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Gaming lobby unifies message


The collegiality developed within the gaming industry as casino companies weathered the economic downturn has evaporated.

Opposing opinions are healthy to any debate, especially when the topics include casino expansion into new markets and the potential state-by-state rollout of Internet gaming.

But simmering feuds and positions perceived as harmful to gaming can be detrimental to an industry that has numerous detractors looking to exploit any misstep.

American Gaming Association President Geoff Freeman said last week that the casino industry is often its “own worst enemy,” giving anti-gambling opponents ammunition.

“We have too many critics as an industry to show a divided front,” Freeman said.

Which is why his recent revamping of the 19-year-old trade association’s direction and corporate staff sends a clear message.

With a little more than seven months under his belt as the second president in the association’s history, Freeman let it be known the trade group will advocate on behalf of the industry as a whole and not adhere to the wishes of one member, no matter the size of his wallet nor how loud that he speaks.

Not surprisingly, Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman Sheldon Adelson is in the center of the latest industry rift.

Adelson is accustomed to holding the minority view. He just doesn’t understand why everyone doesn’t agree with him.

The 80-year-old billionaire — No. 11 on the Forbes 400 — vehemently opposes legalization of Internet gaming, an activity much of casino community views as the industry’s next logical step and a cash cow that could yield billions of dollars in annual revenue.

Adelson, however, has said he’ll spend whatever it takes to kill Internet gaming proposals on Capitol Hill and in individual states, much to the chagrin of Caesars Entertainment Corp. and Station Casinos. Those companies have invested millions in legal online wagering efforts in Nevada and New Jersey and hope to expand the businesses into other states that allow it.

The Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling, a grass-roots advocacy group funded by Adelson, launched in November. The organization hired three former elected officials, including ex-New York Gov. George Pataki, to serve as spokesmen.

The coalition is trying to increase public sentiment against online wagering, and last week issued a press release titled “How International Criminal Organizations Could Move Money Through Internet Gambling Sites.”

Critics say Adelson’s arguments against Internet gaming amount to nothing more than prohibition, which doesn’t work. Americans still spend millions of dollars gambling on illegal online sites, despite recent federal crackdowns.

Las Vegas Sands has a seat on the American Gaming Association’s 14-member board. So do Caesars and Station Casinos, which joined this month. MGM Resorts International Chairman and CEO Jim Murren just began a two-year term as the association’s chairman.

Murren is also a strong Internet gaming proponent.

The association isn’t going to abandon its support for a federal bill to legalize and regulate Internet poker.

Freeman put the American Gaming Association squarely in the middle of the Internet gaming debate last week. The group hired five staff members with extensive gaming, private sector and trade association backgrounds.

The organization also contracted with several consulting companies, including the Messina Group, which is headed by Jim Messina, President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, and Purple Strategies, whose senior adviser is the former deputy chief of staff to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

Freeman committed the American Gaming Association to an emphasis on proactive, campaign-style advocacy. The organization will try to block issues deemed detrimental to gaming and support initiatives that boost the industry’s bottom line.

One effort that differs from the group’s previous direction is support of gaming expansion in individual states.

“We need to do a better of job of explaining how regulated gaming can be a positive influence on a community,” Freeman said.

But Freeman’s initial task is to smooth over relations within the industry.

Last summer Adelson launched a broadside at Strip casino giants Caesars and MGM Resorts, saying their lower room rates depress the market, diminishing Las Vegas Sands earnings in Las Vegas.

Adelson had nothing to do, however, with Wynn Resorts Ltd. Chairman Steve Wynn’s recent tirade at Caesars and its Chairman Gary Loveman. Wynn was incensed over allegations raised in a Caesars lawsuit against the chairman of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.

Wynn didn’t stop at just correcting what he termed “a serious misrepresentation” of his phone conversation with the commission. He called the lawsuit “shameless” and a “desperate attempt to deflect attention” from Caesars’ “current financial condition.”

Ouch.

With Wynn and Station Casinos back on board, the next American Gaming Association board meeting could be quite interesting. Freeman might want to wear a referee’s shirt, or pack a stun gun.

“Every industry has powerful people who do battle in the marketplace,” Freeman said. “The task is to rise above all that and work toward what is in the industry’s best interest.”

Adelson and Wynn, mortal adversaries a few years ago, bonded in 2012 over all things anti-Obama.

So far, there seems to be no crack in that beautiful friendship.

But it’s early.

Howard Stutz’s Inside Gaming column appears Sundays. He can be reached at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.