The U.S. commercial gambling industry faced existential threats from the economy and unregulated competitors, not to mention the unsettled question of how best to handle the controversial topic of online gambling.
Fast-forward just under a year and Freeman has, by all accounts, charted a path through those challenges. He’s staked out a clear position on iGaming, contracted Obama campaign guru Jim Messina for a grassroots boost and injected a formidable dose of talent into the AGA’s roster.
Freeman recently gave the keynote speech at the 2014 Winter Meeting of the National Council of Legislators From Gaming States (NCLGS). That’s where Marco Valerio conducted an exclusive interview covering online gambling regulation, Freeman’s larger vision for the AGA and why he’s preparing to do battle with the Magic Kingdom.
Marco Valerio: Good to see you here at the NCLGS winter meeting. What are you looking to get out of this conference, other than delivering the keynote address?
Geoff Freeman: This is my first time coming to NCLGS. I’ve heard great things about the attendees, the type of folks who are here. I think it’s important that the AGA begin to build a strong rapport with the gaming legislators, regulators and others who are here in attendance.
My goal is to position the AGA as a very collaborative and transparent organization, and here at this conference, it’s a great opportunity to start.
Valerio: We’ve heard a lot about the significant staff shake-ups at the AGA lately. You’ve hired a very impressive roster. What’s the plan?
Freeman: I’m really excited about the team that we’re beginning to put in place at the AGA. I’m really looking for people who have strong gaming experience and a lot of political savvy.
We have a campaign-oriented mentality. We need to run the best campaign this industry has ever seen about the value of gaming. And the team that we’re putting in place at the AGA is getting us in a better position to do that.
We still got a few more hires to go, but whether it’s Sara, Chaka, Allie, Virginia, Elizabeth… We’ve brought in some great talent, and it’s going to help take the industry to the next level.
Valerio: Where may one apply for one of those more hires to go?
Freeman: [Chuckles] We’ve got job openings on our website. More to come. We’re looking for varied talent, we’re looking for people who are passionate about the industry, who recognize what needs to be done.
Valerio: Lots is happening with the gaming industry nowadays, especially with respect to online gaming. What is it you are most currently engaged in at the moment?
Freeman: You know, my job is to take the temperature of this industry, to do my due diligence, get a sense of what the industry is looking for, and then get out there and be the best advocate the industry can have on those issues.
I’ve spoken with just about everybody in the industry who’s relevant to our board and our organization, gathered a sense of what they’re looking for, and that’s really what’s driving the AGA’s activity.
The one thing that I know just about all our members agree on – with the obvious exception of Las Vegas Sands and the important work that they’re doing – our members agree that the prohibition of online gaming is the wrong approach, and we’re going to make sure that prohibition does not happen. We’re going to fight that as strongly as we need to.
I’m very concerned that those who promote prohibition will make headway in Washington. They’re already beginning to make some headway. We’ve got our work cut out for us to make sure it doesn’t happen.
I’ll ask your readers and listeners to engage, to work through the Poker Players’ Alliance and other organizations to make sure prohibition does not take place.
Valerio: When I saw the AGA had hired Jim Messina’s group to work on more “grassroots” initiatives, I did remark that it looked like you were going to have something in common with the PPA. Is that a similarity that you see taking place?
Freeman: When I look at the AGA, I see no reason why we can’t be the champion of the player as well. We obviously represent the companies, but what’s good for the players is usually good for the companies as well.
So I see some opportunities to work together, to work with the Poker Players’ Alliance, to work with other grassroots organizations, and develop our own grassroots capabilities as well. There’s no reason why we can’t work more closely for those players and be their champions.
Valerio: You encourage the player community to work with the Poker Players’ Alliance, but the PPA is also substantially backed and funded by PokerStars, a company that the AGA has expressed its disapproval of. How do you reconcile those two attitudes?
Freeman: We don’t hold the PPA’s willingness to work with a company that flouted American law against them. The fact is that there are a lot of passionate players out there who believe in the need for regulation. And it’s that playing community that’s very important right now.
It’s very important to making sure that prohibition does not take place. I see opportunities to work with a lot of different folks. We don’t agree with state lotteries on everything, we certainly don’t agree with the PPA on everything, and there are a lot of others we don’t agree with on various issues.
That doesn’t mean we can’t work together where our interests align, and that’s what I’m focused on finding.
The AGA is an organization – and I can’t stress this enough – that is looking to work with others. Whether it be the PPA, whether it be the folks here at NCLGS, whether it be the players, we’re looking to be a collaborative organization where we can all take the gaming industry to the next level.
Valerio: Earlier you described the work that Sheldon Adelson is doing as “important.”
Freeman: I think what Sheldon and Las Vegas Sands are doing is important. They feel passionately about their position. They have some of the same concerns that we have when it comes to making sure that minors are not playing online, when it comes to making sure that online gaming is not used for criminal activity.
We have a strong difference of opinion when it comes to how you achieve the goal of making sure that online gaming is safe, but we agree on many of the things that need to happen for online gaming to be safe.
Obviously we’re promoting regulation – others are promoting prohibition. We’re confident that regulation is the more sensible approach, but we need folks to engage here and make sure that this prohibition push doesn’t gain any more steam than it should.
Valerio: You authored an editorial in The Hill recently arguing against the prohibition of online gaming. At one point in the editorial, you called on Congress to act. Do you still see an opportunity for federal iGaming legislation?
Freeman: Whether I think that there is an opportunity or not, I will say that it is Congress’s responsibility to step in here with something as borderless as the Internet and put in place some regulatory standards.
I certainly hope Congress will do that and maintain states’ rights to decide what they want to do as far as whether they wish to offer online gaming. But we think there is a role for Congress, and in the absence of Congressional action, we will continue to work with the states to make sure that online gaming rolls out as efficiently and as effectively as it should.
But that doesn’t take away from the important role that Congress should play here. It’s just a matter of whether or not they will.
Valerio: What’s next for you and the AGA at this point?
Freeman: We will continue to build our team at the AGA. I’m excited to add a few more folks, round out this team and develop our agenda for 2014.
I cant stress enough, Marco, that we are not the Internet Gaming Association. We’re the American Gaming Association, and our responsibilities extend far beyond the Internet. I think you’re going to see us take a far more active role in getting out there and telling the story of this industry, the value of this industry.
You and I today are here in Florida, a state where right now Disney and others are running a campaign that’s using falsehoods and other outdated information to attack gaming. The AGA and others need to set that record straight. We’re going to be doing that, we’re going to be coming after those entities that are participating in gaming in an unregulated manner.
Whether they be illegal offshore websites operating right now, whether they be Internet sweepstakes cafes… If you want to be in the gaming business, there’s one way to do it, and that’s the regulated way, and we’re certainly going to be going after those who are doing it in a way that doesn’t protect the interests of consumers or communities.
Those are just a couple of the areas where we’re going to be engaged. I couldn’t be more excited about this job, about the AGA and about the industry.