Living the Las Vegas lesson in post-PASPA America

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The repeal of PASPA has opened a new world of hope for European gaming execs. But as Ismail Vali, former CMO at PokerStars and now senior consultant at iGamingLeaders.com, reminds us: American politics is complex, and gaming is still as controversial as ever. Those that have stayed the course, he argues, have made gambling secondary to the player experience.

 

The Looming Centennial

In 2031, Las Vegas will celebrate 100 years of legal, licensed gaming. Over time, myriad firms, brands and businesspeople have gone to Las Vegas to make their fortunes in the Home of Gaming. Many failed, some prospered, and those who succeeded over the long term, embraced the need to constantly address the fundamentals of the business: Margin Discipline; Credibility; Reinvention; and Entertainment.

Las Vegas, as I discussed in a previous iGaming Times article, “Learning the Las Vegas Lesson”, embraces the clear Product Problem that affects us all in the Gaming Industry: whether brick and mortar or igaming, all our products are the same.

Las Vegas welcomes the audience to “Sin City”, “The Vegas Lifestyle”, and “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.”

In Vegas the Product is secondary – building Brand is paramount, as is making The Experience the fundamental engagement outcome of anyone’s time in the Resort, across multiple profitable revenue streams, including Gaming and verticals closely allied to it, such as Rooming, Food & Beverage, Nightlife and Themed Entertainment.

Las Vegas, for me, represents a period for the Gaming Industry, when Gaming got it right – previously, the Industry had long been used to eras of light and darkness, cyclically, depending on more or less regulation, bans and prohibition. But the Adult Playground earned its ability to endure: legal, licensed and in the light, so a broad spectrum of The Audience could engage with it, and experience it on their terms.

Nearly 100 years of maintaining this ability surely comes with a “moral of the story” perspective?

In Las Vegas, it definitely does…

The History Lesson

iGaming globally begins in the late 1990s, fuelled by anonymous internet access and a patchwork quilt of gaming availability and prohibition around the World. From 2005 onwards, however, there is a clear Old World / New World divide in iGaming:

-The UK Gambling Act, 2005

Britain establishes a “proportionate” and “light touch” regulatory regime for business, triggering a period of aggressive expansion in the UK and Europe. Publicly traded iGaming stocks enjoy eye-watering valuations, with a dependence on targeting the lucrative US market – albeit on a somewhat “under the counter” basis throughout.

-UIGEA, 2006

This ends in 2006 with the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act being signed into law by President George W. Bush. Whilst it does not make iGaming illegal, it prevents banks from processing transactions, effectively killing the US business for the mass market audience:

UIGEA “prohibits gambling businesses from knowingly accepting payments in connection with the participation of another person in a bet or wager that involves the use of the internet and that is unlawful under any federal or state law”.

America had clear State and Federal Laws in relation to gambling, and the added influence of The Interstate Wire Act, 1961, combined to create a perfect storm, effectively prohibiting iGaming on a wholesale basis.

-DoJ Wire Act Opinion, 2011

The Obama administration hands iGaming in America a Christmas bonus in the form of a new interpretation of the 1961 Law, holding that the 1961 Wire Act did not make it illegal for States to use the internet to sell lottery tickets to adults. Previously, the position had been that wagering across telecommunications networks, State lines or country borders was illegal.

The effect of this new legal interpretation triggers a wave of States deciding their own destinies in relation to Gaming, on a basis far broader than the original lottery ticket sales question issue, since, in the words of gaming law expert I. Nelson Rose, the new position would eliminate “almost every federal anti-gambling law that could apply to gaming that is legal under state laws”.

-Delaware, Nevada, New Jersey 2011-17

The first victories in America’s new wave of online gaming, come courtesy of three trailblazing States passing enabling and tax-raising legislation for Poker, then Casino.

Success is not on the level many expect, however, partly due to the prevalence of illegal, offshore sportsbooks targeting the US nationally, as they have done since UIGEA; partly due to the lack of the most popular Gaming Products – Casino and Sportsbook – at initial launch; and, partly due to the liquidity or unique-number-of-players issue affecting Poker as a Product, and the small population sizes in Delaware and Nevada.

The Chris Christie Effect – I Predict a Riot

Early success in New Jersey’s iGaming market, given the sizable population in that State, and the sustainability needs of the brick and mortar Gaming business in NJ’s Atlantic City, encouraged, or perhaps necessitated, Governor Christie’s search for the Gaming Holy Grail – concurrent product portfolio operations, on a par with Europe’s iGaming experience, covering Poker, Casino and the most consumed gaming product of all, Sports Betting.

A 2011 referendum of New Jersey’s population found in favour of legalising Sports Betting in the State and was followed up across 2012-2014 with legislation enabling the same and repealing previous State bans on sportsbooks.

Christie signed the laws enabling sports betting and predicted the fight to come:

“If someone wants to stop us, then let them try to stop us.”

A stream of legal cases, on the point of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), 1992, which made it unlawful for a State to offer Sports Betting, and under the title Christie v. National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), followed – and ended this year, in May 2018, with the landmark Supreme Court of the US (SCOTUS) decision in favour of New Jersey’s repealing of sports betting prohibitions, paving the way for all US States to pass their own sports betting enabling legislation, in addition to the existing 4 PASPA-exempt States, most notably Nevada, in which Las Vegas maintained a long-standing lock on legalized sportsbooks.

The post-PASPA Prediction Problem

Whilst the SCOTUS decision on PASPA is indeed “landmark”, “ground-breaking” and “historic” it is also a Pandora’s Box of potential problems for European iGaming providers and suppliers – many of whom forget what legendary gaming lobbyist Bill Pascrell III refers to as the “inability of outsiders to understand just how complicated American politics really is”.

Many States have already passed enabling legislation for sports betting, and even so-called Omnibus Bills, to allow for multiple gaming product verticals to be offered by brick and mortar and iGaming brands, in a sign that the SCOTUS decision on PASPA is encouraging Poker and Casino to ride the coattails of the shift in legal prohibition covering sports wagering.

Few States, however, over and above NJ NV and DE, have, since PASPA’s repeal, been able to bring in laws and open-up regulated operations for product portfolio iGaming, on a par with the European experience.

Why?

The political complexity that Bill Pascrell III referred to is paramount here:

-States have existing commitments to land-based Gaming firms, who have formed an orderly queue and paid tax for decades. (New entrant competitors, particularly from Europe, have no such debt of honour from taxes paid to date).

-Litigation. The precise tool that brought us to a post-PASPA period, can equally be used to frustrate, avoid and delay roll-out of State legislation due to the many stakeholders in certain US States, such as California, where dozens of attempts to legalize online poker, across more than a decade, have all ended in a “Tribes versus Racinos vs Card Rooms vs Others” stalemate.

-Cybercrime and Money Laundering fears. Although many of these are largely unfounded on the basis of actual European iGaming reality, the historic dislike of Gaming by lawmakers, applies equally, if not more vehemently, to iGaming.

The Moral of the Story Is…

All the activity in US Gaming, generally, at present should be underscored by the need to work in partnership with local brands and local know-how from across the Industry, and fundamental to future success is the need to remain aware of The Las Vegas Lesson:

Never Sell Gambling, and provide each Player with The Experience.

Las Vegas is currently written up as a potential “net loser” in the post-PASPA shuffle, given the resort’s previous lock on legalised sports betting.

I, however, would not bet against the House in Vegas, and the Home of Gaming’s ability to reinvent, surprise, delight and captivate their audience…both at home, in Las Vegas, and out of home, over the Web with Brands that truly matter, on a Global scale.

The customer-facing adage is perhaps ripe for an Industry-facing reboot, one that highlights the many lessons the resort capital has given the entire Industry, online and off:

What Happens in Vegas, Starts with The Player Experience

 


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