Red Rock Resorts’ long-delayed California casino receives another legal setback

A California appellate court tossed a roadblock in front of Red Rock Resorts’ planned development of a tribal-owned casino near Fresno that has been tied up in legal maneuverings for some 18 years.

A three-judge panel said the defeat of a 2014 statewide ballot referendum precluded California’s governor from signing a gaming compact with the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians. The tribe has an agreement with Las Vegas-based Red Rock Resorts subsidiary Station Casinos to develop and manage the $350 million to $400 million off-reservation gaming project.

However, the ruling by the judges contradicted a separate decision by the California Supreme Court last fall that green-lighted the project. The ruling allowed Gov. Gavin Newsome to accept a U.S. Department of Interior ruling that permitted the tribe to utilize a 305-acre off-reservation site for the casino.

The competing court rulings leave Red Rock Resorts’ Indian gaming venture in limbo.

The company is without a tribal gaming contract after its three previous management deals – two in California and one in Michigan – expired.

Red Rock Resorts Chief Financial Officer Stephen Cootey said last month the casino operator and the North Fork tribe expected “to have a shovel in the ground” shortly after the end of June, which would begin a 15-to-18-months construction project.

“We’re excited to begin the development of this very attractive project on behalf of North Fork Tribe,” Cootey said during the company’s first-quarter earnings conference call last month.

Red Rock Resorts spokesman Michael Britt declined comment Monday on the California ruling.

A spokesman for North Fork Rancheria Tribal Chairwoman Elaine Bethel-Fink provided a statement.

“The North Fork Rancheria and its development partner, Station Casinos, are digesting this most recent ruling," the tribe said in an email. "We will have a more comprehensive statement when we have had a chance to discern the implications of this decision and the appropriate next steps.”

Cootey said in May the gaming operator was having “discussions with our lending partners as to how we can most efficiently finance this project.”

The North Fork Casino is planned for 2,000 slot machines, 40 table games, two stand-alone restaurants and a food court. Hotel rooms and other amenities are expected to be built at a later date.

Red Rock’s most recent casino management contract with the Graton Rancheria Tribe near Santa Rosa expired in February after seven years. In the three-month period that ended on March 31, Red Rock’s cash flow from its tribal operation was $7.6 million, a 56.8 percent decrease from a year earlier, due largely to the termination of the Graton contract.

Red Rock – then operating as Station Casinos – first signed an agreement with the North Fork tribe in 2003 to build and manage the gaming complex. The tribe has a 61-acre reservation near the town of North Fork, but long maintained the site was too small and too far removed for a casino.

The off-reservation site designated for the casino complex is in the town of Madera off Highway 99, roughly 42 miles from the tribe’s reservation and just 30 miles north of Fresno.

North Fork faced numerous legal obstacles from the beginning over the taking of non-reservation land into trust, a move that must gain Interior Department approval and is often opposed by competing tribes. California is the nation’s largest Indian gaming state, and its 70 tribal casinos produced nearly $9 billion in annual gaming revenues prior to the pandemic. The total was nearly one-quarter of all tribal gaming revenues annually according to statistics compiled by Washington D.C.’s National Indian Gaming Association.

The appellate court ruling was based on a lawsuit filed in 2013 by “Stand Up for California!” an anti-gaming public affairs organization that opposed the casino and the land-into-trust issue. The case suffered a loss in a lower court decision, where the judge agreed with the arguments brought by the defendants, which included the state, then-California Gov. Jerry Brown and California gaming regulators.

However, the appellate court, despite last September’s Supreme Court decision, agreed with the arguments raised by plaintiffs pointing to the defeat of the 2014 ballot referendum by 61 percent to 39 percent, prevented Brown from signing off on the land-into-trust issue. If the ballot question had passed, the casino would have been approved.

“We conclude the people retained the power to annul a concurrence by the governor and the voters exercised this retained power at the 2014 election by impliedly revoking the concurrence for the Madera site,” the appellate judges wrote.

Gaming and labor leaders reach a compromise on ‘Right to Return’ legislation

Gaming and Culinary Union negotiators have tentatively agreed to revisions in legislation that would guarantee the rights of laid-off gaming and tourism industry workers to return to their jobs.

A deal on SB386 – referred to as “Right to Return” legislation – was reached with less than a week left before the end of the state's 120-day legislative session. Lawmakers wasted little time processing the bill — several hours after the initial publication of this story on Tuesday afternoon, members of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee moved quickly to pass the amended bill out of committee on a split vote.

In an interview prior to the committee vote, bill sponsor and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) credited the Culinary Union, Nevada Resort Association and the governor’s office for working together to arrive at a consensus on the high-profile legislation.

“I think you're really seeing what is a recognition of the greater good and how do we get started to work together to get everything back to where we need it to be,” she said.

As part of the agreement, revisions will be made to SB4, a bill from the 2020 special session last summer that includes government-imposed health and safety standards meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as expanded liability protections for major casino resorts. The amendment relaxes requirements on cleaning, such as cleaning minibars, headboards and decorative items on beds, and changes directives to clean throughout the day to instead call for cleaning daily.

Critics of the legislation had raised concerns that the bill in its original form would make it too easy for former employees to sue. The bill now offers recourse through the Labor Commissioner or through the courts, but only after the employee notifies their employer of the alleged violation and gives them at least 15 days to fix the issue.

“I think we've heard a lot of those concerns. We've tried to make sure that the bill still allows for enforcement while not opening up the doors of litigation,” Cannizzaro said.

In its original form, the bill required employers who declined to call back a former employee because that former worker lacked qualifications — and instead hired someone else for the job — to provide the person they passed over with a written notice and reasoning for the decision within 30 days of making it. The amendment limits the callback requirement, covering employees only if they accept or decline the job offer within 24 hours (revised down from 10 days in the initial bill) and are available within five days of receiving an offer.

Employers are also cleared of their obligations to re-hire someone if their job offers are turned down three times over a period of at least six weeks, or if mail or email is returned as undeliverable or a phone line is out of service.

The amendment specifies that managers and stage performers are also excluded from the provisions, and its provisions would not supersede or preempt any collective bargaining agreement already in place.

The amendment also covers areas of a resort casino that are leased to another operator, such as retail shops, restaurants, bars, and parking facilities.

Also, the amendment exempted restricted gaming operators which have 15 or fewer slot machines, such as bars, taverns, convenience stores, and grocery chains.

Bob Ostrovsky, a lobbyist representing the Nevada Resort Association, said the amended version of the bill would leave the association as officially “neutral” — promising not to support or oppose the bill as an association.  

He estimated that the industry was currently down about 66,000 casino resort employees from its pre-pandemic high, but estimated that only about 70 percent of the casino’s pre-pandemic workforce would end up returning to their previous positions, based on turnover history.

“We certainly have to think in terms of the masses of employees and the masses of paperwork that are required here, but I got to tell you, our members care,” he said. “Experienced and dedicated employees are what make these operations work. It's one thing to build a billion-dollar building. To operate it, you really need a well-honed team.”

Cannizzaro added in an interview prior to the committee vote that she hopes the bill will get bipartisan support because it “has a lot of buy-in,” although it does not need a two-thirds majority to move forward. 

Still, several Republican senators on the committee questioned portions of the bill. Sen. James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) asked why the measure did not have a small business exemption, and Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) said he was concerned about the proposed remedies for civil action.

“I think in many respects, this is better than some of the [collective bargaining agreements] I’ve reviewed in the past, and this is applying to nonunion shops that don’t ordinarily have to deal with these,” Pickard said. “I think it’s going to be a significant burden.”

Union leader softens testimony

Union and gaming negotiators had spent months trying to hammer out a compromise on SB386. The bill has a waiver that exempts it from legislative deadlines. Gaming sources have said there are stark disagreements between union and business interests over the bill’s language.

Earlier Tuesday, UNITE HERE President D. Taylor was prepared to tell a U.S. Senate subcommittee about the labor group’s support for SB386, but he departed from his prepared remarks that were posted to the subcommittee’s website that accused certain employers – including the Nevada casino resort industry – of using the pandemic to “reduce” jobs and leaving workers out of an economic comeback.

In April, Taylor testified in the only public hearing for SB386. The Culinary Union has hosted rallies and engaged in door hanging campaigns aimed at pressuring lawmakers to pass the legislation. 

Taylor, who spent 26 years in leadership for Culinary Workers Local 226 before being appointed UNITE HERE president in 2012, told the panel that is chaired by Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) that the state’s hospitality workers play a frontline role in providing resort industry guests a safe and secure environment.

“The idea is not to view workers as a cost item but viewed as a service product that brings back (consumer) loyalty,” Taylor told the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Tourism, Trade, and Export Promotion in response to a question from Rosen.

SB386 would allow workers in the gaming and travel sectors a right to return to their jobs. The bill covers those workers laid off after March 12, 2020 and who were employed for at least six months in the year prior to the governor’s first COVID-19 emergency declaration.

The legislation is similar to at least a half-dozen other bills backed by the labor organization in other states. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed legislation last month that requires hospitality and service industry employers to offer new positions to laid off workers. 

Taylor, in testifying Tuesday, softened his message in some areas, but stuck to the script in others.

He said employment is “lagging” in destination markets, such as Las Vegas, where 50 percent of union members in gaming have returned to work. In New Orleans, just 32 percent of the labor organization’s membership is back on the job.

Regional gaming markets, Taylor said, have had better success at bringing back employees, including Atlantic City, Ohio, Detroit and Mississippi. Those communities have returned 65 percent to 75 percent of UNITE HERE workers to their jobs.

In the prepared remarks, Taylor said opposition to SB368 by Station Casinos, the operating subsidiary of Red Rock Resorts, denies casino, hospitality, stadium and travel-related workers in Nevada their recall rights.

“In most cases, unless you have a union contract, there’s nothing that requires your employer to bring you back when the business returns,” Taylor wrote. “Workers who are terminated and replaced rather than 'recalled' make on average 11.8 percent less in wages when they get a new job,” Taylor said. “Of older workers who are laid off involuntarily, only one in 10 will ever earn as much again.”

At the outset of the pandemic, Station Casinos was one of just three casino operators, along with Wynn Resorts and Las Vegas Sands, that committed to pay employees through shutdown.  

During his appearance, Taylor named Wynn Resorts, along with Disney in Florida, as companies that have stepped up to support their workforces.

In an interview following Taylor’s testimony, Culinary Union Secretary-Treasurer Geoconda Argüello-Kline said SB386 is needed to ensure the labor organization’s members are able to return to their previous jobs.

Las Vegas casino operators have held nearly a dozen different job fairs in efforts to restaff hotel-casinos that were closed for 78 days a year ago and were hampered throughout the year by capacity restrictions and other COVID-19 operating procedures. Most casinos in Nevada are expected to return to 100 percent occupancy levels on June 1.

The $4.3 billion Resorts World Las Vegas is facing challenges filling out its planned 5,000-person workforce.

Scott Sibella, president of the 3,506-room Strip property that opens June 24, told the Nevada Gaming Commission last week some 120,000 potential workers applied for jobs during the pandemic.

"We feel comfortable and made offers, but we're concerned about people changing their minds," Sibella said. He added that Resorts World has contingency plans in place for bringing on workers.

Sibella, a former president of MGM Grand Las Vegas, told the commissioners the resort is competing with other Las Vegas resorts in filling jobs.

"The Venetian is holding a job fair. They haven't done a job fair in 20 years,” Sibella said.

Updated at 8:44 p.m. to add additional details on the amendment and reflect that the committee passed the bill.

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.

As Las Vegas' rebound picks up steam, hospitality workers still waiting for callbacks push for "Right to Return" bill

Mario Sandoval was a waiter at Binion's Gambling Hall and Hotel’s steakhouse in downtown Las Vegas for 36 years but has not worked since mid-March of 2020 — when casinos were closed because of the pandemic — along with thousands of Nevadans in the tourism and hotel industry. 

Months passed and several hotels, casinos and restaurants reopened with capacity limits, including Binion’s, but the restaurant where Sandoval worked remained closed.

In January of this year, he received a letter informing him that he had been terminated. Sandoval, who is 53 years old, says he does not have the time or skills to pursue a new career, nor can he retire early.

“What we're seeing is a lot of older workers who are in their 50s or 60s, they just have maybe 10 years to retirement or five years to retirement, and they are really worried that they won't get these jobs now that they're competing with everyone else for the job they had previously,” said Bethany Khan, a spokeswoman for the Culinary Workers Union.

Thanks to his daughter, who lives with Sandoval, he was able to get by during the pandemic. Sandoval said his daughter never stopped working and took on the responsibility of covering household expenses and supporting him.

Although Binion’s has a contract with the Culinary Union, Sandoval fears his former restaurant managers will not call him back, preferring to hire someone new with a lower salary. He not only fears for himself, but also for his colleagues in other hotels and casinos who do not have contracts with the union.

“Companies should not waste time and money trying to hire and train new people when there are people like me with so much experience just waiting for our workplaces to bring us back,” Sandoval told The Nevada Independent. “I should not be replaced or abandoned for a younger worker when I have spent my life working for this company. I should not have to start my career over when I am so close to retiring with dignity.”

Culinary Union officials hope to avoid that competition with SB386, the so-called “Right to Return” bill, which would require companies to offer any employees laid off during the pandemic their jobs back, but negotiations between the resorts and Culinary Union are ongoing.

During the bill's first hearing, opposing testimony from the Las Vegas Chamber, Henderson Chamber of Commerce, Reno Sparks Chamber of Commerce, Southwest Airlines, Boyd Gaming Corporation and Caesars Entertainment included objections about a provision they said would cause unnecessary litigation: It would allow workers to bring civil actions against employers who do not comply with the requirements of the bill.

Some opponents of the bill also said that companies have supported their employees through the pandemic and that the measure would hinder efforts to bring back employees because of its “time-consuming” requirements and the potential of distracting management from its rehiring efforts to deal with lawsuits.

A statement from an attorney with South Point Hotel Casino and Spa submitted in opposition said that management continued to pay health insurance premiums after furloughing employees out of a “concern for the employees’ welfare.” 

Mario Sandoval, a Culinary Workers Union member who was a waiter at Binion's Hotel Casino's steakhouse for 36 years, he was furloughed during the pandemic. Bethany Khan/Culinary Workers Union

The proposal

The measure was presented on April 7 by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) and aims to ensure that laid-off hospitality and tourism employees are granted the option to return to their prior positions.

If passed, the law would apply to workers who were laid off after March 12, 2020 and who were employed for at least six months prior to the first COVID-19 emergency declaration issued by Sisolak.

The measure received a waiver so negotiations could continue past legislative deadlines between the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, the Culinary Workers Union and hotel companies.

Khan declined to elaborate on the state of negotiations this week. Asked about the status of negotiations on Thursday, Virginia Valentine of the Nevada Resort Association said her group is carefully watching the bill and having conversations about it.

“It’s a complicated bill with a lot of stakeholders so I wouldn’t expect to hear anything right away,” she told The Nevada Independent

Khan said one of the benefits of the bill for union members would be the right to be recalled from a layoff for up to two years, depending on contracts with the company.

Essentially, employers would be required to reinstate a laid-off employee before hiring someone new for that same position. For example, if a former employee has not worked since March 2020, the employee could return to work at the company until March 2022 — if their employment contract allows for that two-year recall period, Khan said.

Under this protection, union members would be called back to work by seniority, and would keep the same job title, benefits, salary and health care plan.

The risk

Maria Balandrán was a buffet cook assistant for 18 years at Green Valley Ranch Resort in Henderson, a Station Casinos property that does not have a contract with the Culinary Workers Union. 

Balandrán and her fellow employees voted to unionize in 2017, but the company legally challenged the formation of a union. A D.C. Circuit Court denied the company’s final appeal in 2020, but no union contract has yet been established. 

In May 2020, someone told Balandrán to check a Facebook page where the names of people who had been terminated had just been published. And there she saw her name.

Balandrán has no guarantee the resort will hire her again in her same position. As it stands, she will have to reapply for work alongside dozens of people who have lived the same situation and are also looking for work. 

“My daughters depend on me and on what I earn. When they took us out of work I had to ask for unemployment. I had never asked for unemployment, I have always worked,” Balandrán said in Spanish in an interview with The Nevada Independent. “And I had to apply for [Medicaid] for my daughters, and I had to apply for food stamps, things that I had never done. It is the first time that I have had to depend on these benefits in order to support my daughters.”

Since then, Balandrán, who is a single mother of three daughters, has been able to survive and support her family with help from the state and federal government, including unemployment support, food stamps and stimulus checks. 

“Workers like Maria that are terminated and want to go back to work, would have to reapply, reinterview, compete with other workers for her job but she had before. And then be at risk of getting paid $3 to $4 less an hour for the same exact job she was doing for 18 years,” Khan said.

A Station Casinos spokesperson testified in opposition to the measure during the bill’s hearing, saying that the measure would “damage those employers who are still fighting to recover from the pandemic by creating burdensome, time-consuming requirements that complicate and discourage rehiring.”

The spokesperson did not answer The Nevada Independent’s inquiries about the company's rehiring processes — or about former employees finding out about terminations through a Facebook post.

“I know it is difficult because everyone is unemployed, and finding another job again is very difficult. In whatever that is available, the point is that I have to support my family,” said Balandrán. "What I would like is that they give us the right to return, that they pass SB386 so that they give us the right to return to work with our salary, our benefits as we had before ... I hope the politicians pass this law.”

Unemployed casino worker Maria Balandrán stands outside her home in Las Vegas on Friday, April 30, 2021. She has been unemployed since March of 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The reopening

Sandoval is hopeful that when business capacity returns to 100 percent, many of his industry colleagues will be able to return to their jobs. In recent months, some local hotels and casinos have held several job fairs to fill open positions. 

“We know those companies are going to open, and they're going to open soon because June 1 is coming. And they’re supposed to change the [capacity] mandate to 100 percent, and that's when you're going to see money,” Sandoval said. “We're a well-trained staff and ready to go back to work. Don't have to train you, or any of it. We're just ready, and been waiting.” 

A year after Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered nonessential businesses in the state to shut their doors, including hotels and casinos, most have reopened and the number of visitors is increasing.

McCarran International Airport announced that it saw nearly one million more domestic flight passengers in March, a 60 percent increase compared to February. And Nevada casinos made more than $1 billion in gambing winnings last month, the state’s highest monthly gaming win in eight years, according to new data from the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

Starting May 1, Clark County will increase the indoor capacity limit for businesses to 80 percent, outdoor service will have no capacity limit and the social distancing requirement will be reduced to three feet. Buffets, adult entertainment venues and nightclubs can all reopen under these new regulations.

This week Wynn Resorts and The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas announced that more than 80 percent of their active workforce has been vaccinated against COVID-19. As a result, the Nevada Gaming Control Board will allow the properties to open their casino floors to 100 percent capacity. 

Valentine said many large casino companies are already doing callbacks “to a large extent.”

“We're bringing people back to work as fast as we can,” she said. “We're confident that we're going to bring as many people as possible, and obviously getting everybody vaccinated will help us a lot with getting fully open. The more people are vaccinated, the more people that are going back to work.”

According to the Culinary Union, 50 percent of the 60,000 members of the Culinary Workers Union have returned to work, but the other half are still waiting.

That figure does not include the hundreds of employees of properties that do not have a contract with the union.

Boyd Gaming told The Nevada Independent that its rehiring process includes first calling past employees to verify that they are interested in returning, but some have decided not to return and so the company has had to hire new team members. David Strow, spokesman for Boyd Gaming also said that as demand increases and business continues to recover, the company will “step up” its hiring efforts. 

When asked about their rehiring process, Caesars Entertainment and Wynn Resorts chose not to answer. MGM Resorts International did not immediately respond to a request for comment.  

Khan said SB386 would guarantee workers are not penalized or abandoned by their employers.

“Our stance is we cannot have a full recovery in Nevada without workers who make the number one industry in Nevada, which is tourism and hospitality,” Khan said. “Workers cannot be cut out or left out of the recovery.”

'Right to Return' bill would guarantee laid-off hospitality employees the opportunity to return to their old jobs

After the pandemic brought thousands of layoffs to Nevada’s hospitality industry and devastated the state’s economy, lawmakers are considering a “Right to Return” bill that would give casino, hospitality, stadium and travel-related workers in Nevada the right to return to their former jobs.

The bill, SB386, garnered emotional support testimony Wednesday from laid-off workers looking to return to work and the backing of labor unions, while businesses, including some Las Vegas casinos, opposed the measure, arguing that it would result in inappropriate costs and litigation.

“I should not be replaced or abandoned. I have spent my life working for this company. I should not have to start my career over,” Mario Sandoval, a food worker and Culinary Union member of 39 years who lost his job amid the pandemic, said during a hearing for the bill. “I could have hope if I was guaranteed my job back, something that company has taken away from us.”

With events canceled, travel restrictions in effect and casinos shut down for several weeks during the pandemic, the hospitality industry was forced to scale back immensely over the past year. Data from the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation shows that from March to May last year, the state’s hospitality industry lost nearly 200,000 jobs.

Sandoval’s sentiment was echoed by other hospitality workers, including Cristina Lopez, who was laid off in May at her job at Station Casinos’ Texas Station after 10 years with the company.

“This crisis is not our fault. It took us all by surprise,” Lopez said. “I have applied at 15 different jobs, but I am told that I am overqualified to work at fast-food restaurants or that I don’t have enough experience for another job. The only hope I have is for my job to come back to the way it was.”

The bill applies to workers in the casino, hospitality, stadium and travel-related economic sectors who were laid off after March 12, 2020 and who were employed for at least six months in the year prior to the governor’s first COVID-19 emergency declaration.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) presented the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee bill, invoking her own parents, who were members of the Culinary Union.

“Growing up, I was the very proud daughter of a waitress and a bartender, both of whom are members of Culinary Union 226,” she said during the hearing. “Because I grew up in a family who relied on exactly the type of jobs that have been so hard hit by this pandemic, I can only imagine what these workers and their families have been through the past year.”

The bill would require employers to offer a laid-off employee each job that the employee is qualified for (e.g. someone who conducted cleaning work for a business could be eligible for other jobs associated with maintaining COVID-19 health and safety protocols). Employers also would be required to give employees who are not hired back an explanation of why they were not offered a job within 30 days of the decision.

During the bill presentation, Cannizzaro was joined by D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, a hospitality labor union with more than 300,000 members and the parent to the Las Vegas culinary union. Taylor argued that bringing back already-trained workers would benefit the recovering economy.

“This is good for the economy and businesses. This legislation provides for already-trained and experienced staff — a staff that was praised a year ago by the same companies,” Taylor said. “To get back to work immediately, there's no retraining necessary. They're ready day one.”

However, some senators expressed a concern that businesses would not be able to hire back all of their laid-off employees given the ongoing economic struggles related to the pandemic.

“The reopening is certainly uneven, and it's slow. And so my concern is, if an employer were to say, you know, they laid off 1,000 people… The employer is likely not to hire every employee that they laid off on the same day,” said Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson). “Now they're going to have to face a court to justify why they laid off a certain person.”

Opponents of the bill — including the Las Vegas Chamber, Henderson Chamber of Commerce, Reno Sparks Chamber of Commerce, Southwest Airlines, Boyd Gaming Corporation and Caesars Entertainment — argued that one provision of the bill would invite unnecessary litigation, as the legislation would allow employees to bring a civil action against employers that fail to comply with the bill requirements.

“Why diminish the entrepreneurial spirit and fail to recognize what it has taken to weather through this pandemic?” Ann Silver, CEO for the Reno Sparks Chamber of Commerce, said during the hearing. “There are federal and state laws to protect against discrimination and unfair labor practices. And there was enough work for lawyers. Let's not create new legislation that begs for litigation and class action lawsuits.”

Paul More, a Las Vegas-based labor lawyer, explained that employers would be able to defend themselves from civil lawsuits, if there was a legitimate business reason for not being able to bring an employee back to work.

Opponents of the bill also pointed to benefits that already were offered to employees through the pandemic and noted ongoing efforts to bring workers back.

“During the height of the pandemic, we initially continued full pay for all team members including tip income for the greater portion of the time our properties were closed,” said Erin Midby, vice president of government affairs for Boyd Gaming. “Since the shutdown, Boyd Gaming has brought more than 6,000 team members back to work and are continually bringing more back.”

Many of the labor unions supporting the “Right to Return” measure, including the Culinary Union, AFL-CIO and United Food and Commercial Workers Union, called it a “common sense” solution and said it was time to bring people back to work.

“Let's pass this bill and let's give people back work,” Rusty McAllister, secretary-treasurer for the AFL-CIO, said during the hearing. “This is not a complex issue. Just hire the people back that were laid off through no fault of their own.”

Wednesday’s meeting marked the first hearing for the bill. The committee did not vote on the measure.

Follow the Money: Breaking down more than $769,000 in gaming-industry spending on legislative campaigns

Amid the most dire threat to casino profits in the history of the Las Vegas Strip, a gaming industry hobbled by the COVID-19 pandemic still gave more than $769,000 to 52 state lawmakers over the course of the 2020 campaign cycle. 

Even so, the effect of the pandemic on campaign spending was clear: Industry campaign contributions dropped by roughly 52 percent compared to the $1.6 million spent in 2018, and almost 60 percent compared to the $1.9 million spent in 2016. 

Among some donors, that drop was even steeper. MGM Resorts International has for years been by far the largest single gaming donor, contributing upwards of $340,000 on average, of which more than two-thirds usually went to Democrats. 

But in 2020 — in the midst of the pandemic, land sales and a broader restructuring — MGM gave just $42,000 across its properties and subsidiaries. It’s a drop of roughly 88 percent compared to 2018, and it puts the casino giant in the same spending realm as Boyd Gaming ($58,000); the Meruelo Group, which owns the Sahara in Las Vegas and the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno ($52,500); and Golden Entertainment, which owns the STRAT and PT’s Pubs, among other casino properties ($44,750).  

These spending trends come as a backdrop to the electoral reality of the 2020 cycle. Though Democrats continued control of both houses of the Legislature — extending their state government trifecta for another two years — Republican gains chipped away at the edges of that majority. Republicans gained one seat in the Senate, where they now trail 12-9, and another three in the Assembly, where they are behind 26-16. 

In order to assess broad trends in campaign spending, The Nevada Independent categorized and analyzed more than 7,700 individual contributions of more than $200 made to sitting lawmakers in 2019 and 2020. 

These contributions capture nearly all campaign spending in that period, and more generally show to whom the largest contributions flowed and how much they were worth overall. 

The data in this story show only a slice of the campaign finance pie: 276 contributions from 43 donors fell under the umbrella of the gaming industry. 

However, it is important to note that because parent companies often contribute to the same candidates through multiple subsidiaries — a process that effectively allows the largest companies to sidestep legal limits on maximum campaign contributions — this analysis treats those contributions as if they came from the parent company in order to simplify overall spending trends.

Also of note, two legislators are excluded from this analysis: Sen. Fabian Donate (D-Las Vegas) and Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May (D-Las Vegas). Both were appointed in February by the Clark County Commission to fill legislative vacancies, a point at which contributions to lawmakers had already been frozen ahead of the start of the legislative session. 

Though 53 legislators reported receiving at least some money from the gaming industry last cycle, a vast majority of it went to just five lawmakers: Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert ($161,000), Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro ($106,500), Sen. Carrie Buck ($63,500), Sen. Scott Hammond ($60,500) and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson ($59,500). 

Together, those five combined to receive $451,000 in gaming contributions, or about 59 percent of all the money donated by the industry last cycle. 

Based on broader trends in campaign fundraising, it comes as little surprise that these five legislators are the biggest fundraisers, as they all were either in highly competitive elections (such as Gansert (R-Reno), Buck (R-Las Vegas) and Hammond (R-Las Vegas)) or were expected to reprise a role in leadership (such as Frierson (D-Las Vegas) — or both (Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas). 

Still, no legislator saw as much gaming money as Gansert, whose $161,000 was more than a fifth of all gaming contributions. Most of that money came in the form of large contributions from the biggest gaming operators, including $30,000 from companies linked to Las Vegas Sands; $20,000 each from Station Casinos properties and companies linked to Marnell Gaming; $17,500 from Golden Entertainment and its subsidiary, American Casino and Entertainment Properties; and $10,000 each from Peppermill Casinos, the Meruelo Group, Caesars Entertainment and Boyd Gaming. 

Outside the top five, legislators generally saw little in the way of gaming contributions. 37 of the remaining 47 recipients received less than $10,000, and the median legislative fundraising haul from these gaming donors was just $4,500. 

While most industries will have a handful of individual donors contributing a plurality, or even majority of the campaign money, the gaming industry was unique in that it was functionally dominated by the top-10 donors, who combined for nearly 88 percent of all the industry money contributed last cycle. 

This is partly because of the construction of this analysis. Contributions by properties or LLCs owned by a parent company — such as the ownership of the Venetian by Las Vegas Sands or the Sahara by the Meruelo Group — were counted under the single umbrella of the parent company.  

However, the greater determining factor is simply the increased degree to which the largest gaming companies use their subsidiaries to donate $10,000 maximum contributions to the same candidates. In all, parent companies for Las Vegas Sands, Station Casinos, MGM Resorts International and Golden Entertainment all saw subsidiary companies contribute in combined amounts that exceeded $10,000 for at least one candidate. 

Similar spending patterns are relatively rare across other industries, where the mechanisms for spending in excess of that maximum are usually beyond the scope of most donors. Of note, only one other major donor — Nevada REALTORS — contributed more than $10,000 to one candidate, though it did so through a trio of PACs, not corporate entities. 

By far the single-largest industry donor and among the largest donors of the entire cycle, the Las Vegas Sands Corporation and two of its subsidiaries, the Venetian Resort and the Sands Expo Convention Center, gave $161,000 to just 13 lawmakers last cycle. 

Even so, that total is a far cry from spending by the Sands in 2018 and 2016, when it doled out $240,000 and $310,500, respectively. 

That spending could also represent a final salvo for the company in Nevada politics, where it has long been among the biggest donors under the stewardship of billionaire founder and CEO Sheldon Adelson. Widely known for his status as a Republican mega-donor on the national stage, Adelson died in January following a lengthy illness, and the company has since sold its Las Vegas properties for $6.25 billion as it signaled an exit from the Strip and a focus on foreign markets.

Most of the Sands’ contributions flowed to state Republicans, with $30,000 each going to Sen. Scott Hammond, Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert and Sen. Carrie Buck. Some Democrats did see major contributions from Sands companies, however, including Cannizzaro ($30,000), Sen. Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas) ($10,000) and Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas)($10,000). 

One lawmaker, Sen. Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas) received $5,000, though the remaining six — a group of five Republicans and one Democrat, all in the Assembly — received just $2,500. 

With $116,000 contributed across 41 legislators from a handful of different properties, Station Casinos was one of few gaming donors to actually contribute more in 2020 than it did in 2018, when it only gave $108,500. 

Station Casinos’ spending clearly favored legislative Republicans, who received $66,500 to the Democrats’ $49,500. On average, it meant individual Republicans received about 55 percent more than their Democratic counterparts, $3,500 to $2,250. 

Station Casinos’ single largest recipient was Gansert, who received $20,000 in the aggregate. One other lawmaker, Cannizzaro, received more than the maximum ($10,500), while another two — Buck and Assemblyman Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas) —  received $10,000 even. 

Most other recipients generally received far less, however, and 32 lawmakers who received at least some money from Station Casinos properties saw $2,500 or less. 

Contributing $108,000 across 40 lawmakers, Caesars Entertainment was another gaming donor that saw contributions tick up in a dire 2020. In comparison, the company gave legislators $92,000 in the aggregate in 2018, making Caesars just the eighth-largest industry donor at the time. 

Though spending from Caesars slightly favored Democrats overall — $56,500 to the Republicans’ $51,500 — individual Republicans still received more money on average, $3,218 to the Democrats’ $2,354. 

Three lawmakers, Frierson, Gansert and Assemblywoman Heidi Kasama (R-Las Vegas), received the $10,000 maximum, while another three, Cannizzaro ($8,500), Hammond ($7,000) and Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-North Las Vegas) ($7,000), saw larger-than-average contributions. 

Most recipients received far smaller amounts, however, including 32 legislators who saw $2,500 or less. 

Tim Lenard, Riley Snyder and Sean Golonka contributed to this report.

As part of our Follow the Money series The Nevada Independent will be publishing deep dives over the coming weeks into the industries that dominated legislative campaign spending in the 2020 campaign cycle. To see previous installments, follow the links below: 

Gov. Steve Sisolak reports more than $2.4 million in 2020 fundraising ahead of looming re-election bid

Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak has reported raising upwards of $2.4 million for his re-election bid next year, an amount that roughly doubled the size of his campaign war chest to more than $4.53 million.

Sisolak’s 2020 haul, reported to the secretary of state Wednesday, is roughly 50 percent more than the $1.6 million he raised through 2019, though it remains a far cry from the more-than $11.3 million he raised during his contentious bid to win the seat in 2018. 

Sisolak’s fundraising report comes amid national unrest related to the 2020 election and follows several failed recall efforts attempting to oust the governor that came after a number of restrictions were put in place in the earliest days of the pandemic. The report also arrives as the 2021 legislative session approaches and with it, a budget crisis stemming from economic damage caused by coronavirus shutdowns

Though many of the individual contributions made to the governor’s campaign came in small dollar amounts, the vast majority of Sisolak’s 2020 fundraising — $2,356,277 — came in the form of contributions greater than $100, with 124 contributors giving the governor the $10,000 maximum donation. Taken together, those largest contributions total more than half of all the money Sisolak raised last year at more than $1.2 million. 

When accounting for other donations, including those totaling $5,000 (143 total), and $2,500 (52 total), the amount raised through top-dollar contributions alone increases to roughly $2.05 million. 

Of the largest contributions of $10,000, nearly a quarter-million came solely from gaming companies, manufacturers or trade groups, including: 

  • $70,000 from companies or properties owned or operated by Station Casinos
  • $50,000 from MGM Resorts International properties
  • $50,000 from Marnell Gaming companies, properties or individuals (owner of the Nugget in Sparks)
  • $30,000 from Las Vegas Sands properties or companies 
  • $20,000 from Meruelo Group companies or properties (owner of the Sahara in Las Vegas and Grand Sierra Resort in Reno)
  • $20,000 from companies linked to sportsbook William Hill
  • $10,000 from Golden Entertainment (owner of the Strat in Las Vegas)
  • $10,000 from the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers

Together, the gaming industry formed the single largest industry bloc of the governor’s donors. However, these totals likely only represent part of the overall contributions made by gaming companies or individuals related to the industry, as it does not include contributions made by industry executives or related LLCs. That includes a number of esoterically named holding companies or development companies, which often contribute in smaller amounts.  

Business-related donors otherwise formed the second largest share of Sisolak’s biggest contributors, contributing at least 26 maximum donations for a total of $260,000, while real estate and development related donors formed the third-largest bloc with 18 contributions totaling $180,000. 

Notably absent from Sisolak’s 2020 filing are the state’s largest mining companies, which will likely find themselves at the center of a legislative fight to raise the state’s tax revenue in 2021 — a fight that comes after mining taxes first came back to the fore during a special legislative session last summer. 

Their absence, however, is likely little more than a coincidence of campaign contribution timing. State law limits maximum contributions by campaign cycle, not by year, and several major mining companies — including Newmont and Barrick Gold — maxed out their contributions to Sisolak in 2019

Other notable names for those who contributed the maximum of $10,000 include Marc Badain, chairman of the Raiders; Key and Rory Reid, sons of former Democratic Sen. Harry Reid; Clark County Commissioner Michael Naft, whom Sisolak appointed; and an LLC tied to Elaine Wynn, a businesswoman and philanthropist.

Sisolak also saw major contributions from seven companies linked to Las Vegas Golden Knights owner and Fidelity chairman Bill Foley, as well as a maximum contribution from Foley himself, for a total of $80,000. 

With no campaign to mount through the 2020 cycle, Sisolak reported comparatively little in campaign spending, about $229,900.  

Nevada Independent intern Sean Golonka contributed to this report.

Update, 1/13/21 at 5:35 p.m. - This story was updated to include more details about contributions made to Gov. Sisolak in his 2020 annual filing.

Third quarter fundraising race tightens in competitive congressional districts as election day nears

Incumbent Democrats no longer universally led the money race in Nevada’s most competitive congressional districts, marking the first quarter this election cycle that a Republican — District 3’s Dan Rodimer — led all fundraising among the state’s congressional hopefuls. 

With no statewide race at the top of the ticket, much of the attention — and therefore campaign dollars — has gone to the state’s two potentially competitive House elections in Southern Nevada. Rodimer topped fundraising efforts among Nevada’s House candidates with more than $1.4 million raised, while District 3 incumbent Susie Lee trailed with roughly $1 million raised.

In District 4, seen as marginally less competitive than District 3 because of voter registration figures favoring Democrats, incumbent Democrat Steven Horsford maintained a comfortable lead in the money race as he brought in roughly $680,000 to Republican Jim Marchant’s $492,000. 

Below is a breakdown of campaign fundraising and expenditure reports in each of Nevada’s four congressional districts, with districts ordered from greatest cumulative fundraising to least. 


Susie Lee - Democrat (incumbent)

  • Q3 receipts: $1,005,787
  • Q3 spending: $2,501,619
  • Cash on hand: $924,353

Locked in likely the most competitive race in Nevada this election cycle, Lee dipped deep into her campaign warchest this quarter in spending more than $2.5 million over just the last three months — roughly $363,000 more than she spent in the same time period in 2018. 

A vast majority of that spending went to advertising, including three payments totaling more than $2 million to Virginia-based Screen Strategies Media. Two of those payments, one of $500,000 and another of $1.16 million, came on Sept. 11, not long before Lee launched a major ad campaign targeting Rodimer on his run-ins with police. 

Lee’s contributions, meanwhile, came primarily from individual donors ($623,173), with the rest coming from a number of PACs ($201,427) and committee transfers ($176,471). Most contributions were below federal maximum contribution limits, though Lee did see maximum $5,000 PAC donations from Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s PAC, All for Our Country Leadership, the American Resort Development Association, Barrick Gold, Cox Communications and Culinary Union-parent UNITE Here, among others. 

Dan Rodimer - Republican

  • Q3 receipts: $1,412,578
  • Q3 spending: $946,308
  • Cash on hand: $719,485

Rodimer’s campaign reported a massive gain in campaign contributions last quarter, raising roughly seven times as much as it did in the second quarter during the heat of District 3’s Republican primary. Rodimer’s $1.4 million in banked contributions also puts it among the largest single-quarter hauls in the district’s history, topping the $1.38 million Lee managed to raise during the third quarter of her well-financed bid in 2018. 

Still, with less cash on hand entering the quarter, Rodimer’s campaign lagged Lee in spending and enters the final weeks of the campaign with a roughly $200,000 cash on hand deficit. 

Like Lee, most of Rodimer’s largest expenditures went to advertising, including two payments totaling $157,000 to the Maryland firm OnMessage Inc. Rodimer also spent big on campaign consulting, including $432,000 on ads and fundraising consulting services from Las Vegas-based Top AD Consulting LLC. 

A large majority of Rodimer’s fundraising ($1.23 million) came in the form of individual contributions, including $699,000 in itemized contributions and $532,000 in unitemized contributions. An additional $76,800 in PAC contributions and $103,000 in committee pushed Rodimer’s total fundraising on the quarter to more than $1.4 million.

Like Lee, many of Rodimer’s individual contributions came through online fundraising, this time through the Republican platform WinRed. He also saw maximum $5,000 PAC contributions from groups linked to current and former GOP elected officials, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham, ex-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Rodimer also saw a $68,000 windfall from a joint-fundraising transfer from the Cruz 20 for 20 Victory Fund, a group linked to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.  


Steven Horsford - Democrat (incumbent)

  • Q3 receipts: $692,759
  • Q3 spending: $704,709
  • Cash on hand: $1,557,543

Running for a second consecutive term and third overall term for District 4, Horsford dipped slightly into his campaign reserves last quarter with about $12,000 more spent than earned. 

Horsford’s single largest expense, like most candidates, came in the form of advertising. The Horsford campaign spent $406,214 on just one advertising firm, Sage Media Planning & Placement, including a $333,000 payment made one day before launching a TV ad campaign touting his work on pandemic relief. 

Horsford’s fundraising was roughly evenly split between individual and PAC contributions, with $329,000 raised from individuals and $304,000 from PACs. It marks the first quarter this cycle in which a majority of Horsford’s fundraising came through individuals, though he still saw maximum $5,000 PAC donations from groups linked to Sen. Cortez Masto, the American Resort Development Association, South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the Communications Workers of America and Cox Communications, among others.

Jim Marchant - Republican

  • Q3 receipts: $492,641
  • Q3 spending: $406,559
  • Cash on hand: $228,018

Though he lagged behind Horsford’s fundraising for another quarter, former one-term Assemblyman Marchant still more than doubled contributions from the second quarter, when he raised just $187,000. 

With $382,000 in individual contributions, $35,000 from PACs and $74,000 from committee transfers, Marchant’s biggest single contributions came largely through current and former Republican politicians, including a $62,250 joint committee transfer from the Cruz 20 for 20 Victory Fund. 

Marchant also received maximum PAC contributions from the Gun Owners of America (and an additional $1,000 from the National Rifle Association) and the Conservative Leadership PAC, a group that bills itself as targeting “the millennial generation for conservative candidates.”

Marchant’s biggest expense was the nearly $241,000 spent on media placement through the consulting firm McShane LLC, which received more than $308,000 from Marchant during the quarter — about two-thirds of the candidate’s spending. 


Mark Amodei - Republican (incumbent)

  • Q3 receipts: $297,676
  • Q3 spending: $168,173
  • Cash on hand: $395,808

Amodei’s contributions include several donations from Nevada casino owners, including a combined $11,200 from four members of the Stations Casino-owning Fertitta family, and $2,800 from South Point owner Michael Gaughan. The congressman also banked $79,300 from a number of PACs, including $5,000 each from the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, Barrick Gold and NV Energy.

Much of Amodei’s spending in the third quarter fell to a handful of advertising campaigns. Of note, the campaign paid nearly $43,000 to Reno-based Lamar Advertising Company, with roughly another $32,000 spent on a radio advertising campaign from Carson City-based Wyman & Associates. 

Patricia Ackerman - Democrat

  • Q3 receipts: $238,304
  • Q3 spending: $172,507
  • Cash on hand: $101,391

Mounting a longshot bid to unseat Amodei in deep-red District 2, Ackerman has raised an uncharacteristically high amount for a Democratic bid in the mostly-rural district through the third quarter. 

With nearly $240,000 raised last quarter alone and more than $101,000 left in the warchest through the final weeks of the election, Ackerman’s cumulative fundraising of more than $338,000 more than doubles the roughly-$162,000 raised by Democrat Clint Koble during his District 2 challenge in 2018

Nearly all of Ackerman’s fundraising came through small-dollar individual contributions made through the Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue, though she also received $2,500 from Reno-area Assemblywoman Sarah Peters and $1,000 from a PAC linked to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. 

Much of Ackerman’s spending went to consulting and advertising costs. That includes nearly $49,000 spent on advertising through California-based Pantograph Labs, which bills itself in part as a “boutique progressive digital firm.” 


Dina Titus - Democrat (incumbent)

  • Q3 receipts: $121,928
  • Q3 spending: $53,716
  • Cash on hand: $394,646

Running for a fifth term in the bluest congressional district in the state, incumbent Democrat Dina Titus reported raising roughly $122,000 in the third quarter, roughly tripling the $42,000 she raised through the quarter prior.

A majority of that money, $72,325, came through PAC contributions, while the remaining $49,603 came through individual donations. Titus’ largest donors included the Coeur Mining company, the national REALTORS PAC, the Service Employees International Union, the Transportation Workers Union and the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union, all of which gave the maximum $5,000.  

Running against a little-known Republican challenger, Joyce Bentley, in a rematch of 2018, Titus reported spending just under $54,000. Of that, the single largest payments went to consulting, including more than $12,000 to Maryland-based Kalik & Associates and another $4,500 to Washington, D.C.-based Next Level Partners. 

Joyce Bentley - Republican

As of Friday morning, Bentley had not filed a contributions and expenditures report with the FEC or such a report was not yet available through the FEC website.

This story will be updated as those documents become available.

As online gaming expands in the U.S., experts worry Nevada could be left behind

In April and May combined, when Nevada’s casinos were closed to slow the spread of COVID-19, statewide gaming revenues totaled $9.44 million, a more than 99 percent decline over the same two months in 2019.

Gaming win came from mobile sports wagering on Belarusian soccer, Korean baseball, Chinese table tennis, other non-traditional games and gambling on – Nevada’s lone online poker site.

It was a different story in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Both states’ casinos were also closed, but New Jersey gaming revenues totaled $178.4 million over the two months. Pennsylvania reported $108 million.

The difference was online gaming, which accounted for more than 75 percent of the revenue.

The websites in those states are not just dedicated to poker but also include wagering on table games and slot machines with the same themes found in traditional casino settings.

New Jersey and Pennsylvania have multiple online gaming websites affiliated with gaming companies tied to Nevada, including MGM Resorts International, Golden Nugget and Caesars Entertainment, which owns the World Series of Poker-affiliated WSOP site.

“From our organization’s perspective, Nevada is missing out,” said John Pappas, spokesman for the Washington D.C.-based iDevelopment and Economic Association, which goes by iDEA Growth, a trade organization for the digital and interactive gaming community.

“We recognize that change in Nevada has to be spearheaded by the brick and mortar casinos,” Pappas said. “There can be a tremendous amount of benefit.”

Eilers and Krejcik Gaming Research analyst Chris Grove said a “healthy debate” could take place in comparisons of New Jersey’s growing online gaming market with Nevada’s online casino potential.

“It’s evident to us that the introduction of online casino would have an additive impact on the total amount of gambling revenue generated by the Nevada locals market,” Grove said.

A Caesars representative said the company wasn’t aware of momentum in Nevada for legalizing online casino games. A spokeswoman for BetMGM – MGM’s joint venture online wagering application – said it would offer online gaming once it's allowed in Nevada.

Texas casino and restaurant developer Tilman Fertitta is spinning off Golden Nugget’s online gaming business into a public company this year, looking to grow outside its market-leading presence in New Jersey. Nevada, where Fertitta owns the Golden Nugget casinos in downtown and Laughlin, could be a target.

“We look forward to expanding our operations to Pennsylvania and Michigan, where our licensing process is ongoing,” Golden Nugget Online Gaming General Manager Thomas Winter said in a statement. “We are closely monitoring the legislative momentum in other states.”

Nevada lawmakers legalized internet gaming for a brief time in 2002. The efforts were halted when the Department of Justice advised the state that federal law prohibited internet gambling.

After the Federal Wire Act was reinterpreted by the U.S. Department of Justice in December 2011, a handful of states explored online gaming legalization. Nevada lawmakers approved online poker in 2013.

Today, five states offer online gaming – Delaware, Pennsylvania, Nevada (poker only), New Jersey and West Virginia. Michigan has legalized online gaming but has not yet gone live with the activity. Seven states had online gaming legislation pending in the spring before the coronavirus outbreak caused lawmakers to suspend sessions indefinitely.

Earlier this month, the American Gaming Association said the impact COVID-19 had on second quarter gaming revenues nationwide amounted to a 79 percent decline compared to a year ago. All gaming verticals but one – online gaming – showed double-digit decreases.

Combined, the five online gaming states produced revenues of $402.7 million for the quarter, an increase of almost 254 percent.

AGA CEO Bill Miller noted the quarter was the first time that online gaming recorded higher revenues than sports betting, which was legalized in May 2018.

What about Nevada?

So why hasn’t Nevada legalized online casinos?

The simple answer is lack of consensus in the casino industry.

Las Vegas Sands Corp. has not moved from its nearly decade-long opposition to online gaming. Company Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson once vowed to spend millions to kill the activity.

On the other end of spectrum, billionaire media mogul Barry Diller spent more than $1 billion through IAC/Interactive Corp. this summer to acquire a 12 percent ownership stake in MGM Resorts. His primary focus is MGM’s interactive gaming business.

Diller, who is chairman and senior executive of IAC, said online gaming “currently comprises a tiny portion of its revenue. It’s so small, he said, that “it rounds down to zero.”

In 2018, MGM Resorts and United Kingdom-based sports betting conglomerate GVC Holdings partnered to form Roar Digital, which oversees the BetMGM app. The product is live in seven states and expects to be operating in 11 states by the end of 2020.

“There is a digital-first opportunity within MGM Resorts’ already impressive offline businesses, and with our experience, we hope we can strongly contribute to the growth of online gaming,” said Diller, who founded Fox Broadcasting and USA Broadcasting.

Other Nevada-based casino operators have launched online gaming outside of the Silver State. Caesars has online gaming sites in New Jersey and Pennsylvania while Boyd Gaming is a partner with FanDuel in an online casino in Pennsylvania that is tied to Boyd’s Valley Forge Casino.

Grove said Nevada’s “unique” gaming market is unlike the rest of the country in its “saturation” of casinos geared to different customer demographics.

“Nevada has a far greater variety of retail gambling outlets, a smaller population, and a greater density of total population proximate to the full range of retail gambling outlets than you'll find in any other state,” Grove said. “All of that makes precise forecasting of Nevada's online casino potential a challenging task.”

Adding online casinos in Nevada 

If state gaming regulators – with casino industry backing – decide to add online casinos, there isn’t a need to go back to the Legislature.

Longtime gaming attorney Tony Cabot, now a Distinguished Fellow in Gaming Law at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law, said “the framework is clearly in place” following the passage of previous efforts.

“The gaming commission was uncomfortable doing anything beyond poker,” Cabot said. “The regulations governing internet casinos would just have to be approved.”

Gaming Control Board Chairwoman Sandra Douglass Morgan said the Gaming Policy Committee, under then-Gov. Brian Sandoval, met in 2016 and discussed online gaming and future opportunities for Nevada.

“However, there was no decision to expand interactive gaming beyond internet poker at that time,” Morgan said. Still, state gaming law allows interested parties to petition the Nevada Gaming Commission for regulation changes.

“If a policy decision is made to expand interactive gaming beyond internet poker, the Gaming Control Board will fulfill its statutory duty to ensure interactive gaming is properly regulated,” Morgan said.

Cabot, who has written extensively on internet gaming, questioned whether Nevada’s market size could support the investment casinos would need to make to launch full-scale online gaming. He believes one casualty would be the growing social gaming business, where customers play free casino games and slots online in exchange for virtual tokens.

Pappas said internet gaming would only enhance a casino’s offerings.

“Nevada has done a great job embracing mobile sports betting,” Pappas said. “The state needs to take it one step further.”

Online poker history

After launching in 2013, Nevada at its height had three poker websites:, South Point’s Real Gaming and Station Casinos’ Ultimate Poker, which was the first to launch in April 2013, but was closed after 19 months.

By statute, state gaming regulators only release gaming revenue figures when there are three reporting businesses. Just once in the eight months that Nevada had three poker sites did online gaming combine to produce more than $1 million in revenue — $1.037 million in June 2014.

In 2015, Nevada signed a multistate poker network agreement with Delaware where players from the two states could share poker tables and tournaments. The network still exists, and New Jersey joined a few years later.  

Growing business

Internet gaming has not expanded at the same pace as sports betting, which is now available in 18 states with another four states potentially able to launch before the end of 2020. In 2019, gamblers nationwide legally wagered more than $13 billion on sports, a figure that was easily on track to be crushed in 2020 until COVID-19 shut down college and professional sports and the gaming industry.

While the interest for digital gaming has picked up, Nevada could be left behind.

Boston-based DraftKings went public in April and since June, the company has launched sports betting in Colorado, an online casino in Pennsylvania, sports betting in Illinois and an online casino in West Virginia. DraftKings is working to enter the Virginia and Tennessee markets for sports betting and Michigan for sports betting and online gaming.

DraftKings does not have any operations in Nevada.

Penn National Gaming, which operates Tropicana Las Vegas, M Resort and two casinos in the northeastern Nevada town of Jackpot, is preparing to roll out a sports betting and online game app in partnership with sports media platform Barstool Sports.

Penn spent $163 million to acquire 36 percent of Barstool in February, looking to attract the platform’s 66 million-member fan base.

Penn CEO Jay Snowden recently told private investors at a meeting hosted by Truist Securities that the Barstool branded app would launch in Pennsylvania in September and in Michigan by November. New Jersey, Indiana, Iowa, West Virginia and Colorado would roll out in early 2021, he said.

Nevada was not mentioned, and no reason was given.

Some analysts suspect the IAC investment into MGM Resorts could jumpstart online gaming in many states, including Nevada.

“IAC is clearly taking a long-term view of the online opportunity within gaming,” said Deutsche Bank gaming analyst Carlo Santarelli.

James Wheatcroft, a United Kingdom-based gaming analyst for Jefferies, expressed a bright future for the U.S. online gambling market, projecting $19 billion in revenue from sports betting by 2023.

“We anticipate that (internet) gaming is the next logical step in the legislative process, with casino-oriented MGM well placed to benefit,” he said.

Disclosure: Chris Grove, mentioned in this story, has donated $2,550 to The Nevada Independent through 404 LLC.

Howard Stutz is a freelance gaming reporter for The Nevada Independent and the executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He has been a Nevada journalist for 30 years. He can be reached at On Twitter: @howardstutz

Sportsbooks see betting enthusiasm, especially via mobile apps, even as athletic events are slow to return

They’re the place inside casinos where cheers spontaneously erupt as fortunes change based on stunning athletic feats and, in some cases, buzzer-beating strokes of luck.

But for nearly three months — a time period normally marked by March Madness, the debut of Major League Baseball and professional hockey and basketball playoffs — all was quiet in Nevada’s sportsbooks. Now, the familiar hum of activity inside these sports-viewing meccas is returning despite a coronavirus-altered athletic landscape.

Some sportsbooks welcomed back patrons as soon as casinos were allowed to reopen June 4. Others have gradually reopened since then, including the Westgate SuperBook, which opened Thursday along with the entire casino-resort property.

“It gave us an extra two weeks to make sure we had all of our ducks in a row,” said John Murray, director of race and sports at Westgate. “Nothing is more important for us than the safety of the guests and employees we’re bringing back to the property.”

Like the casino properties they inhabit, sportsbooks feature new configurations and signage to meet social-distancing requirements. The Westgate SuperBook, for instance, removed more than 100 chairs to keep 6 feet between them. Partitions separate guests from tellers at the ticket counter. Decals on the floor instruct patrons where to stand in lines to keep distance. And employees will use tongs — a touchless distribution method — to give face masks to anyone who wants one.

Station Casinos took similar health precautions in its fleet of sportsbooks, said Chuck Esposito, race and sportsbook director at Sunset Station Hotel and Casino. The changes didn’t appear to dampen enthusiasm for their reopening: Shortly after Sunset Station unlocked its doors June 4, a patron made a beeline to the sportsbook and wagered on Korean baseball, he said.

For many, the sportsbook isn’t just about placing bets — it’s a hub of socialization. Esposito likened Sunset Station’s sportsbook to “Cheers,” the 1980s-era sitcom about a Boston bar.

“That’s really the biggest part,” he said. “We see guests so many times throughout the course of the day, week, month, year, so we do know their names. They know ours.”

Murray said he expects horse racing and mixed martial arts to draw people out to sportsbooks this weekend given the 152nd Belmont Stakes and UFC fights on Saturday. 

The absence of Major League Baseball, however, won’t go unnoticed. The league and players’ union have been locked in a months-long tug-of-war over money related to a condensed 2020 season. 

Based on the large number of games per season, baseball is typically the SuperBook’s third biggest handle sport after professional and college football, Murray said. Handle refers to the amount of bets taken on a sport.

“It’s really a big piece of our business,” he said. “It’s what traditionally carried us through the summer months.”

Even so, Murray said sportsbook operators are gearing up for what perhaps could be the busiest September on record if National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, National Football League and college football games occur alongside each other and the U.S. Open golf and Kentucky Derby.

In the meantime, Esposito said the race side of the sportsbook has garnered more attention in recent weeks given horse race activity every day. Station Casinos has added a race promotion over the next three Saturdays to gin up even more interest.

Another trend: more players signing up for mobile sports-betting apps. Even before the coronavirus temporarily closed casinos, the Westgate SuperBook was doing more than half its business through mobile accounts, Murray said. The sportsbook is offering a promotion through the end of July that allows bettors to make deposits into their mobile accounts for free — a move that could encourage more people to make sports wagers from home.

“It’s certainly the future of the industry without question,” he said. 

Still, the camaraderie of a packed sportsbook during peak seasons carries an undeniable benefit when patrons make spur-of-the-moment bets, book rooms and drive up food and beverage sales. The cancellation of the NCAA Tournament delivered a “big blow,” Murray said, although it’s impossible to calculate an exact dollar amount without knowing how the games would have played out.

He’s confident interest in sports betting — whether in person or via a mobile app — hasn’t waned during the unprecedented suspension and delay of seasons, tournaments or events. It’s simply a waiting game for the moment.

“We just need these sports to come back,” he said. “We’ve got the accounts. We’ve got the customers. The demand is there.”