The gaming industry is far from unique in looking back on 2020 as an all-around disastrous year. From the “little guys” (650,000 workers had their employment at least paused) to the folks at the top of the food chain (overseeing a 32% year-over-year decline in gaming revenue through November) the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll.
And it’s still taking its toll. As of Feb. 1, 80 casinos were closed and most that were open were operating with limited capacity, restrictions on food and beverage, and a reduction in entertainment and amenities.
But American Gaming Association President and CEO Bill Miller is remaining upbeat — or at least putting on a happy face — about the future. The “light at the end of the tunnel” attitude that many Americans have adopted since vaccine approval began is guiding the AGA’s outlook as well.
“There’s huge pent-up demand for gaming — and I’m upbeat about the second half of the year in particular,” Miller said during an industry briefing on Thursday. “As vaccines roll out, people will be excited to travel, hungry for entertainment, and desperate to get out and have fun again. That’s an environment where gaming will thrive.”
Four-point plan for industry improvement
The AGA foresees a chain of events whereby vaccine distribution helps push the public gradually toward not just herd immunity but herd consumer confidence about casino safety.
According to the gaming industry advocacy group, one in three American adults say they plan to visit a casino this year — the highest that fraction has been since the AGA began polling on the topic after casino shutdowns began last March.
The AGA’s priority in 2021 is “accelerating gaming’s recovery,” Miller said, outlining a plan that has four bullet points:
Secure relief and recovery for gaming in COVID-19 legislation
Relief legislation is a dominant mainstream topic, reaching far beyond just the gaming industry. The AGA’s stated goal is to make sure the gaming industry is included in forthcoming relief packages, while the organization also pursues tax deductions and credits, liability protection for operators, and flexibility for tribal operators pertaining to the cost of unemployment benefits.
Miller emphasized seeking “investment in travel and tourism” as a key outcome of legislation, an initiative that most vaccine distribution projections suggest will become more relevant in the second half of the year.
Develop new champions to promote gaming’s recovery
With the Biden administration having taken over and new senators and representatives now in office, this portion of the recovery plan focuses on conversing with political leaders, putting the gaming industry on their radar, and determining who is on board with the AGA’s mission.
Block harmful policies and advance specific reforms to enhance industry competitiveness
Under this general heading, the AGA lists a variety of specifics, many of them pertaining to taxes. But the overarching theme seems to be limiting federal intervention while allowing individual states to continue pursuing their gaming expansion efforts. In particular, the AGA doesn’t want to see federal regulation of sports betting — which became less of a concern once a court ruled Jan. 20 on the previous Department of Justice’s opinion on the 1961 Wire Act.
Use proprietary research and strategic communication efforts to ensure the gaming industry is heard
This bullet point is about responsible gaming — both in terms of addressing problem gambling and in terms of health and safety measures that took on new significance as casinos began to reopen in the COVID era.
“We come into 2021,” Miller noted Thursday, “with a strong foundation, a clear focus, record levels of support among Americans, and a loyal customer base that wants the excitement only gaming can deliver.”
That loyal customer base will need to continue to exhibit patience over the next few months, it would appear. But given the pent-up desire among many for something closely resembling the pre-COVID casino experience, the AGA believes in a strong rebound in the second half of 2021 — and hopefully the revenue decline from 2019 to 2020 being known as an aberration and not the start of a trend.
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