There is an old economic adage that claims a rising tide lifts all boats, which is a more prosaic way of saying that all markets eventually benefit from a growing economy. And now that the U.S. economy is officially in recovery from a record-breaking recession, this does seem to be the case for a great many domestic businesses which are finally experiencing growth after years of decline.
Unfortunately, certain vital segments of the gaming industry appear to have missed the tide and remain mired in the economic sludge; none more alarming than slot machine play, which has been on a long-term downward trend. Indeed, according to recent research sponsored by the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers (AGEM), since 2007, combined slot handle and win/revenue for all domestic gaming markets has declined at an annual compound rate of 2.8 percent and 2.0 percent respectively. To put it another way, the combined slot handle for U.S. markets in 2014 was $291 billion, which is an 18 percent decline from the $355 billion the industry generated in 2007. Over this same time period, slot revenue decreased 15 percent, from $26 billion in 2007 to $22 billion in 2014.
What is concerning about these stats is the lack of rebound in slot handle and win over the first three years or so of relative economic wellbeing. There are lots of general economic theories out there as to why slot play remains down: the recovery has missed the middle class slot playing base; wages have not kept pace with the revived economy, meaning consumers still have less to spend; and so on. All are valid; all will hopefully be resolved going forward.
Of course, operators and suppliers also have their ideas as to why slot play has declined. Operators point to demographic factors—the traditional slot player base continues to age while more and more Millennials are starting to frequent casino resorts, and this new generation of gaming resort consumer has little interest in slot play. Meanwhile, the traditional slot machine customer appears to be turned-off by the latest iterations of slot games and cabinets. In their minds, slot suppliers need to do a better job designing and marketing games for both older and younger generations.
While acknowledging there is a generational shift taking place on the slot floor that needs to be better addressed, a growing segment of the gaming supplier community believes slot hold percentages—which are set by operators and have been steadily trending upward—are a growing factor in the overall decline in machine play since they reduce player time on device and the rewards they ultimately win playing the games. AGEM is concerned enough about this trend that they engaged Applied Analysis, a Las Vegas-based research firm, to study the impact increasing slot hold may be having on slot handle and win. The report generated by this study, “Building Better Business—Assessing the Impact of Hold Percentages on Overall Slot Revenue,” found that while slot handle and win continue to decline, blended slot hold in 10 states has increased 14.5 percent over the past 10 years—from 6.73 percent in 2004 to a record 7.7 percent in 2014. The report goes on to conclude that this rising hold percentage “has not translated into incremental gaming revenue for operators during the post-recession era. In fact, they very well may be contributing to its decline.”
I’m not sure how this argument will ultimately play out with gaming operators who view the setting of hold percentage as their purview alone. However, when it comes to hold, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it may help to loosen the grip a bit.