SID SALTER: Online gaming suggests bad financial news

SID SALTER

SID SALTER

With Mississippi’s gaming revenues declining – particularly in the Tunica/Mississippi River markets – the potential national impact of online gaming is a particularly relevant topic of public policy debate.

In June, the Mississippi Gaming Commission reported numbers showing that in 22 of the last 24 months, casinos have won less money from gamblers compared to the same month of the previous year. In figures showing May 2014 compared with May 2013, casinos took in some $20 million less statewide, or 10.6 percent less, in 2014.

The June closure of Harrah’s in the Tunica market underscores the loss of both gaming revenue and jobs as increased competition from two Arkansas racetracks have been blamed for straining the market. But Mississippi isn’t alone in seeing gaming revenues dip. Louisiana gaming revenues are flat.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast gaming market has been stronger than the river market, but competition from Alabama Native American gaming outlets has had an impact, analysts suggest.

But one aspect of gaming in which there is less known about competitive impact in Mississippi is online gaming. Mississippi, as of the 2014 session of the Mississippi Legislature, is now officially studying online gaming.

Mississippi House Gaming Committee Chairman Richard Bennett commissioned the task force, which will look at how online gaming is working in the small number of states that have made it legal.

The task force idea came after state Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, introduced online gaming legislation each year for the past three years.

Moak wrote the legislation in reaction to a 2011 U.S. Justice Department ruling which clarified that the ban on interstate betting in the Wire Act of 1961 applied only to a “sporting event or contest” and that all other gambling operations are outside the purview of the act.

Under the ruling, states can sell lottery tickets online and authorize online poker, roulette, blackjack and other casino games, as long as the actual betting takes place within a respective state’s boundaries, even if out-of-state credit cards are used to finance the gambling.

Moak argued that the legislation was necessary to allow Mississippi’s existing gaming industry to have more control of its own destiny and to allow the state to regulate what will already be taking place online and to tax it as other competing states are doing.

The Pew Center reported this week that Morgan Stanley has chopped its market projection for the U.S. online gaming industry by 30 percent, from $5 billion to $3.5 billion by 2017, “to better reflect the insights we have gained following the first few months of operations” in Delaware, Nevada and New Jersey.

Despite the initial revenue disappointments in those three states, a Mississippi gaming industry already struggling with competition in the border states can ill afford to give other out-of-state competitors too big a head start in at least putting a regulatory system in place for online gaming.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com. He is the chief spokesman for Mississippi State University.