Las Vegas has been the most obvious victim, bringing huge projects to market that were well along the pipeline before the bottom fell out. But state governments have done a lot to complicate matters as well. There is a steady increase of competitive pressure on the installed base of casinos virtually everywhere, and that’s not likely to change.
The phenomenon is global in nature. Looking back, we can now safely say that one of the most brilliant moves in the past decade was a decision to punt: Wynn Resorts’ sale of its subconcession license in Macau for $900 million back in 2006.
We also see that where supply continues to be constrained, such as the New York City market, where Empire City at Yonkers Raceway continues to enjoy an exclusive position, the results are still enviable. After a strong 2009 Empire City continues to post monthly double-digit gains. Of course, whenever the New York market is fully built out Yonkers will have to share the city with Aqueduct and perhaps Belmont, and it will lose some customers to a new megaresort in the Catskills. But more than eight years after the initial enabling legislation that envisioned such developments, a diminished market for Yonkers remains a hypothetical.
Granted, the industry has always risen and fallen to no small extent on access to new jurisdictions, and muscular lobbying efforts continue in places such as Massachusetts and Ohio. There will always be plenty of takers when states open up. But the macro picture has grown immeasurably more complicated than the utopian days of yore when fully invested commercial casino companies plausibly embraced an all-roads-lead-to-Vegas philosophy, which held that new supply ultimately led to new demand, to everyone’s benefit.
The latest analysis from the American Gaming Association bears this out. Commercial casino revenues fell 5.7 percent in 2009, not a bad overall result but one that confirms the fact that last year’s pain was not evenly distributed, with the mature, and many would say oversupplied, markets of Las Vegas and Atlantic City taking the worst hits.
Throughout the recession operators have anecdotally maintained that visitor volumes, after falling initially, bounced back to previous levels but that average spend has decreased. The official numbers in Las Vegas bear that out to some extent. But the firm Mintel Research last month reported that 30 percent of adults visited a casino in the past year, down from 35 percent in 2001 - a grinding 14 percent decline over the last eight years.
“This shift has been gradual, which suggests that this is not a result of the recession,” said Billy Hulkower of Mintel, quoted in numerous published reports.
Hulkower said the trend suggests little or no growth in casino attendance over the past decade, a period that included two recessions and an economic upturn. This means economics is not the only factor, he said.
“Casinos may be losing audience to the increasingly compelling entertainment offerings in the home,” he suggested, “such as HDTV, high-end video game systems and the Internet, including Internet gambling.”
This last point is interesting. Who can deny that personal entertainment technologies have made staying at home increasingly less boring over the years? The first time you see a teenager camped in front of a huge flat-screen, wearing a headset and using Xbox live to play Kill the Moving Object (aka “Call of Duty, Modern Warfare II,” et al.) with five or six other kids around the country, you realize how your grandparents must have felt when they first saw you wearing a Walkman.
We know that teens aren’t the industry’s marketing target, but the juxtaposition of Internet gaming and falling revenue is a sign of the times. How to keep the gaming product relevant in the United States when it remains offline in an online world, especially when loyal older slot players must be replaced by people accustomed to high-technology values? The drumbeat is just beginning.
Of course, I’m skeptical about all of that. Governments have a hard enough time adding table games to slot houses or even rewarding a franchise at Aqueduct let alone navigating the perilous waters of Internet gaming. Plus, the turn to Internet gaming is an all-too-familiar page from a play book that has gotten a little stale: new supply to the rescue. Tomorrow’s winning strategy will be finding the keys to stimulating demand in existing projects. The industry is in a same-store sales growth environment where creative uses of new game technologies and marketing will win out.
Not as glamorous as where it has been, but far better than the alternative.