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What pandemic? Nevada casinos post best month in 8 years

Updated April 27, 2021 - 6:31 pm

Nevada’s casino industry roared back to life in March, shaking off the coronavirus pandemic with the state’s highest monthly total gaming win in more than eight years.

All-time monthly win records were achieved in five state markets the Nevada Gaming Control Board monitors including three in Southern Nevada: downtown Las Vegas, the Boulder Strip and areas within Clark County that are off the Strip and downtown. Elko County and the Carson Valley also had record win totals.

Industry experts were encouraged by the report.

“I’m extremely hopeful and I am extremely confident that Las Vegas is going to not only recover but is eventually going to see even greater high marks, just as it has after every single downturn in the last 40 years,” said Alan Feldman, a distinguished fellow at UNLV’s International Gaming Institute. “If you look at every single one of them, when it’s recovered, it’s recovered to new highs and I expect that’s exactly what will happen here.”

But Feldman also had a note of caution.

“I don’t think it’s quite yet the time to claim victory,” he said. “I think it’s a little too early. It’s certainly a great sign, and I don’t want to diminish the importance of what’s happened, but I think it would be a little bit too early to claim victory just yet.”

He noted that coronavirus variants have pushed seemingly recovered parts of the world back to lockdown.

Cautious optimism

Derek Stevens, owner of Circa, the D Las Vegas and the Golden Gate in downtown Las Vegas, was also cautious.

“Overall, it was great to see the numbers get back up to a billion-dollar level,” Stevens said. “It’s a first good step to where we’ve got to go with the state.”

Stevens also was proud that Circa — the downtown resort he opened in October — contributed to downtown’s record win, but he also noted that pent-up demand for the NCAA’s March Madness had a lot to do with the success. He noted that sportsbooks, which traditionally get a good bump in business the first weekend of the tournament when there are 48 games played, also had a good second weekend during the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight rounds of the tournament when there were 12 games.

“I think the one thing that happened in March was that there was so much pent-up demand to come to Vegas, but really there was some specific pent-up demand for March Madness, not just the first week but the second week as well,” Stevens said. “The second week was exceptionally strong, far stronger than what we would have anticipated. I’m hoping now that (the impact of) March Madness is two weeks long.”

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority also reported higher visitation numbers Tuesday, and spokeswoman Lori Nelson-Kraft said the city’s comeback is still in its early stages.

“As we begin to fully reopen, we’re starting to witness the very early stages of Vegas’ comeback,” she said. “We are just scratching the surface of meeting the pent-up demand for travel and for our unrivaled destination experience and remain optimistic we will continue to grow visitation with every passing month.”

Hitting $1 billion

State gaming win eclipsed the $1 billion mark in March for the first time since February 2020, the month before Nevada casinos were shut down for 78 days beginning March 18, 2020, the Control Board reported Tuesday.

State win was posted at $1.067 billion for the month, a 72.7 percent increase over March 2020. Clark County win was up 63.4 percent to $893.2 million while Strip win was up 67.2 percent to $501.4 million and downtown Las Vegas climbed 63.4 percent to $71 million.

Every one of the 20 markets monitored by the Control Board showed double- or triple-digit percentage increases from a year ago — not surprising because numbers were being compared with a month with just 17 of 31 days of activity.

But hitting the $1 billion win mark showed that analysts and operators weren’t kidding about the level of pent-up demand they were seeing in their bookings.

Perfect storm

Lawton said a perfect storm of positives contributed to hitting the $1 billion win mark.

“Demand was obviously a driver, in addition to capacity being increased to 50 percent on March 15 and the NCAA basketball tournament being played after last year’s cancellation,” Lawton said. “However, these numbers also benefited significantly from stimulus payments allowing for increased spend by customers across the state including locals and visitors.”

The Nevada market with the largest percentage increase of win was North Lake Tahoe, 176.2 percent over last year, to $2 million. In Southern Nevada, Mesquite had a 145.9 percent boost to $16.5 million.

The NCAA basketball tournament — canceled by the pandemic in 2020 — was a huge driver of casino traffic this year.

Sports pool win and volume were all-time records for the month of March, and the amount of bets taken was the third-highest month ever.

The board reported that sports pools won $39.3 million, up $37.9 million, or 2,605.3 percent. Sports pool drop — the amount wagered — was $640.7 million, up $499.7 million, or 354.3 percent.

Sportsbooks were far luckier than players with a hold percentage of 6.14 percent this year compared with 1.03 percent last year.

Sports wagers made with mobile apps won $21.5 million on $385.2 million in wagers, up 333.3 percent compared with last year, and holding 5.58 percent. That write amount accounted for 60.1 percent of all sports wagers.

Slot win contributed

Slot machine play also contributed to the big month with slot win of $772.1 million, the second-highest total in state history. That win amount represented a $303.5 million increase from the previous year, or 64.8 percent.

Slot win was higher despite the hold percentage being down from 2020, an indication that players were feeding more money into machines.

Statewide coin in on slot machines was $10.6 billion compared with $4.7 billion in March 2020, a 127.8 percent increase, but the win percentage was 7.31 percent compared with 10.07 percent last year.

Baccarat, normally a volatile high-volume part of the casino, was up significantly, thanks to a higher-than-usual win percentage for the casinos.

Baccarat win was up $25.2 million, 58.5 percent, to $68.2 million for the month.

The amount wagered on baccarat of $349 million was down $10.2 million, 2.9 percent. But the casino win percentage was 19.54 percent compared with 11.98 percent last year. Normally, baccarat hold is in the 13-14 percent range.

Joe Greff, a gaming industry analyst with New York-based J.P. Morgan, said the Las Vegas locals market increased by double-digit percentages over pre-pandemic March 2019.

In a note to investors, Greff said monthly gaming revenues increased 55 percent year over year to $256.5 million, which was 23 percent higher than in March 2019. Slot handle, the amount wagered, increased 29 percent over last year and was 5 percent above March 2019 in the locals market, Greff said.

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on Twitter.

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