The U.S. Supreme Court could rule as early as May 14 to allow sports betting, so will Mississippi have a system in place to let fans bet on the Saints this football season?
“Most definitely,” said Allen Godfrey, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission.
It was the main topic of conversation at Thursday's Southern Gaming Summit at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino.
A lot of things need to happen before the kickoff, and it all depends on a favorable Supreme Court ruling.
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It could come as early as May 14 or by June 30 at the latest, Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association, said during a speech Thursday.
When the original sports betting law was passed in 1992, attitudes were very different, he said. The sports leagues were against it, and the technology was a dial-up internet modem.
Freeman has led the fight for legalized sports betting over the past three years. Now, he said, the fans, casino industry, the sports leagues, broadcasters, law enforcement and mayors all want it.
"This is an issue where that group of stakeholders is enormous," he said.
And the stakes are huge. AGA conservatively estimates $150 billion is wagered by Americans on sports each year, and only $4.5 billion of that wagered legally in Nevada.
“So you see the size of the market that's out there,” he said.
Seize the opportunity
The possibility is creating big excitement in Mississippi, which already has a law that will allow sports betting if it is legal in the United States. Mississippi was the third state to get casinos, behind Nevada and New Jersey, and it could become one of the first states in the country — and the only one in the region — to offer sports betting.
Legislation died in Louisiana this session, and Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Texas and Arkansas don't yet have any plans for sports betting. Just as Mississippi residents drive to Louisiana and Arkansas to play every big lottery jackpot, people from these neighboring states are expected to come to Mississippi, Godfrey said.
But Freeman said Mississippi's law limits the opportunity for the state. In Nevada, fans can place a bet anywhere in the state on their mobile phones once they've set up an account inside a casino. Mississippi fans will have to go into a casino to make a bet under the current law.
Bookies have thrived for decades in Biloxi and across the country, and he said, "Having mobile gaming only here inside the brick and mortar casinos will ensure the future success of the illegal market."
But Thomas Shepherd III, a partner in the Jackson law firm Jones Walker, said legislators, many of whom are anti-gambling, could be persuaded to approve language that allows sports betting inside Mississippi casinos. "We do the possible," he said.
“We will absolutely take advantage of the opportunity if it's given to us,” said Todd Raziano, general manager of Hard Rock Casino Biloxi.
Parent company Twin River Worldwide Holdings doesn't operate a sports book or racetrack like MGM Resorts International, Golden Nugget, Caesars Entertainment, Penn National Gaming, Boyd Gaming and other major operators that own casinos in the Biloxi area. Raziano said Hard Rock will use a third-party sports betting service to get into the game.
"We don't want to be left behind," he said.
Some at the Gaming Summit even suggested sports betting could save the Tunica market, where competition has cut revenue in half over the past several years.
Crank up the energy
It isn't so much that sports betting will be a major source of revenue for Mississippi casinos. It's the energy the Super Bowl and other big games create and the new customers betting on the game will bring to the casinos, Freeman said.
These are customers not currently going to casinos to play slot machines and table games. The average fantasy sports player is 32, a college graduate and makes more than $75,000 a year, he said, which is the kind of customer all casinos would like to have.
They will bring energy to the floor, which is something casino operators focus on, said Dan Real, regional president-South for Caesars Entertainment.
“When there's a great game going on, you hear it throughout the entire building, and whether you have a bet on it or not, it makes you feel like you're in a pretty cool place,” he said. That's what's missing from casinos, he said, and sports betting provides this excitement, almost every day.