2021 Regional Gaming Highlights

In 2020, Governor Kay Ivey appointed a Gaming Task Force to study the feasibility of legalizing gaming in Alabama. Since voters rejected the last attempt in 1999 to amend the Alabama constitutional prohibition on gambling, numerous attempts to pass gaming legislation have failed. But with the proliferation of gaming in surrounding states, bingo casinos scattered throughout Alabama, and the state government’s need for additional revenue, opinions may have shifted. The Gaming Task Force report indicated that a combination of a lottery and five or six casinos spread throughout the state could generate between $500 million and $700 million annually in tax revenue, and sports betting could contribute $10 million annually. Senator Del Marsh, who had been president pro tem of the Alabama Senate for many years, resigned his position in part so he could singularly focus on sponsoring and guiding a proposed constitutional amendment and enabling legislation through the 2021 legislative process. Hopes were dashed as the legislation once again failed to achieve consensus among Republicans, some of whom support only a lottery, and Democrats, many of whom insisted on having a casino guaranteed for pari-mutuel facilities located in their districts. The prospects are poor for additional gaming legislation in 2022, an election year in which typically controversial topics such as gaming are avoided. Nonetheless, Senator Greg Albritton of Atmore, where the Poarch Creek Indians headquarters is located, has announced his intention to once again introduce gaming legislation. His package, reports indicate, will resemble the 2021 effort and will include a lottery compact with the Poarch and authorization for additional casinos throughout the state.

After the expansion of casino gaming and sports betting in 2019, Arkansas opened its third casino (out of a possible four). The fourth casino license authorized by statute, in Pope County, was awarded to Gulfside Casino Partnership. However, the second bidder on the license, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, pursued litigation regarding the license, even as construction was ongoing. The Cherokee Nation prevailed in the Arkansas Supreme Court, resulting in the Arkansas Racing Commission voiding the license issued to Gulfside and awarding it to a business unit of the Cherokee Nation. But other peripheral litigation continues. In November, the commission formally approved the publication of rules that would permit mobile sports betting in the state in early 2022.

Governor Ron DeSantis signed a new gaming compact with Florida’s Seminole tribe permitting the tribe to engage in sports betting on an exclusive basis throughout the state. In August, the US Department of the Interior allowed the compact to become effective, neither explicitly approving nor disapproving it. In November, the tribe launched its mobile sports betting application. On December 4, sports betting in Florida ground to a halt after a federal judge threw out the new compact, ruling it violated the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, and a federal appeals court denied the tribe’s request for a temporary stay pending appeal. Meanwhile, major US-based sports betting companies filed a ballot initiative to put approval of commercial online sports betting in Florida to a vote during the November 2022 election.

Gaming made little headway in Georgia. Sports betting bills were put forth in both the Georgia House of Representatives and Senate; both bills were generally modeled after legislation in Tennessee and would direct revenues from sports wagering toward funding HOPE scholarship and pre-K programs. However, SB 142 was not passed by the lower house of the General Assembly before the conclusion of the 2021 legislative session in April. Ahead of the 2022 legislative session, Representatives Ron Stephens and Alan Powell have vocalized support for combining sports betting, casinos, and horse racing into a single constitutional amendment to put before Georgia voters.

Sports wagering is now live in certain Louisiana parishes. In November 2020, voters in 55 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes voted to authorize sports wagering in their respective parishes, and formal legislation was signed into law by Governor John Bel Edwards in June 2021. A few months later, in August, the Louisiana Gaming Control Board approved emergency rules to govern the conduct of sports wagering. Under the legislation and emergency rules, a total of 20 licenses are available to operate sportsbooks in Louisiana, with the licenses first being made available to the land-based casino in New Orleans and the 15 riverboat casinos and four horse racetracks in the state. Only some of the properties have been issued temporary Certificates of Authority (TCOAs).
Those properties that have been granted TCOAs can offer only retail sports wagering at this time. Mobile sports wagering will be offered in due course, subject to regulatory approval of geolocation and other technical issues. It should be noted that a sports wagering license will not be issued to a property unless and until a suitability investigation of the property and its owners of 5% or more, officers, and directors has been completed and its internal controls for sports wagering have been approved.

In late 2020, the Tennessee Education Lottery issued its first mobile sports betting app, and wagering commenced on November 1, 2020. Tennessee imposed a 20% tax rate on adjusted sports betting gross revenue and was the first state in the nation to mandate the use of official league data, if available, at commercially reasonable rates. The regulations also impose a controversial 10% hold requirement on sports wagering operators. In 2021, the Tennessee Legislature transferred all regulatory authority to the Tennessee Sports Wagering Advisory Council (SWAC), effective January 1, 2022. New emergency regulations were adopted in December 2021; they included a continuation of the 10% hold requirement. The SWAC was also busy with organizing a new state agency, hiring senior staff, locating office space, and developing a budget to submit to the Legislature.

2021 Mississippi Milestones

We took a deeper dive into Mississippi’s milestones throughout 2020 and have listed those highlights below.

Mobile Wagering Legislation Has No Legs — Yet
Coast Senators Scott Delano and Philip Moran and others introduced bills (SB 2732, SB 2396, and HB 1042) to allow mobile sports betting statewide in an effort to enable Mississippi sports wagering to fend off competition from surrounding states. Alas, all mobile sports wagering bills stalled out in committee. Delano believes 2022 could be the year for Mississippi to finally adopt mobile sports wagering statewide. Indeed, state House Gaming Committee Chairman Casey Eure is reported to be working on such legislation for the 2022 session.

Rollin’ on the (Pearl) River
Senator John Horhn filed SB 2395, a bill to authorize gaming on the Pearl River in the city of Jackson. It also died in committee.

Not Just the Lone Ranger
While COVID-19 raged throughout the United States, the Mississippi Gaming Commission, like others, instituted a mask mandate and social distancing requirements, including an occupancy limit of 50%. These restrictions remained in place until lifted effective April 30, 2021. Some casinos continued mask mandates despite their being no statewide government-imposed mandate.

“Locally Mobile” Sports Wagering
In the fall of 2021, Gold Strike Casino, and then its sister property Beau Rivage, in partnership with BetMGM, began offering mobile sports wagering, limited to each of the casino properties, not off-site.

Sand Beach Tug-of-War
For years, RW Development has attempted to build a casino at its location on Veterans Avenue in Biloxi. Several times, the Mississippi Gaming Commission has ruled that the construction of a casino on the site is illegal because the site does not have access to the mean high water line due to the state-owned sand beach. The Mississippi Supreme Court has affirmed the commission’s actions. In 2021, the City of Biloxi and Harrison County sought to lease the sand beach to RW for development of a pier. The Secretary of State sued, asserting it has sole control of the sand beach. While a Chancery Court has ruled in favor of the city and county, the Secretary of State has appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Breaking Records
Despite the pandemic, Mississippi casinos were on pace in 2021 to exceed $2.6 billion in revenue, a mark not met in a long time. Coast casinos recorded some of their biggest months ever.

Cruisin’ to Silver
Cruisin’ the Coast celebrated its silver anniversary with record attendance.

Goodbye, Hello
Newly appointed Gaming Commissioner Franc Lee replaced Commissioner Jerry Griffith, and longtime Commission Executive Director Allen Godfrey retired. The commission named Deputy Director Jay McDaniel as the new executive director.

Help Wanted
Mississippi casinos, like other businesses, struggled to fill vacant job positions, even when offering increased pay, signing bonuses, and other benefits. Stimulus money, COVID-19, and employee compensation were often cited as reasons for the worker shortage.

Border Issues
In 2021, the biggest news for the Mississippi gaming industry perhaps lies across the borders in adjacent states. From the potential for moving a casino license from Shreveport to Slidell in Louisiana to sports wagering in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee, and looming competition in Alabama, risks and challenges abound.