Can Las Vegas Survive Legal Online Casinos?

If the coronavirus pandemic taught us anything, it’s that legal online betting is the future. And not just legal online sports betting, either.

While this latter category of gaming was already charging full steam ahead before the COVID casino lockdowns of 2020-2021, sports gambling is merely the most immediately politically palatable tip of the iceberg.

The ultimate goal, here – the crown jewel of online gambling – is online casino gambling.

All the gambling-friendly US states that have forced mobile sports betting through their legislatures or convinced their voters to approve the industry have in mind a future that eventually includes real-money online casino games.

Some states have successfully included this latter category in their sports betting expansion measures, but these are exceptions to the rule.

For the most part, states have embraced legal online sports betting while excluding online casino gambling. The piecemeal approach makes sense, as mobile sports betting will – after time – convince the opposition that mobile casino gaming makes sense from a financial perspective.

Most importantly, if sports betting goes off without a hitch, lawmakers will be in a better position to convince their constituents that expanding the market to include online casino games isn’t going to be a moral or financial boondoggle for the states and residents in question.

They’re chipping away at gambling “puritanism” one market at a time.

But hopefully, everyone is already on board with online casino gambling. At least, behind the scenes.

Ironically, the best example of why this matters comes from the state least likely to expand its market to iGaming: Nevada.

While Las Vegas is America’s biggest resort casino district (and, as it happens, the most famous casino district in the entire world), online casinos aren’t a thing in Sin City. Tourism is the thing, and online gambling doesn’t really promote everything else that makes the Vegas economy thrive.

The fear is that by allowing legal iGaming in NV, brick-and-mortar casino traffic would decline significantly. This, in turn, would make all the destination casinos in Vegas less compelling as actual destinations.

The famed Vegas Strip would eventually just be a short stretch of highway peppered with derelict white elephant after derelict white elephant blotting out the desert sun.

In other words, while online gambling is the future of the casino market in general, it’s not as clear of a winner for established traditional gambling districts. Online gambling is far more compelling in cities and states where there aren’t historic retail gaming markets already up and running.

Of course, that’s a double-edged sword, and Nevada has a choice to make. Consider the toll that the coronavirus lockdowns and travel restrictions took on Vegas itself.

Business Insider Africa explains:

“In 2020, Las Vegas casinos experienced an unprecedented shock as Nevada’s government forced them to close their doors for seventy-eight days from May to June of that year. [This] was a trying time that caused many local gaming enthusiasts to turn to online gambling sites, with many sites that feature identical slot machines and table games to those found on MGM resorts international’s and other famous Vegas casinos’ floors.

Credit card deposits at internet gambling sites in the US and every corner of the globe increased dramatically in 2020. … Yet, living up to its reputation, The World’s Entertainment Capital bounced back fantastically… [and] raked in an all-time high of over $13.4 billion in pre-tax gaming figures.

That said, fears now have emerged that high gas prices and an impending recession could cause sizeable harm to the United States’ casino industry. … Therefore, many expect to see fiat and crypto casinos get a further user base boost in the year to come due to these happenings in the global economy.”

Vegas has survived COVID, but several longstanding casinos closed their doors forever because of the pandemic, and 2020 gross gaming revenue (GGR) was down over 95% compared to the GGR in 2019.

Yes, the Strip came back guns blazing, but the city’s just another pandemic or political austerity campaign away from falling apart again.

Remember, out on the east coast, Atlantic City GGR was only down some 40% year over year from 2019 to 2020, which was due entirely to the fact that New Jersey offers online casino games while Nevada does not.

Online casino gambling is a safety net.

Of course, all that said, there’s no reason Vegas can’t have its online iGaming safety net while eating its cake, too.

Consider: Maybe there could be a trigger – say, the declaration of a state of emergency – that would allow “dormant” Vegas online casino servers to go live. Then, once said SOE is resolved – once the retail casinos open back up – the online component would simply go offline.

This is something worth considering, especially since it’s hard to see Vegas ever going all in on legal online slots, table games, live-dealer games, and so on.