We could soon have four states sharing player pools for US online poker

Will Pennsylvania Help Tip The Scales For US Online Poker?

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With online poker in New Jersey failing to move the needle in a meaningful way five years after launch, many are hoping the answer to boosting the US market lies in Pennsylvania.

As expanded gaming PA moves steadily forward, we are hearing estimates as early as this fall to see online gambling’s debut in the state. And that launch comes with many questions, different and more complex than land-based gaming.

Perhaps on top of the list specifically is if PA will be able to be the panacea for the future of US online poker. It’s difficult to believe that would have been necessary just four years when it seemed like a number of states might join the push to legalize iGaming and iPoker.

In the interim, NJ online poker revenue has been a disappointment and there has not been a groundswell of states legalizing online poker. New Jersey is on the cusp of sharing poker liquidity with Nevada, but that probably won’t be a cure-all.

The knee-jerk reaction is to look at what went wrong. However, the only sure answer isn’t isolating one thing that happened but counting many reasons we should have seen coming. 

Here’s a brief list of current potential problems US online poker is facing now and in PA.

Limited options

As compared to the choices at major offshore poker rooms, players have more limited options to select from in the largest population base state of New Jersey.

Online poker is virtually non-existent in Delaware and very quiet in Nevada. Co-mingling the population bases (and poker games) with New Jersey to welcome Pennsylvania could be a win-win that could provide a needed boost. 

NJ, Nevada and Delaware could have multistate poker as soon as this spring. Adding Pennsylvania to the mix would certainly create a more interesting product.

Player opportunities

Whatever your preferred game is — be it sports betting, blackjack, craps, betting the horses or poker — the main objectives are basically the same. That is, having a good time and having an opportunity to win money. That has become a difficult hope to sell online poker players on in legal US online poker market.

It has been proven in horse racing that bettors like larger fields of horses to wager upon to guarantee the opportunity to potentially win at better odds. Obviously, the same principle is at play in the lottery, when the Powerball minimum was raised up to $2 per ticket, creating jackpots over $500 million for headline roll-overs.

The same guideline exists in online poker, where the variety of the games, number of players to potentially participate, buy-in potential, etc. equate to more interest. That was most evident in the “glory days” prior to the landmark US government shutdown of major online poker rooms in April 2011.

Although today we have fully legalized online poker in three US states, the excitement and potential pales by comparison to the early 2000s. 

For example, New Jersey has suffered pretty limited opportunities from which poker players can choose. Experienced bettors gained from the chance to exploit curious new players during the legalized introduction in 2013. From there, online poker just hasn’t been able to expand in a meaningful way.

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Competition for gaming dollars in PA

No state will have more pure gaming opportunity than Pennsylvania by late in 2018 or early 2019. There will be gambling in truck stops, airports and of course online slots and table games. New mini casinos are on the way.

That’s in addition to the state’s 12 existing casinos (soon to be 13) and the lottery, which is also heading online. There will be no shortage of ways to bet, and that’s not even counting the possibility of sports betting.

The upcoming potential repeal of PASPA (the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act) to legalize sports wagering in the US may not enhance online poker’s popularity. Part of the youthful demographics dedicated to online poker may be siphoned off with interest to wagering on sports, along with their dollars.

Will online poker capture interest in this environment where you can legally bet in almost every way imaginable?

The bottom line is online poker needs more players to flourish in the US. And PA could provide that. How it will shake out remains to be seen.

- Larry Gibbs is VP of US Gaming Services, a full-service consulting and marketing research organization with 15 years’ experience in US gaming, creating ROI behavior studies and analysis for government, lobbyist and casino industry clients. His focused opinion and outlook have appeared in several gaming industry magazines and newspapers.
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