-cochère of the Conrad Hotel portion of Resorts World will not be the last ceremonial event at the property.

Three areas – a 5,000-seat theater in partnership with AEG, Zouk Nightclub and the property’s spa – are being held back until the fall and winter months while additional enhancements are completed. Singer Celine Dion will open the theater in November.

Genting Chairman KT Lim, during his prepared remarks, also teased that the company is already planning for a second phase on the undeveloped portion of the site.

Lim was praised in remarks during the event by Resorts World Las Vegas President Scott Sibella, Hilton Hotels CEO Chris Nassetta, Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV), Clark County Commission Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick and County Commissioner Tick Segerblom, whose district includes the hotel-casino complex.

Segerblom complimented the construction workers who continued to build the resort during the pandemic. Sisolak said following the ceremony that maintaining construction as an essential business last year when other businesses, including gaming, were ordered closed turned out to be the correct decision.

During the pandemic, construction workers finished – along with Resorts World – Allegiant Stadium, the Las Vegas Convention Center’s West Hall expansion, Circa Casino Resort in downtown and a remodel of Virgin Hotels Las Vegas.

“All those properties have opened, and we’re on our way back,” Sisolak said. “That is something no other city can say they have.”

Sisolak has attended every event associated with Resorts World site: The implosion of the Stardust and the subsequent groundbreaking for Boyd Gaming’s Echelon, both in 2007; the announcement of the sale of the halted Echelon project and site to Genting in 2013; and a ceremonial groundbreaking for Resorts World in 2015.

“It’s done, and (Genting) went through a lot with the property,” Sisolak said. “Who back then would have thought we would have a pandemic to also deal with?”

During Thursday evening and well into Friday morning, Genting and Resorts World executives basked in the adulation from several thousand invited guests participating in a VIP extravaganza throughout the 117,000-square-foot casino. The party progressed onto the five-and-half-acre pool deck, where guests were entertained by celebrity DJs on the sixth-floor outdoor pool area that overlooks the Strip. Images from the evening were shown on the property’s 100,000 square foot LED screen attached to the south facing hotel tower.

During the evening, party guests sampled items from many of Resorts World’s 40 restaurants, including breakfast-centric Sun’s Out Buns Out, Japanese-themed Kusa Nori and Los Angeles chef Ray Garcia’s Mexican oriented Viva!

Resorts World’s food court, dubbed Famous Foods Street Eats, offered guests items of Filipino, Japanese, South Indian, Chinese and Singapore origin, as well as Texas barbecue and Italian cuisine. 

Shortly after a fireworks display from atop Resorts World Las Vegas’ roof, the doors were opened for thousands of visitors waiting to visit the Strip’s first new resort in more than a decade.

Here are some photos from the opening.

A dragon dance procession leads the first customers during opening night at Resorts World Las Vegas on Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)
Genting Berhad Chairman KT Lim paints a dragon during the Resorts World Las Vegas grand opening party on Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)
Gov. Steve Sisolak holds a souvenir following the Resorts World Las Vegas ribbon cutting on Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)
Rick Hilton with his daughters Paris, left, Nicky and wife Kathy during the Resorts World Las Vegas grand opening party on Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)
Guests mingle around the digital sphere during the opening night at Resorts World Las Vegas on Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)
An employee prepares a roulette table during opening night at Resorts World Las Vegas on Thursday, June 24, 2021. Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)
The scene in the casino area during opening night at Resorts World Las Vegas on Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)
Guests mingle at Gatsby’s during the Resorts World Las Vegas grand opening party on Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)
An Elvis impersonator stands in front of luxury cars at the Resorts World Las Vegas on Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)
Former Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, now UNR president, with his wife Lauralyn during the Resorts World Las Vegas grand opening party on Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)
Guests mingle in front of Viva! during the opening night at Resorts World Las Vegas on Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Resorts World unveiling ‘seems like an old-school Las Vegas resort opening’

The comparisons between the opening of Resorts World Las Vegas and the launch of The Mirage almost 32 years ago can’t be ignored.

Like its predecessor, the $4.3 billion Resorts World ends a decade-long lull of new Las Vegas Strip hotel-casino development. When it opened in 1989, The Mirage was the Strip’s first all-new casino resort in 15 years.

That’s where the similarities end, though.

Resorts World’ predecessor, Boyd Gaming’s Echelon project, was conceived at the apex of the Strip’s massive development phase in the mid-2000s, only to be halted 14 months after construction began as the Great Recession gripped the casino industry.

The site sat untouched for five years until Genting Berhad – the holding company for Malaysia-based Genting Group – acquired the property and added the Resorts World name. Construction started slowly in 2015 but didn’t kick-off in earnest until a few years later.

Thursday’s opening comes at an auspicious time in Las Vegas. The gaming industry has fully rebooted following 15 months of casino closures, operating restrictions and capacity limitations brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tourism and gaming numbers have been picking up since March, and the Resorts World opening is creating a buzz.  

A private party will kick off the evening until the public is allowed in around 11 p.m. Resorts World’s communications team have teased the potential for celebrity appearances and social media influencers on opening night.

Truist Securities gaming analyst Barry Jonas found the 3,500-room hotel, casino and entertainment complex has the highest room rates on the Strip heading into next week’s July 4th holiday weekend.

The connections are not lost on Resorts World Las Vegas President Scott Sibella, a long-time MGM Resorts International executive who moved into his role in 2019, shortly after departing a similar position he held for eight years with MGM Grand Las Vegas.

“I wish I could say I was a smart guy and that I planned it this way. But we planned a summer 2021 opening last year, either way, hoping things were going to be better,” Sibella said.

When Resorts World activated its 100,000-square-foot LED screen on its west tower on Independence Day a year ago, providing a digital fireworks display for a Strip audience scaled down because of the pandemic, the interest took hold.

“In many ways, it seems like an old-school Las Vegas resort opening,” said Bo Bernhard, who grew up in Las Vegas and is now executive director of UNLV’s International Gaming Institute and the university’s vice president of economic development.

The difference, Bernhard said, is the company behind the project. Genting’s Resorts World brand and concept are new to the Strip. The company has seven integrated Resorts World properties, primarily in Asia, including Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore and Resorts World Genting in Malaysia.

“This is an entirely new company with new ideas, and in this case, global ideas. It’s tremendous expertise that will help grow this market,” Bernhard said.

A view of Resorts World Las Vegas from the West Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center on the Strip. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Denstone Group CEO Oliver Lovat said Resorts World is “the most international property that has ever opened in Las Vegas.” The real estate advisor and casino industry consultant said American visitors won’t be disappointed.

“It is designed and structured for international visitors as well as the U.S. market in a way no other resort in Las Vegas has ever been built,” Lovatt said. “It’s a fusion of casino development from North America and Asia.”

Sibella cautioned that tapping the overseas Asian customer market, the bulk of Genting’s database, is challenging because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. It’s an issue for all Strip properties that have a large Asian customer connection.

“We have an edge from our properties over there (in Asia), but we know it won’t change overnight,” Sibella said. “My hope is it gets better by the end of the year, and we see the next Chinese New Year as a big celebration. But we’re not counting on that right away.”

More than just casinos

Genting was founded in 1965, and its first Resorts World property opened in Malaysia in 1971 as a 200-room hotel.

The company is more than just casinos. During a presentation to Nevada gaming regulators in May, Genting highlighted its place as a multinational conglomerate with energy, agriculture and real estate holdings in addition to its leisure and hospitality business. The company’s assets have an equity worth of $25 billion.

Global Market Advisors Partner Brendan Bussmann said New Yorkers recognize Resorts World’s gaming approach through its casinos in the Catskills and at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens.

“While the local leadership team has strong experience on the Strip, Resorts World is looking to make its own splash and be a competitive product in the resort corridor,” Bussmann said.

Resorts World Las Vegas and Hilton partnered to bring three of Hilton’s premium brands in Las Vegas Strip’s newest resort. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Quintessential megaresort

Resorts World Las Vegas is the first classic megaresort associated with the Strip’s growth in the three decades since The Mirage opened.

The 117,000 square foot casino will have 1,400 slot machines, 117 table games and a sportsbook. A high-end gaming area associated with Crockfords, a European gaming brand owned by Genting, is a part of the casino floor along with three 66th floor private gaming salons. Two other private gaming salons are on the fifth floor.

“Crockfords is an iconic brand for gamblers in the U.K.,” Lovatt said. “It will have an immediate resonance with the gaming customer.”

Last week, Resorts World announced it would be the first casino in Nevada to offer cashless gaming capabilities for slot machines, table games and sports betting, as well as non-gaming activities throughout the property, such as retail, restaurants and entertainment.

The casino partnered with five gaming technology providers in the effort.

Through a franchise agreement, Resorts World is utilizing Hilton Hotel’s brands, expertise, technology and the lodging company’s 115 million-member Hilton Honors program to fill the 3,500 rooms and suites.

All of Resorts World’s rooms are in the Hilton system under the Hilton name, the high-end Conrad brand or ultra-luxury LXR Hotels, which has been paired with Crockfords.

The property also will unveil the bulk of its 40 restaurants and beverage options, including an Asian street-themed food court. Resorts World’s five-and-half-acre pool deck and 300,000 square feet of convention and meeting space also are opening this week.

Three areas – the 5,000-seat theater built in partnership with AEG, Zouk Nightclub and the spa – are being held back until the fall and winter months because “additional scope has been added.” Singer Celine Dion will open the theater in November followed by singer Katy Perry and country music stars Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan.

“Everything we do here is nontraditional,” Sibella said. “We try to say, ‘let’s not do it the way people have done it before.’ Let’s be forward thinkers.”

Sibella said the bulk of the planned 5,000-person workforce had been hired as of early June. He said staff training has been taking place inside the property’s convention facility. Resorts World has “strongly encouraged” its workforce to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“We have a clinic where we are offering vaccines,” he said.

Remembering Echelon

Boyd Gaming CEO Keith Smith could see the progress of Resorts World Las Vegas from his office in the Hughes Center. He had an obvious interest in the development: The company actually started construction on what is now Resorts World.

“It looks like they took all the infrastructure we had in place, and built it from there,” Smith said.

Beginning in the 1980s, Boyd owned the iconic Rat Park-era Stardust, eventually adding a 32-story hotel tower to the resort. The company then purchased several adjacent lots next to the Stardust, creating an 87-acre site.

In November 2006, Boyd closed the Stardust and imploded the property four months later to make way for Echelon, a planned $4.8 billion resort envisioned with five hotels of varying sizes totaling 5,000 rooms and suites, all connected to a 140,000-square-foot casino.

A formal groundbreaking took place in June 2007. However, as the economy began to struggle and credit markets dried up, Boyd halted Echelon’s construction in August 2008. The project, a mix of steel structures and an unfinished parking garage, sat silent until Genting Berhad acquired the site for $350 million.

“First and foremost, there was a great confidence in the people that took over the property with the money they have invested and what they have built,” Smith said. “Las Vegas has a history of making these big incremental steps every so many years and giving customers more reasons to continue to come and visit. I think (Resorts World) will help grow the overall market in the long term. It’s very much a positive step for the city and our community.”

Boyd has 28 casinos in 10 states. It retained the Stardust name and trademarks, which are being used at the company’s growing online casino business in Pennsylvania.

A portion of the former Echelon project remains unfinished near the Sammy Davis Junior Drive entrance to Resorts World Las Vegas. Seen on June 16, 2021, it's expected to be included in an expansion phase. (Howard Stutz/The Nevada Independent)

Mirage comparison

When The Mirage opened, the $565 million cost left many aghast. At the time, it was the most expensive hotel-casino project ever built in Las Vegas.

That record for a single resort now belongs to Resorts World, at $4.3 billion, although the 2009 opening of CityCenter, which included multiple hotels, high-rise residential and retail, carried a $9 billion price tag. The last all-new hotel-casino on the Strip was the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, which opened in 2010 at a cost of $3.9 billion.

The Mirage’s opening was followed in 1990 by Excalibur. Over the next nine years, the Strip’s landscape dramatically changed as 11 new properties were added to the resort corridor, including MGM Grand in 1993, Bellagio in 1998 and the Venetian, Mandalay Bay and Paris in 1999.

Analysts said Resorts World won’t have the same influence when it comes to stimulating new casino development, but it’s success could lead to sales and renovations of existing Strip hotel-casinos. Derek Stevens opened Circa Casino Resort last fall – downtown Las Vegas’ first all-new resort in 40 years – and Virgin Resorts remodeled the former Hard Rock Las Vegas.

UNLV’s Bernhard noted the emergence of Genting may pave the way for other operators to join the Strip. For example, Rhode Island-based Bally’s Corp. is buying the Tropicana and Southern California’s San Manuel Indian Tribe is purchasing the Palms Casino Resort.

“Historically, gaming innovation has been outbound from Las Vegas. Now, the innovation is inbound with new operators,” Bernhard said. “The Strip is going to be better off because of that change.”

He likened the addition of Genting to the Strip’s roster to the change the late Sheldon Adelson brought to Las Vegas when he built the Sands Expo and Convention Center, along with the Venetian.

Bussmann noted that Genting’s move to develop a site started by Boyd was a good sign for Strip. The company completed a project at the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard that will add to the Las Vegas Convention Center expansion and the remodeled Sahara.

“While the future is still hazy for Fontainebleau and another parcel in the area, it definitely extends the experience for the leisure and business customer,” Bussmann said.

Will California sportsbooks lure away Nevada gamblers? Analysts say don’t bet on it

California voters will wait 16 months before weighing in on a tribal-backed ballot referendum that asks them to legalize sports betting.

Whatever occurs, it won’t change the opinion of gaming observers.

Though there is apprehension from a few Nevada sportsbook operators about potential competition from the largest feeder market to casinos in Las Vegas and Reno, analysts and sports betting experts don’t believe sportsbooks in California — the nation’s leading Indian gaming state — will slice into Nevada’s multi-billion-dollar business. 

Nevada’s sports betting industry is on pace to surpass its 2019 record-setting totals.

“Las Vegas has something that will never go away. It’s a business model that is impossible to compete with,” said Maryland-based sports betting consultant Sara Slane.

Eilers & Krejcik Gaming analyst Chris Grove said the state’s tourist-driven economy has withstood decades of gaming expansion efforts across the U.S.

“There's no reason why California has to represent a threat to Nevada's sports betting market,” Grove said. “California drive-in traffic to Vegas remains robust despite the widespread availability of various types of gambling within the state's borders.”

ESPN’s Doug Kezirian, host of Daily Wager, which is filmed inside the network’s Las Vegas studios overlooking the Strip at the Linq, believes “more legalization is better for Vegas.” Other than major events such as the Super Bowl and March Madness, “people don’t come to Vegas just to bet on sports. They come for all the bells and whistles.”

Even if California voters approve amending the state’s Constitution, the first wagers couldn’t be placed until 2023 at the earliest. Golden State lawmakers and gaming authorities also would need to sign off on regulations and procedures.

California’s secretary of state qualified the statewide ballot initiative petition last month after the tribes turned in more than 1 million valid signatures. The effort began in late 2019 and the 18-member tribal coalition sponsoring the referendum planned to put the measure on the November 2020 ballot. However, the pandemic delayed the process.

In addition to large and small tribal casinos throughout the state, sportsbooks would be allowed at four privately owned racetracks: Golden Gate Fields in the Bay Area and Santa Anita, plus Los Alamitos and Del Mar in Southern California. Cut out of the deal are California’s cardroom casinos, which offer table games but not slot machines.

The referendum calls for a 10 percent tax on sports betting revenues for funding public safety, mental health programs, education and regulatory costs.

Two items in the referendum are reasons analysts believe Nevada would be immune from California competition: The initiative doesn’t allow mobile sports wagering, and bans betting on games involving teams at California colleges and universities.

Kezirian worried that the California college ban, “sends the wrong message: that college sports are corruptible. It’s bad optics.”  

Tribal leaders said the prohibition would stop wagering by underage gamblers. The absence of mobile also would increase casino visitation, an important concern among the coalition’s smaller tribal casinos.

“This is an important step toward giving Californians the opportunity to participate in sports wagering while also establishing safeguards and protections against underage gambling,” Mark Macarro, chairman of Southern California’s Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, said in a statement.

Nevada is still No. 1

In the three years since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed states to legalize sports betting, the activity is live in 21 states and Washington D.C. Nine other states and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico have legalized sports betting, but have yet to launch. Another four states - Ohio, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine - are considering legalization. 

The speed of progress in more than half the U.S. has astonished sports betting observers.

“Who knows what will happen between now and when the referendum finally reaches the ballot in California?” Slane said.

Nevada has maintained its presence at the top of the rankings. Since 2018, 10 states have taken in more than $1 billion in sports wagers through April. Nevada leads with more than $15.1 billion in bets, followed by populous New Jersey at $14.9 million.

In 2019, Nevada sportsbooks took in $5.319 billion in wagers, an all-time record for the 10th consecutive year. Revenues from those wagers totaled $329.1 million, which was also a single-year record. 

The pandemic caused the first annual decline in sports in more than a decade.

However, according to the Gaming Control Board, the state is back on pace to set another record. Through April, sports books have taken in nearly $2.3 billion in wagers, which is up 22.4 percent compared with 2019. Revenues of $150.8 million during those four months is a 44 percent increase over 2019.

Silence from Nevada

Nevada sports betting operators declined comment on the California initiative. But at least three Las Vegas and Reno casino operators could have a stake in the expansion.

Caesars operates Harrah’s Southern California near San Diego for the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians, as well as Harrah’s Northern California near Sacramento for the Buena Vista Rancheria Band of Me-Wuk Indians.

The company also spent nearly $4 billion this year to acquire United Kingdom betting giant William Hill, which included the company's U.S. operations in 18 states. Caesars also recently became one of three official sports betting partners for the National Football League.

Boyd Gaming Corp. and Red Rock Resorts are in the process of developing tribal-owned casinos.

Boyd broke ground in March with the Wilton Rancheria Tribe on a $500 million casino resort in Elk Grove — 15 miles from downtown Sacramento. The property is expected to open in 2022. Boyd’s sports betting outside Nevada is operated through its 5 percent ownership in FanDuel and includes operations in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Mississippi (all fall among the top three revenue-generating operators in each state).

Red Rock is moving forward with a $350 million to $400 million casino resort project near Fresno for the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians. The company hopes to break ground on the casino sometime this summer.

Global Market Advisors Partner Brendan Bussmann said there is a healthy potential for collaborations and cross-marketing opportunities in California.  

“Every Las Vegas and national operator will have its eye on a partnership, if not multiple partnerships, in this land-based sports betting approach,” he said.

Will California be golden?

California is viewed by analysts as a potential sports betting juggernaut.

It is the nation’s most populous state and is home to more than a dozen teams in the four major professional sports leagues. Nearly 70 Indian casinos produced an estimated $8 billion in annual gaming revenues prior to 2020, roughly one-quarter of all U.S. Indian gaming revenues.

Analysts believe adding California to the roster of legal sports betting states will put a dent in the illegal offshore sports betting industry, which is easily accessed online.

Bussmann said “all roads” to legal sports betting expansion in California have to run through the tribes.

“Sports betting in California has the potential to capture a significant untapped market that is ruled today by illegal books and retain those dollars through a tribal approach,” Bussmann said. “Californians will finally get a say on the expansion of gaming in the state.”

‘An opportunity, not a threat’

Nevada gaming regulators have reported a steady year-over-year increase in sports wagers placed through mobile devices. Grove and other analysts said the absence of mobile sports betting in California helps Nevada sports books. He suggested, however, that Nevada could further improve its standing by adding a remote registration component to mobile sports betting regulations.

“Assuming Nevada adjusts its approach to mobile sports betting to allow for a smoother customer experience, and that Vegas casinos continue to invest in creating world-class sportsbooks, the expansion of legal sports betting in California and across the U.S. should represent an opportunity, not a threat, for Las Vegas casinos,” Grove said.

Nevada will get its first real test of competition from a neighboring state this fall when Arizona launches sports betting at tribal casinos and at sports stadiums.

Caesars Entertainment has a deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks to place a sportsbook at Chase Field in downtown Phoenix. DraftKings and the PGA Tour will create a sportsbook at the TPC Scottsdale golf course.

“I don’t believe sports betting in Arizona will have any effect in Nevada,” Slane said.

Nevada locals drive the state’s gaming revenue recovery in April

During a quarterly earnings conference call this month, Red Rock Resorts Chief Financial Officer Stephen Cootey touted the operating trends in the Las Vegas locals gaming market. Boyd Gaming CEO Keith Smith made a similar observation a week earlier.

“We continue to see strong visitation from a younger demographic, increased spend per visit, more time spent on devices, plus the growing return of our core customer,” Cootey said.

The comments by the top executives that oversee the majority of the off-Strip casino business were validated Thursday. The local gaming markets – suburban areas outside the Las Vegas Strip corridor – staged a post-pandemic comeback in April.

Combined gaming revenues of $244.8 million was an 18 percent increase compared to April 2019 according to results released Thursday by the Gaming Control Board. The neighborhood gaming figures – part of Clark County’s overall total of $865.4 million – were a factor in the month’s statewide $1.039 billion gaming revenue figure.

April 2021’s overall gaming revenue total was an 11 percent increase over $936.5 million recorded in April 2019 and a sign that areas of Nevada are bouncing back quicker than most analysts had anticipated.

The state’s overall April total marked the second straight month Nevada topped $1 billion in revenues as the industry recovers from the pandemic. COVID-19 closures and operating restrictions in 2020 sent the nation’s largest gaming market to record double-digit percentage declines and its lowest overall figures since the mid-1990s.

Gaming regulators and analysts are using 2019 numbers as a comparison for 2021 after casinos were closed a year ago for 78 days starting in mid-March.

Unlike Strip casinos, which rely heavily on destination travelers, neighborhood casinos are viewed similarly to regional jurisdictions, which count on a heavy drive-in customer.

“Nevada’s regional results were some of the strongest across the U.S.,” Macquarie Securities gaming analyst Chad Beynon told investors in a research note.

As for the Strip, gaming revenue totals of $483.4 million were a less than 1 percent increase over April 2019. The Strip was still bogged down in April by lack of conventions that bring in midweek visitation and the absence of international travel. McCarran International Airport had just 31,214 international travelers in April – all from Mexico – which was an overall decline of 90.3 percent for the month. In 2019, McCarran had nonstop service to and from 11 different countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, South Korea, China and Israel, but is now down to one due to pandemic travel restrictions.

Southern Nevada had more than 2.57 million visitors in April, an increase of 15.4 percent over March, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. However, compared to April 2019, the total was down 27.3 percent from 3.54 million.

In April, Las Vegas recorded its 13th straight month without convention and meeting attendees. Las Vegas hotel occupancy was at 65.6 percent in April with weekend occupancy at 83.5 percent.

‘Slots are off the charts’

Control Board Senior Research Analyst Michael Lawton said a deep dive into April’s gaming figures showed slot machine activity was a key reason for the statewide increase.

Statewide slot machine revenues of $793.7 million was up 20.5 percent compared to April 2019 and marked the highest single-month slot machine total in Nevada history, eclipsing the previous record of $779.6 million set in October 2007.

Wagering on slot machines increased 18.7 percent in the month to $11.1 million. The figure was the highest volume recorded since May 2008.

“Slots are off the charts,” Lawton said.

Good month for the locals

Casinos within the unincorporated areas of the Las Vegas Valley – referred to as the balance of Clark County – set an all-time record for consecutive gaming revenue months for April and May. The total of $137.6 million in April was a 34.8 percent increase over April 2019.

Beynon said the Las Vegas locals segment wasn’t the state’s only market showing signs of a rebound during April. Reno gaming revenues of $61.8 million were up 29% compared to April 2019 while downtown Las Vegas gaming revenues of $76.2 million increased 23 percent.

North Las Vegas was the only market in the state that didn’t report a revenue increase in April. Two casinos operated by Red Rock Resorts that are included in North Las Vegas totals, Fiesta Rancho and Texas Station, have remained closed for more than a year.

Washoe County recorded its highest single-month gaming revenue total since July 2008 with $87.4 million, a jump of 32.8 percent over April 2019.

As the Strip goes, so does Nevada

Slot machine play saved the Strip’s overall total. Table game revenues declined 24.4 percent and baccarat revenues fell 57.5 percent. However, slot machine revenues of $327 million was up 18.9 percent compared to April 2019. More than $3.8 billion was wagered on slot machines at Strip resorts, a 15.8 percent increase from April 2019.

Las Vegas’ average daily room rate was $109 during April, 9.2 percent higher than March, but down 16.1 percent with pre-pandemic April 2019. LVCVA Vice President of Research Kevin Bagger said the improved occupancy and room rates translated into $71.74 in revenue per available room, a 29.1 percent increase over March but still 60 percent below 2019 levels. The calculation is used as a measure by analysts to assess profitability.

McCarran International Airport numbers in April showed improvement with 2.9 million passengers coming through the facility in April, a 12.9 percent increase from March, but was down 32 percent compared to April 2019.

Statewide, gaming revenues are up 34.8 percent over the dismal 2020 numbers. Compared to June 2020 when casinos resumed operations gaming revenues are down 10.1 percent.

Backing out the Strip’s 27.3 percent revenue decline since last June, Lawton said the state would be up 10.9 percent for the same time period and Clark County as a whole would be up 7.8 percent.

During April, casinos were operating at 80 percent capacity limits. The Gaming Control Board is rescinding all COVID-19 mitigation protocols starting Tuesday, allowing the gaming industry statewide to resume 100 percent operations.

Henderson and Reno rise as pandemic driven casino closures skew national gaming revenue ranks

Casinos along Boulder Highway and much of Henderson make up the ninth-largest gaming revenue market in the U.S., according to the American Gaming Association.

The Northern Nevada area that includes casinos in Reno and Sparks is now ranked No. 12 among the Top 20 U.S. gaming markets.

Both regions jumped up two spots in the AGA’s annual “State of the States” commercial casino industry survey, which was released Thursday.

The standings, however, are most likely a one-year anomaly.

A spokeswoman for the AGA said the shifting market rankings were solely attributable to the number of days casinos were closed in specific markets. Nationwide, the organization said the commercial casino industry lost a combined 45,600 days of operation because of pandemic related closures – roughly 27 percent of potential operating days.

The Washington, D.C.-based trade organization said COVID-19-influenced casino closures and pandemic-related operating restrictions across the country during 2020 had varying influences on different communities.

Combined, national gaming revenues in 2020 for commercial casinos – non-Indian gaming properties – fell 31 percent to $30 billion, the lowest annual figure since 2003.

“While 2020 was a rough year for the industry, it will end up being an asterisk as we look at revenue over the course of time,” said Global Market Advisors partner Brendan Bussmann. “The more defining stat will be how quickly each of these markets rebounds, sustains, and grows.”

In calculating the rankings, the AGA subtracted sports betting revenues from the 21 states that had legal operations in order to offer a fundamentally similar comparison to states that didn’t have legal sports betting.

The Strip, which saw gaming revenues decline 43.3 percent to $3.73 billion ($3.65 billion under the AGA’s estimate), remained the nation’s largest gaming market.

Atlantic City held on to the second slot with $1.4 billion.

As for the rest of the top 20, only three jurisdictions – Lake Charles, Louisiana; Kansas City and Cincinnati – remained in their 2019 slots.

“The revenue stat will end up being a blip on the radar,” Bussmann said.

The Boulder Strip and Henderson region collectively brought in $642 million in gaming revenues – $655 million with sports betting added, according to Nevada Gaming Control Board figures – cracking the top 10.

The Reno/Sparks casino market rose two slots with $577 million according to the AGA – $595.5 million using the Control Board’s number.

During the first two months of 2020, U.S. commercial gaming revenue was up 11.4 percent compared to the same time in 2019.

"Last year was certainly one of the most challenging years in gaming's history,” said AGA Senior Vice President of Communications Casey Clark.

Nevada casinos were closed for 78 days between mid-March and the first week of June. Surges in COVID-19 cases limited operations for much of the fall, and several casinos reduced hours for certain amenities or shutdown operations during the middle of the week because of lack of business. In Southern Nevada, four casinos owned by Red Rock Resorts – Palms, Texas Station, Fiesta Henderson and Fiesta Rancho – and two Boyd Gaming properties – Main Street Station and Eastside Cannery – remain closed.

Other casino areas in the country, such as Detroit and the Poconos in Pennsylvania, fell four places in the AGA listing.

Downtown Las Vegas casinos fell three spots to No. 19 with $387 million in gaming revenues – $464 million with sports betting included.

Despite every state reporting steep casino revenue declines, there were certain positive signs in 2020. Nationwide, sports betting revenues grew 69 percent while the combined online casino gaming revenues in four states tripled 2019’s figure.

“This year’s report reflects both the highs and lows of the past year,” said AGA CEO Bill Miller.

The AGA, however, believes the casino industry will come back quicker than previously anticipated. Commercial casino revenue was more than $11 billion in the first three months of 2021, according to the AGA. The figure matched the third quarter of 2019 as the industry’s highest-ever three-month revenue period.

Nevada casinos collected more than $1 billion in gaming revenues in March.

“With reopenings and capacity restrictions easing in most areas, we're already beginning to see gaming revenue climbing to pre-pandemic levels,” Clark said.