ATLANTIC CITY — With 11 major casinos crowding its shoreline, Atlantic City has had little to fear from the three racetrack slot parlors in Delaware. Until now.
Delaware’s modest casino industry is about to become a lot more like Atlantic City’s by introducing table games to complement its slot machines. It will also have one other gambling attraction the East Coast currently lacks — sports betting.
Already buffeted by competition from the slot parlors in Pennsylvania and New York, New Jersey’s struggling casino market will now have a formidable rival to the south, too.
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell is expected to sign legislation today to allow sports betting and table games at the racetrack casinos, which are currently limited to slot machines.
In more bad news for Atlantic City, one gaming analyst predicts Delaware’s expansion of gambling will be the catalyst for Pennsylvania to add table games.
“The bigger issue is table games,” said Cory H. Morowitz, chairman of Morowitz Gaming Advisors LLC. “We think it will blow over into Pennsylvania and speed up enabling legislation for table games there. That’s obviously going to make those properties more competitive with Atlantic City.”
In addition to competition from surrounding states, Atlantic City’s casinos have been battered by the recession. With cost-conscious customers cutting back on their gambling trips, gaming revenue is down 15.7 percent for the first four months of 2009 and headed for a third straight year of declines.
Morowitz estimated that table games in both Pennsylvania and Delaware probably would cut into Atlantic City’s $4.55 billion annual gaming revenue by about 5 percent, although he has also calculated a worst-case scenario of about 10 percent.
Ed Sutor, president and chief executive officer of Dover Downs Hotel & Casino, said table games could be introduced within six months, after Delaware’s lottery commission gives its final regulatory approval. Sports betting should be ready by the fall to coincide with the start of the pro football season, he said.
“We’ll be the only ones east of Montana with sports betting,” Sutor said.
Delaware is one of just four states, along with Nevada, Montana and Oregon, grandfathered under a 1992 federal law that bans sports betting. New Jersey is belatedly trying to win court approval for sports betting in a federal lawsuit that challenges the ban. Delaware was exempted because of a brief experiment with a sports lottery in the 1970s.
Professional and college sports organizations such as the NFL and NCAA oppose sports betting and are threatening lawsuits, but Sutor asserted that any legal action would fail.
“They filed a suit in Delaware in the 1970s and lost, so they have a history of filing suits and losing,” he said of the NFL.
Delaware’s share of the proceeds from sports betting and table games is key to the governor’s plan to close a projected $600 million budget deficit in the upcoming fiscal year. While Delaware’s casinos have been pushing for expanded gambling for years, they object to the state’s plan to increase the tax rate on gaming revenue from about 50 percent to around 60 percent, Sutor said.
“It is the biggest tax increase by far that we’ve ever experienced,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine ever being disappointed with the approval of sports betting and table games, but it comes with a steep tax increase.”
Delaware’s casino operators, however, are still eager to offer their customers an array of new gambling options. Sutor cited one study that he said shows between 1 percent and 2 percent of the adult male population between New York and Washington, D.C., would participate in sports betting.
“If we could get that percentage, it would be a home run for us,” he said.
Sports betting by itself is not expected to be a giant boon to the Delaware casinos, Sutor said. He characterized it as more of a “marketing device” to attract more customers through the doors — and once there, they will also play the slot machines, table games and bet on Delaware’s horse racing.
Sutor, a former Atlantic City gaming executive, believes sports betting in Delaware will hurt New Jersey to some degree. But primarily, he said, it should help Delaware’s casinos draw more customers from their own state, Maryland and Virginia.
“I don’t think we’re going to steal Atlantic City’s customers and make them Delaware’s customers,” he said. “I hope we’re going to make new Delaware customers by creating the things they like, which is sports betting.”
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