NJ joining online poker interstate compact will reverberate in 2018

US Online Poker, Casino Award Winners For 2017: Golden Nugget, Pennsylvania And More

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It’s been a busy year for online gambling in the US, and the holidays have us in a reflective mood. What follows is a list of the most memorable stories from 2017 presented in the era’s trendy, award-based format.

Apologies in advance to the winners; we don’t have the budget for any actual trophies.

Online casino of the year: Golden Nugget

The 2017 race to the top of the online gambling mountain was a runaway from the start.

In 2016, the five New Jersey licensees competed more or less evenly in the marketplace. At one point, they were each generating between $2.3 million and $3.3 million in monthly revenue.

Golden Nugget Casino left the others far behind in 2017, however. It has earned $5 million in every month since February, including three months over the $6 million mark. In October, it accounted for 33 percent of NJ’s online casino revenue. Only one other operator (Tropicana) posted a single month with more than $4 million in online casino revenue.

The Golden Nugget brand is composed of three online casinos: Golden Nugget itself, plus Betfair and SugarHouse. The latter is an out-of-state addition to the family and at least part of the reason for the runaway lead.

In 2017, Golden Nugget became the first online casino with 400 games in its library. Others quickly followed suit there, but they haven’t done so in other areas. Along with Betfair, Golden Nugget was also the first to offer live-dealer games, and it’s still the only one doing so in the NJ online casinos marketplace. The unexpected popularity of those games may be another factor in the revenue gains.

While NJ online casinos are growing in a pretty linear fashion across the board, nobody is doing it like Golden Nugget. It has built itself a substantial lead despite the fact that it is a casino-only product, and no poker.

Online series of the year: PokerStars NJCOOP

To be frank, 2017 wasn’t a great year for online poker series in regulated US markets.

All three of New Jersey’s established networks hosted at least one online festival, and each of them posted middling numbers. At least the events ran without interruption this time around.

By its size alone, PokerStars’ New Jersey Championship of Online Poker (NJCOOP) takes the crown for online series of the year. Its 2017 schedule featured $1.2 million in guarantees across 46 events.

For comparison, the Garden State Super Series (GSSS) from PartyPoker NJ had 14 events with a total of $375,000 guaranteed.

The WSOP NJ offering, the New Jersey Poker Classic (NJPC), ran with 38 events and $500,000 in guarantees. It was an ambitious effort from the market’s third-place competitor — by far its largest series to date and cause for consideration in this topic.

The PokerStars series was the biggest of the bunch, though, and the majority of NJCOOP events met their targets. There were a few notable exceptions in the bigger buy-ins, but the numbers were strong in sum. More than 8,500 total entries ended up generating close to $1.5 million in prize money. The $500 Main Event was responsible for $200,000 of that, posting a slight overlay.

Although online poker revenue is floundering a bit in New Jersey, PokerStars continues to be the leader of the pack. It’s held the yellow jersey in the revenue race every month since April 2016, and it’s now hosted both of the state’s largest tournament series.

The Borgata network is closing the gap, but its GSSS still has a way to go to challenge NJCOOP for superiority.

Achievement of the year: Pennsylvania

Barring something truly remarkable in the last two weeks of the year, the biggest surprise of 2017 had to be the passing of online gambling legislation in Pennsylvania. Those who know Pennsylvania understand the perilous paths of its legislature. And those in the industry realize that it is a — ahem — keystone state in the future of legalized iGaming.

Relevant bills have been on the table for five years, and there has been plenty of progress before. For two years running, though, that progress had been torpedoed during the state’s bumbling budget discussions. The bargaining room is a minefield that iGaming legislation had twice been unable to escape.

It looked like 2017 was going to be more of the same old story. As before, online gambling drifted in and out of the budget package as the year ticked away. There was a standalone piece of legislation on the table, though, and it somehow made it to the finish line.

Lawmakers finally passed a comprehensive gaming bill with iGaming at its core. It includes provisions for the regulation of daily fantasy sports and sports betting, too, should the latter become federally legal. It’s not a perfect package by any means, but it’s a huge step forward for iGaming.

With Gov. Tom Wolfe’s signature, Pennsylvania became the fourth state to legalize internet gambling, joining Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware.

By this time next year, people should be playing online poker in PA.

Disappointment of the year: New York

Entering 2017, New York looked like an odds-on favorite to legalize online poker.

As was the case in Pennsylvania, legalization stood a chance on two fronts, both as a part of the budget and as a standalone law. The budgetary path became untenable, but that didn’t seem to be much of a concern.

Sen. John Bonacic reintroduced his standalone online poker bill that had passed the Senate with ease in 2016.

The hangup had been in the lower chamber, where Assemblyman Gary Pretlow had expressed concerns about the bill’s potential to win approval. But Pretlow offered an optimistic outlook that support existed to get the bill through the Assembly.

Things went awry in the last legislative session, though, as tends to happen in New York. Although they have a six-month window in which to consider bills, lawmakers don’t get much done in the first five. So they were left cramming during the final hours like bad students.

Despite clearing the Assembly Racing, Wagering and Gaming committee (of which Pretlow is the chairman), the online poker bill never made it onto the floor. There were still two committees to get through by the time the clock ran out on the 2017 legislative session.

Pretlow and Bonacic will try again in 2018, and they’re optimistic about their chances. They were optimistic in 2017, though, too. The good news is that the process doesn’t start over, and Pretlow’s bill will begin the year where it left off.

Maybe, just maybe, there’ll be some movement before June this time around.

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Surprise of the year: NJ joins online poker compact

More than a decade after the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, the regulated online poker industry is still emerging from the ashes. It’s a long process with a lot of hurdles in place, and the first legal sites are still settling into their new homes.

By the end of 2017, four states had legalized online poker: Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware, and new entry Pennsylvania. Growth has been sluggish to say the least, with players largely restricted to the games and players in their own states. While Nevada and Delaware agreed to share poker players, it hadn’t moved the needle much.

The industry’s future took a big step forward in 2017, though, with NJ joining the interstate agreement.

The deal allows players in the three states to play against each other, rather than in their own segregated player pools. The result should be a significant uptick in cash game liquidity and tournament prize pools. That, in turn, creates a more enticing product for players.

WSOP / 888 Poker stands to be the most immediate beneficiary, as its network is already licensed in all three states. Other operators will need to jump through a couple extra hoops, while PokerStars is limited to New Jersey. The timeline for the interstate launch is still to be determined.

While player pooling across three states is already a big achievement, there may be more to come in 2018.

Pennsylvania should be rolling out its first games sometime in 2018, and it’s a likely candidate to join the pool. The addition of the country’s sixth most-populous state would make the potential pool that much larger. Several other states will at least consider legalization in the new year, too. Illinois online gambling, including poker, is near the top of the list of possibilities.

If New York, in particular, can manage to get aboard the interstate poker train, it would mean a significant uptick for US online poker.

- Eric is a reporter and writer covering regulated US gambling, sports betting, and DFS. He comes from a poker background, formerly on staff at PokerNews and the World Poker Tour.
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