A Giant’s Departure

The January 7 announcement that American Gaming Association President Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. will step down from his post in June is an occasion to reflect on just how far the industry has come in the past 17 years.

When Fahrenkopf was appointed the AGA’s first (and thus far only) chief executive on June 1, 1995, the national (and international) casino landscape was much different. Commercial casino gaming had just started to expand outside of Nevada and New Jersey, and was considered anything but a sure thing. Congress was in the process of authorizing the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, which would examine all aspects of the business on all levels of government; many in the industry feared that it would result in federally mandated restrictions on future growth and perhaps even existing operations. President Bill Clinton had just rejected paying for welfare reform with a special tax on casinos, and it made sense that the federal government would continue to try to exert authority over gaming.

At the time, the industry was fractured. Well-entrenched Nevada interests were far from unanimous about the expansion of gaming to neighboring states. Some opposed it bitterly; others took the long view and worked to establish themselves in new jurisdictions.

The industry needed a stabilizing figure, and Fahrenkopf fit the bill. A graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno, and Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, Fahrenkopf had practiced gaming law in Nevada and served as chairman of the Republican Party—a unique combination of inside-the-industry knowledge and inside-the-Beltway connections that made him the ideal ambassador between gaming and Washington. He shepherded the industry’s advocacy through the boisterous 1990s and the tumultuous 2000s.

Fahrenkopf’s departure will be seen as a milestone marking the end of gaming’s geographic expansion in the U.S. Virtually all states that want casinos now have them, and the issues facing the industry have become more complex, bleeding over international borders. Today, the rising tide of Asian casinos and the inevitability of the migration of gambling to the Internet are the main challenges, not whether racetracks in select states will add slot machines. The able Fahrenkopf will leave big shoes to fill—and a task complicated by the increasingly global nature of the business.

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