Perhaps one of the industry’s biggest mysteries is that no state has taken the plunge with online casino gaming in the five-plus years since New Jersey first flipped the switch on its regulated iGaming market.
The protracted status quo is set for a shakeup, though. Pennsylvania is poised to join this select club on July 15 when its long-awaited online gaming market is slated to go live in a coordinated launch.
With wagering on sports presenting casinos and state governments with a completely new source of revenue, it has been the shiny new thing.
Online entrepreneur Chris Sheffield, who served as SVP of interactive at Penn National Gaming for four years until his departure in February, said: “Certainly, there has been a furor and gold rush around sports betting, which has taken the focus from iGaming, but it will be interesting to see how the Pennsylvania iGaming market develops later this year.”
New Jersey’s soaring online casino market
Lawmakers pondering online casino legislation should look no further than New Jersey for guidance. Despite teething problems with customer onboarding in the early days, the Garden State’s online gaming market has gone from strength to strength, with more than 20 NJ online casino brands for players to choose from these days.
While online poker continues to flatline, casinos have been star performers, particularly of late. Revenue (excluding poker) hit a record high of $37.2 million for March, a whopping 24% increase over February’s $29.9 million.
To date, casino revenue has almost reached the magic $1 billion mark, while nearly $200 million has been raised from gaming taxes. The market has also consistently grown over the past five years, reaching $277.3 million in revenue for 2018, almost three times the $93.8 million in revenue generated back in 2014.
Therefore, it had been anticipated that New Jersey would trigger a domino effect, yet the inertia has left one experienced gambling executive scratching his head.
“I am surprised that more US states have not regulated online casino gaming given the experience in New Jersey,” said Jim Ryan, CEO of Pala Interactive, the operator of PalaCasino.com in New Jersey since 2014.
“That being said, the message is now getting out to state legislators and they have over five years of New Jersey data to consider as they look at the opportunity for their own state.”
More choice equals more online gambling revenue
One driving factor behind online casinos’ growth spurt recently in New Jersey is the availability of online and mobile sports betting. There are now more than a dozen NJ regulated online sportsbook brands, and this could surpass 20 by the time the NFL season starts.
In Europe, it is rare to find an online sportsbook that doesn’t also serve up table games and slots. Similarly, previous casino-only operators like LeoVegas and Mr Green rolled out sportsbooks for cross-selling purposes and to drive engagement and prevent customers from going elsewhere to bet sports.
So, mobile sportsbooks operating in states that don’t allow online casinos will be missing out on this cross-selling opportunity and additional revenue. This, in turn, leads to a smaller market than would otherwise be the case and fewer tax dollars collected from online gambling.
Yaniv Sherman, who spearheads 888’s US operations as head of commercial development, said: “On a financial level, a market that offers more games will be more successful, whether it is more sports variety, or sport and casino and poker. That’s a mathematical certainty.”
He also insists markets with just mobile sports betting will be bad for a couple of reasons: “Leaving it as sport-only for the longer term will eventually curtail growth because it will be a very competitive landscape.
“And if everyone is offering the same sporting events and basically the same trading then it’s less appealing to the player and less of a differentiator for the operators themselves.”
Overcoming the challenges of casino acceptance
While online casinos are a reliable earner for operators, compared to the volatile nature of bookmaking, there is no escaping the fact it is a harder form of gambling than sports betting. This inherent fact can make politicians uncomfortable about allowing desktop and mobile casino gaming.
Sherman said: “Out of the three [sports betting, poker and casino] on a sliding scale of controversy, sports betting is, by far, the most popular and least controversial right now. Poker comes next as more of a skill and social game and casino comes last in terms of its acceptance.”
Therefore, it’s vitally important for regulators to deploy rigorous measures to ensure operators provide a safe environment for players and can monitor playing patterns to detect problem gambling behaviors.
Players also should have the tools to limit their spending, playing time and set cooling-off periods. They should also be able to easily self-exclude and, as is the case in New Jersey, bar themselves from all sites in one go.
Moreover, when it comes to gamblers’ preference, a safe, regulated and taxed online casino industry has to be an ideal option than logging onto unlicensed offshore sites with no meaningful regulatory oversight and player protections in place. Indeed, Pala’s Ryan says New Jersey has “some of the most rigorous consumer protection measures in the world.”
Debunking the gaming and casino cannibalization myths
Another potential barrier preventing states from passing online casino legislation is the misconception that internet gambling takes business from brick-and-mortar properties.
However, this has proved to be a fallacy in New Jersey. For example, an online gambling hearing in Pennsylvania in 2017 heard how 89% of players who registered at Golden Nugget’s online casino in New Jersey were new customers, wholly unknown to the casino.
Ryan also dismisses the cannibalization argument in New Jersey: “The online gaming market has not cannibalized the land-based market, and, in fact, it could be argued that the land-based market has grown because of online.”
Online gaming, however, suits those people who reside a significant distance from a casino property, or those who feel intimidated setting foot on a casino floor and gambling in person. It also enables smaller casinos, and those properties situated in isolated spots, to better compete in the virtual world on a more equal footing with larger land-based rivals.
Sherman said: “If anything, it [online casino] allows smaller properties in remote areas to punch above their weight, take a piece of the bigger gaming pie, and see it as an opportunity.”
The knock-on effects of regulated iGaming
Besides providing gaming taxes for state coffers, online casinos create jobs, too. In fact, a study sponsored by online gaming trade association, iDEA Growth, found that between November 2013 and December 2016, online gaming in New Jersey, directly and indirectly, generated 3,374 jobs and $218.9 million paid in wages to employees.
With these tangible economic benefits, it’s somewhat puzzling why other states apart from Pennsylvania and West Virginia haven’t followed New Jersey’s lead.
Ryan blamed “fear, uncertainty and doubt by state-based governments.” He continued: “This simply is an area that is not well understood by state legislators, and when in doubt they will tend to stick with the status quo.”
Yet, it’s clear those states allowing just online sports betting are leaving money on the table. A comprehensive suite of products maximizes cross-selling, while operators can acquire customers through one vertical and encourage them to play other products, thereby increasing a player’s lifetime value (LTV).
For now, though, sports betting will be the focus, Sheffield suggested. “In my view, sports betting will take the driving seat in most states for a while. It’s more palatable for politicians – everyone bets on sports – and can be used to help footfall in land-based casinos. And, of course, it creates jobs and raises much-needed taxes.”
He added: “Online gaming still has some challenges, even within the land-based business itself with worries around cannibalization. However, as we can already see from operators such as DraftKings in New Jersey, significant revenues can be generated from iGaming by sports and DFS customers, and land-based casino operators already have legions of customers just itching to play their favorite games online.”
So, all that’s needed is for state legislators to allow those players to scratch that itch, though that seems easier said than done right now.