A Period of Adjustment
Oops! That giant hissing sound is the gaming balloon that had been growing over the years, slowly losing air. But, it has not been a tide that lowered all ships however, as some emerging and expanding gaming jurisdictions showed strong growth in 2008.
Overall, the commercial and racetrack casino sectors (excluding Indian gaming), experienced a 3.5 percent decline in gaming revenues for 2008, generating a total of $36.2 billion, down some $800 million from 2007. It was the Racino sector that has tempered this drop, as they showed a gain of almost $1 billion in 2008, thereby bringing the Commercial sector market decline to $1.8 billion, or 6.7 percent. Nevada was the biggest loser in 2008, dropping almost $1.3 billion, more than half of which stemmed from the Las Vegas Strip segment.
For the most part, casino operators were caught relatively flat-footed by the extent of the 2008 revenue downturn, as it was not until the third and fourth quarters when it really nosedived. Riding the crest of year over year market growth across the country and the availability of ample credit and equity funds, new construction and expansion proliferated in recent years. Today, faced with the realities of declining, or at best stagnant demand, many of these projects are now considered over-leveraged and/or over-sized. As a result many gaming companies are attempting to renegotiate their debt – made more difficult by lower valuations – while also paring down operational costs. The latter has become a very problematic conundrum when dealing with the competition, especially in those jurisdictions that are now vying for market shares with new emerging casino projects in neighboring areas. A topic we discuss more fully in the State by State analysis section of this publication.
As a result of these conditions the gaming industry landscape is now strewn with impending fatalities. Among the more notable troubled firms are Station Casinos, Empire Resorts, Harrah’s Entertainment, Greektown Holdings, Legends Gaming, Tropicana Entertainment, Herbst Gaming; and the list grows each week.
“How long will these economic conditions persist, and are we at the bottom yet?” are questions no one appears to be answering yet. What is clear however is that most gaming jurisdictions will have to learn how to deal with a smaller pie.
This analysis includes only gaming revenues of licensed casinos and pari-mutuel outlets that offer casino games, and not Indian gaming operations, card rooms, or small non-casino type slot locations. The whole article, including revenue tables is available on our web page.
A key aspect that seems to have arisen from the ashes of this current trend is that many casino projects were just too large to support themselves. The input, in terms of investment dollars, was not proportional to the output, in terms of net profit after debt service, compared to previously achieved results. More and/or bigger is not always better. Seeing the rise in non-gaming revenue at the Las Vegas Strip resorts, gave impetus to the development of more comprehensive amenities in many other jurisdictions. The flaw in this strategy however is that the costs associated with widening market penetration and occasioned-use, are significantly higher than those incurred to attract the base market.
As daytripper markets become more competitive, casino venues will have to rely more and more on their in-house hotel patrons, and size their properties (and expectations) accordingly. While Steve Wynn started a major trend in creating up-market mega-destinations, there simply was not enough demand on the Strip to warrant the many other similar projects that followed that aimed at the same niche.
The trick is to strike a happy medium in project configurations; which of course require less of a ‘seat-of-pants’ approach, and one that is more studied. A shameless plug for development consultants like ourselves.
Other Gaming Activities
Although there are no published detailed data of American Indian gaming revenues, anecdotal evidence appears to suggest that this segment has been as hard hit as the Commercial sector. The two Connecticut Indian gaming installations report slot revenue of $1.6 billion in 2008, representing a drop of about 7 percent, or almost $114 million, more than doubling the 3.5 percent drop from the year before. This market is apparently still reeling from the ripple-effect of a casino expansion in Rhode Island, and the opening of slot operations in New York and Pennsylvania.
The Arizona Department of Gaming reports that contributions based on a gaming revenue formula from the state’s 23 Indian gaming casinos, have been declining every quarter in 2008 compared to the previous year; decreasing .8 percent in the first quarter, 7.5 percent in the second quarter, 9.5 percent in the third quarter, and 16.1 percent in the fourth quarter.
Some SEC reporting Indian gaming properties report similar decreases. Seneca Gaming, which operates three Class III casinos in upstate New York, reports that while calendar year 2008 showed an almost 2 percent growth rate in gaming revenues, there was an 8.7 percent decline in the third quarter and an almost 10 percent decline in the fourth quarter of 2008, compared with 2007. Gaming revenue trends at nearby Niagara Falls, Ontario were down 1.5% in 2008 compared with 2007.
It’s been a mixed-bag for state lotteries across the country. The North American Association of State & Provincial Lotteries reports that U.S. lotteries generated a total of $60.6 billion in sales in fiscal 2008, up about 3 percent from the previous year; yet some jurisdictions reported decreases, most notably California, which showed an 8 percent drop. Inasmuch as some of these states are on various fiscal year ends, it would seem that the data does not reflect the impact of third and/or fourth quarter results.
According to data provided by Equibase, horse racing pari-mutuel revenues continue their downward spiral, falling 7 percent to $13.7 billion in 2008, versus $14.7 billion in 2007.
Planned & Proposed New Expansions
As previously noted, it has been new gaming jurisdictions that have spawned much of the growth in annual casino/racino revenues over the years, and their impact is apt to continue into the near future.
Miami Dade voters approved a ballot issue that allows each of three pari-mutuels to have a casino facility of up to 2,000 slot machines. The Flagler Dog Track and Miami Jai-Alai are reportedly planning opening in late 2009 or early 2010, while the Calder installation in Miami Gardens has yet to announced its plans. There are numerous other proposals being considered that would further expand casino development throughout the state.
The state finally got around to reissuing its tenth license, late in December, 2008; awarding it to Midwest Gaming & Entertainment, LLC for a 1,200+ game casino located in Des Plaines just east of O’Hare. The new facility is not likely to open until 2010. There has also been some discussion about allowing an increase in per location gaming positions and slots at racetracks, although neither initiative appears to have any traction at this time.
The state’s expanded lottery program that allows for the development of four casino gaming zones and slots at existing horse and dog tracks appears mired, as only one facility is presently under construction, while three other proposals were rescinded. The only bidder on the Cherokee County contract, claimed it could not compete with the new Quapaw tribal casino in Oklahoma, which is located so close to the state line that its parking lot is in Kansas. The Boot Hill Casino Resort in Dodge City is planing a December 2009 opening with 575 slots and 10 table games, along with a second phase due to open in 2011 with 875 slots and 20 table games. The state has extended the application process for the other three zones until April, 2009.
There is still a lot of ‘jockeying’ going on, but the prospect of as many as eight slot parlors and racinos appears to be back on the front-burner, but likely not resolved during the current legislative session.
There are about 14,000 rooms scheduled to come on line in 2009, with the most recent being the 390 room M Resort in Henderson. There are expansions underway at both Caesars Palace and Hard Rock; and new hotels include two components of the City Center project, and the Fountainebleau.
Pinnacle Entertainment’s new casino development projects in Baton Rouge and Lake Charles, while delayed, are reported to still be on-track for opening this year and/or early 2010.
There is a bill under consideration that could more than double Penn National’s slot machines to 3,000, as well as a proposal that would remove the restriction that slots be located within five miles of the track. Scarborough Downs, which has been unsuccessful in convincing local residents to allow slots, may be considering moving to a more hospitable town.
A referendum was approved in November, 2008 that allows for the development of five casinos with a total of 15,000 slots, and now the bidding war is afoot; although it is not as intense as the state had anticipated.
Grand Soleil Casino Resort in Natchez had been slated to open in 2008, but has run into various financing issues; and while the hotel portion is open, the riverboat is reported to open in the Spring of ’09. Harrah’s Margaritaville Casino in Biloxi, while scaled back somewhat, is still on track to open this year.
Massachusetts, a sleeping-giant in terms of market potential, is still maneuvering to open casinos/racinos, and/or a Class III Indian gaming facility, but cannot seem to muster the political support. A recent study completed by Dartmouth University estimates that Massachusetts resident spent more than $920 million last year at Connecticut casinos and slot machine parlors in Rhode Island and Maine. The New Hampshire legislature recently declined an option to develop casinos, however the topic is likely to be revisited, especially if Massachusetts decides to go forward. There are also attempts in Maine to reconsider its options.
Atlantic City’s casinos have imposed their political will on staving off the addition of slot machines at racetracks by recently agreeing to continue augmenting purses with an additional tax. The governor however, has appointed a new panel to study the state’s sagging racing program; which ironically, can only be preserved by allowing the tracks to have slot machines; especially at the Meadowlands. (See The Nor’easter Squeeze section)
Just when it looked as if Aqueduct’s 4,500 VLT facility would finally be developed, the winning bidder indicated an inability to make the required $370 million fee, citing the current lending climate, and throwing the project back into the lap of the governor. Although the market demand in the area could be considered quite strong, the prospect of additional competition from nearby Belmont could have an impact on Aqueduct’s underlining economic feasibility, especially considering that slightly less than 30% of the net win is retained by the operator.
Plans to relocate Monticello Raceway into a resort complex are being reconsidered; perhaps owing to both the probable opening of at least one or perhaps two racino operations in the NY metro area, and the resurfacing of initiatives to development a Class III Indian gaming facility in the Catskills.
Yet another gaming proposal is being put forth in Ohio, after last year’s version was turned down by the voters. This plan calls for one casino each in the state’s largest cities: Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo. There would be a minimum investment required of $250 million, as well as an initial licensing fee of $50 million, and a 33 percent tax on gaming revenue.
The Sands in Bethlehem is due to open in the Spring of ’09, and the new Rivers project in Pittsburgh is expected to be operational in August, ’09; while Philadelphia’s two slot facilities still wallow in a political mire, but are anticipated to start construction this year.
The Lodge at Deadwood is slated to open in the Fall of 2009, and include 300 games, 140 rooms and a wide variety of amenities.
Legislators are proposing a voter referendum that would amend the state constitution to allow casino gambling in designated areas, as well as allow gambling on American Indian lands in Texas and at existing racetracks.
The Greenbriar, the state’s venerable resort facility has filed for bankruptcy, but has a new suitor in Marriott Hotels, who have reportedly tendered an offer. State government has proffered the notion of allowing the resort to offer casino games, but this effort is in too early a stage to have any traction one way or another.
A recent Supreme Court ruling that restricts the taking of lands into trust on behalf of federally recognized American Indian tribes has further stymied some new Class III gaming projects across the country. Moreover, there were eleven Indian casino projects rejected by the DOI last year because of its new rule that casinos must be near enough to a reservation that tribal members can work at them. It has been suggested that the new Obama administration might be more sympathetic to the development of Indian gaming projects, but this issue has yet to be addressed.
Meanwhile, there are other Class III projects in the various stages of development. The Seneca casino project in Buffalo, NY, while operating a small temporary facility, has delayed an already under construction permanent facility until the market rebounds. They have also expressed an interest in developing a casino in the Catskills. The state gaming compact with Seminoles in Florida is being challenged, and could impact their plans for larger projects. There are new Indian gaming projects set to open in Michigan and Oklahoma this year, and others are in the planning stage. Texas may allow the reopening of Indian gaming facilities and allow other venue; and there are plans afoot by the Navajos in Arizona to construct additional casinos. California is poised to open two to three new Class III casinos in 2009/10.
The Nor’easter Squeeze
Total gaming revenue in Atlantic City has declined 7.6 percent, from $4.9 billion in 2007 to $4.5 billion in 2008; with decreases continuing into 2009, as the city is finding itself in an intense comp-war with the Pennsylvania venues. At one time the only casinos in the Northeast were located in Atlantic City, where it looked as if it might actually even eclipse the Las Vegas Strip’s annual gaming revenues.
Slowly however its market share was being encroached upon, first by the development of a large Class III gaming operation in Connecticut, and then another; slots operations in Rhode Island, and then video lottery terminals at New York racetracks, racinos in West Virginia and Delaware, and most recently Pennsylvania.
Now, with the planned opening of slot operations in Maryland, the impending opening of a new casino in Bethlehem, PA, and eventually two operations in Philadelphia, the noose is tightening around Atlantic City’s future prospects. It’s reliance on day-trippers lulled it into a false sense of security, and it now finds itself having to redefine its mission statement to “destination resort.”
The only problem with this strategy however is that it is ill-equipped to pull it off. For all intents and purposes, Atlantic City is under-roomed and/or over-gamed. There is simply not enough day-tripper market to go around, and their effective trading area is tightening, as the peripheral populations northward now/will have more ready access to a widened supply in New York (Yonkers, and soon at Aqueduct and possibly Belmont), westward in Pennsylvania; and southward in Delaware, West Virginia and Maryland.
Other than the ocean access, the city’s only real competitive advantages are its hotel capacity and the availability of table games, although the latter is likely to eventuate in Pennsylvania, and possibly Delaware. In order to adequately compete as a destination resort the city needs to develop additional guest rooms and not necessarily gaming capacity. By comparison, the Las Vegas Strip properties – true gaming destinations, in that they do not have much of a day-trip market, except for the ‘locals’ – have an average of .87 gaming positions per guest room; while Atlantic City’s average is 2.74 positions per guest room.
It is not a coincidence that Atlantic City’s two largest hotels, the Borgata and Harrah’s Marina, both of which added new rooms in 2008, were the least impacted by the latest downturn. The Borgata experienced a gaming revenue drop of 1.6 percent, while Harrah’s Marina reported a 4.9 percent increase compared to 2007. Moreover, the hardest hit venues, namely the AC Hilton, Resorts and the Trump Marina, also have the smallest number of rooms. In the meantime some of the venues are teetering on viability, including the the Trump properties and Resorts; with the hoped for sale of the Tropicana has been further delayed, and losing valuation.
With a steady rise in gaming revenues through 2006, the city seemed prime for further development, which precipitated planning for four new resort projects, each of which have now been indefinitely delayed. Revel Entertainment Group’s $2.5 billion project remains an iron skeleton, Pinnacle Entertainment has announced it might seek to sell its razed Sands site, MGM Mirage has shelved its casino plans, and Penn National appears to have stopped its pursuit of the Bader Field airport site.
Perhaps the city should seek to return to its roots, leveraging its beachfront, and create more recreational activities and special events.