‘Never’ turns to ‘we’ll see’ for Net bets

Maybe Harrah’s Entertainment won’t have to go at it alone.

There seems to be a thawing in the ice-cold reception the casino industry once gave toward the notion of legalizing forms of Internet gaming.

Harrah’s is online wagering’s most vocal proponent within the gaming industry.

The casino operator backs a bill written by U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., which would establish a framework that would let online gaming sites accept wagers from U.S. residents.

In the United Kingdom, where Internet gaming is legal, Harrah’s operates three online gambling sites, including one dedicated to the company’s World Series of Poker.

Harrah’s would love to launch a similar site for American online gamblers.

In March, the American Gaming Association changed its once neutral stance on Internet gambling. The industry’s Washington D.C.-based lobbying group now believes the technology exists that would allow the activity to be regulated at the state or federal level.

Nevada gaming regulators and online gambling proponents believe the state would be the logical choice to serve as the hub for licensing online gaming companies, potentially earning state tax coffers millions in licensing fees.

Other than Harrah’s, the major casino operators have remained relatively silent on the issue.

However, according to The New York Times, Wynn Resorts Ltd. changed its stance from “never” to a softer “we’ll see.”

A gaming industry analyst told the newspaper that casino operators, which have seen revenue streams shrink over the past two years as the economy failed, may be seeing online wagering in a different light.

Pokerstars, an Internet gambling site operated on the Isle of Man that advertises heavily during televised sporting events, has annual revenues of $1 billion, according to New York consulting firm Poker Analytics.

Congress and the Bush administration approved a law in 2006 that made it a crime for banks and other financial institutions to process transactions used for online wagering. But that has not kept Americans from gambling online.

The American Gaming Association estimated that U.S. residents wagered almost $6 billion online in 2008, about 23 percent of all the money bet on the Internet that year.

In September, the Congressional Budget Office examined the Frank bill, estimating that its enactment could increase tax revenues by $971 million, due mainly to licensing fees and other charges attached to its passage.

That figure would make any gambling company take notice.

Howard Stutz’s Inside Gaming column appears Sundays. He can be reached at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. He blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/stutz.

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