As New Jersey Moves to Legalize Sports Betting, Nevada Stays One Step Ahead

The more things change, the more Nevada adjusts to make sure the cash registers keep ringing

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Two weeks ago, I wrote in this space about how the gaming industry is collectively changing to suit the times: specifically, how slot makers and manufacturers are modifying what they offer to appeal to the next generation of gamblers.

Now let’s broaden that concept and consider how Las Vegas (not just the casino industry) responds to changes dealt to it externally. For example, earlier this month, gay marriage became legal in Nevada. Almost immediately, the question being asked wasn’t whether Nevada’s wedding industry (chapels, and the ancillary businesses that support them) would benefit from the landmark ruling, but how much it would benefit—and how quickly casinos would jump in.

Almost immediately, Caesars Entertainment announced that it would offer a 15 percent discount to same-sex couples, and proudly issued a photo of the first same-sex couple to be wed at the Flamingo toasting on the High Roller.

It’s no secret that Las Vegas casinos have long courted LGBT visitors; many already offered commitment ceremonies to same-sex couples. But the nimbleness with which casinos (and others in the wedding industry) have adjusted to the new reality reveals just how quickly they can react to change—and have a photographer on standby to capture the moment.

Meanwhile, not long after gay marriage became legal in Nevada, sports betting moved a step closer to becoming a reality in New Jersey. Garden State Governor Chris Christie signed a bill last week that effectively legalized sports betting, paving the way for the state’s racetracks and casinos to begin accepting wagers. Predictably, the four major professional sports leagues and the NCAA immediately requested an injunction, and on October 24 a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order.

Should the legal matter get resolved in New Jersey’s favor and the state actually begin offering straight-up betting on athletic contests, it would cut into Nevada’s current monopoly on (legal) non-parlay betting. There are questions about what that would mean for Las Vegas casinos: With the ability to bet in New Jersey, will our sportsbooks suddenly be empty? History suggests the answer is no. During the 1990s, casino gambling expanded across the United States at an unprecedented rate. While some markets in Nevada took a hit because of the competition from nearby casinos, Las Vegas itself has managed to maintain its appeal in a post-monopoly era. Yes, Americans could now gamble closer to home, but as those Americans became comfortable with gambling, they continued to see a trip to the Strip as an experience their local gambling halls and Indian casinos couldn’t replicate.

Las Vegas more than survived the expansion that took off in the 1990s—in fact, one could argue the city thrived because of it. At the very least, by making casino gambling less of a novelty, there was a broader acceptance of it as a legitimate leisure activity—something with incalculable, though profound, benefits. More practically, building national networks of player-loyalty programs added more potential visitors to Las Vegas casinos’ databases. National expansion in the ’90s also provided a foundation for international expansion in the 2000s (read: Macau), without which many local operators might not have weathered the Great Recession.

So if Nevada loses its exclusivity for sports betting, it’s likely that Las Vegas casinos will answer by promoting more “big game” trips. Besides, more widespread legal sports betting will only increase the number of visitors who know how to bet on games—it’s difficult to see how that will hurt Las Vegas.

Of course, a big part of continuing the attraction will be ensuring that our sportsbooks remain the kinds of places where you’d spend extra money and time to visit, even when closer options are available. That will take the kind of continued investment and promotion that, thus far, casinos have been more than willing to underwrite; if they continue to do so, legalized sports betting in New Jersey—and potentially beyond—won’t necessarily be a bad thing.

As Las Vegas casinos continue to show, the ability to quickly adapt to change is what keeps it ahead of the game.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.

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