In the past few months, the American Gaming Association has almost completely regenerated itself. Even though the gaming industry’s chief lobbying group has the same name and offices, it has a renewed mission under new President and CEO Geoff Freeman: to promote the overall positive community impact of gaming, urge a streamlined regulatory process and underline the reality that online gaming is not going away.
When the AGA was founded in 1995, the industry was in transition. The cross-country proliferation of casinos was scarcely a half-decade old, and there were fears that the federal government would pass legislation unfavorable to the industry. In particular, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, which was chartered by Congress in 1996 and which delivered its final report in 1999, was expected to be on balance unfavorable to casinos, perhaps even suggesting a federal tax.
That didn’t happen, in part because of the American Gaming Association’s advocacy. Once the immediate threat faded, the AGA continued to advocate for the industry on the national level. It also made strides in promoting responsible gaming. Its Global Gaming Expo events in the United States and Asia helped to spread ideas and new technologies.
But, Freeman says, something was missing.
“I think the American Gaming Association in chapter one was the right organization for the right time,” he says. “But as the industry has evolved, and the openness in the country to gaming has evolved, the organization needs to change. Our responsibility is to rise above intra-industry differences to articulate the value of gaming.”
So it’s no surprise that the AGA has been in the news recently. In December, the group added three members—Wynn Resorts, Station Casinos, and Churchill Downs—to its board. And this may be just the beginning.
“I see membership growing,” Freeman says, “not just over the next year, but in coming years. We will develop an organization that this industry will only be more proud of as it grows.”
This kind of growth is important: Having stared down external foes, the industry can’t afford to be riven by internal squabbles such as the current dispute over online gambling. Freeman sees a renewed AGA as a bulwark against division.
“As the AGA rises above these divisions, becomes a champion for the industry as a whole, we’ll see more expansion: We’ll have not just operators and manufacturers, but also tribal entities affiliates.”
That outreach to tribal gaming—which in the 1990s was considered the enemy—speaks to the new realities of 21st century gaming in the United States.
Earlier this month, the AGA announced the addition of five staffers, including Sara Rayme, who led MGM Resorts’ successful Maryland lobbying and referendum efforts, as senior vice president of public affairs; Chaka Burgess, an experienced lobbyist, as vice president of government relations; Allie Barth, formerly of the U.S. Travel Association, as senior director of communications; Elizabeth Cronan, who has deep experience in gaming technology, as director of gaming policy; and Virginia Hurt Johnson as general counsel.
The group also brought in Jim Messina, who managed President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, to advise on many grassroots issues—including online gaming. The total effect, Freeman says, will be to make the group “stronger, more pro-active, and more relentless in our championing the cause of gaming.”
And even though much of the action is taking place within the Beltway, these changes will mean something in Las Vegas.
“For many years,” Freeman says, “Las Vegas was considered an outpost, marketed as a destination with ‘sin.’ But the more appreciated the gaming industry becomes nationally, the greater the benefit to Las Vegas will be. I saw recently that the number of government meetings in Las Vegas has plummeted because of the perception it’s not an acceptable destination. That’s absurd.
“By mainstreaming this business, the American Gaming Association can help Las Vegas maintain its spot as a top destination. The data is there; it’s incumbent on us to tell the story.”
So even though the American Gaming Association is a national trade group, expect its future moves to make big waves in Las Vegas.
David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.