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Las Vegas Sands Corporation may soon vacate its home town, leaving nothing but the eponymous sands. If that comes to pass, it might prove to be a boon to the online gambling world.
The casino company, owned by Sheldon Adelson, is reportedly toying with the idea of selling off all its Las Vegas properties. These include:
An unnamed representative for the company told first Bloomberg, then Reuters that Sands is working with an advisor to look for potential buyers. If there’s interest, the company would be looking for something in the ballpark of $6 billion for the trio.
Sands already sold its only other US property, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for $1.3 billion last year. That casino is now known as Wind Creek Bethlehem, having been purchased by Wind Creek Hospitality, a tribal gaming company based out of Alabama.
Dispensing with its remaining US assets will allow Sands to focus on its more lucrative properties in Macau and Singapore. The US properties accounted for less than 15% of the company’s revenue in 2019. At the same time, they produce more than their share of expenses and regulatory red tape.
For proponents of online gambling in the US, Adelson is something of a Lex Luthor figure. He’s one of iGaming’s oldest and most frequently recurring villains, and certainly the one with the deepest pockets. The big question now is: If he no longer has a personal stake in the US gambling market, will he simply pack up his kryptonite and go home?
Adelson’s track record of fighting against online gambling is a long one. He has done so both personally, and indirectly, through the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling (CSIG). This lobbying group was founded by Adelson in 2014, shortly after New Jersey and Delaware became the first two states to begin offering legal online casino games.
At a glance, it seems extremely hypocritical for a casino magnate to take a moralistic stance against gambling. The justification given by Adelson is that internet gambling carries higher risks than limiting such products to the casino floor. While there’s some truth to this, most of the specific claims made by CSIG have either been debunked, or apply primarily to illegal, unregulated online gambling.
In all likelihood, the actual motivation for Adelson’s opposition is that it disrupts an industry in which his company previously held a strong position. The idea that online gambling directly cannibalizes retail gambling revenues has also been disproven. However, legalizing it is disruptive to existing business. It opens the door to new competitors and shakes things up in a way that disadvantages companies unwilling to adapt.
Adelson and CSIG have opposed individual states’ efforts to legalize online gambling. Their greatest success to date has been in Sands’ home state of Nevada. Online casino gambling is legally possible there under existing law, yet there’s sufficient opposition from the brick-and-mortar casino industry that the regulator has not yet moved forward with it.
Adelson is hardly alone in this opposition. That said, two of the biggest companies in Vegas — MGM Resorts and Caesars International — are increasingly involved in online gambling around the country.
At the federal level, CSIG has fought against the repeal of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) and for the Restoration of America’s Wire Act (RAWA).
All those efforts have not borne much fruit, however. PASPA did get struck down by the Supreme Court, and RAWA failed to pass. The Department of Justice’s attempt to implement RAWA-like laws by reinterpreting the Wire Act itself also seems to be on the cusp of failure.
Could this mean that Adelson and CSIG are ready to throw in the towel? Quite possibly.
The sale of Sands Bethlehem came shortly after Pennsylvania online gambling became legal, but before the first online casinos launched. It was almost certainly a response to that decision. Entering the online space after full-throated opposition on moral grounds would have undermined Adelson’s credibility elsewhere. Yet, not doing so would have put the casino at a considerable competitive disadvantage.
If selling off the Pennsylvania casino was the simplest way to salvage that situation, the possibility of Sands exiting the US entirely suggests that Adelson doesn’t see the overall situation as very promising. It may even indicate that Nevada itself is approaching a tipping point on the issue of online casinos.
Compounding this is the fact that Adelson, a long-time Republican, has gone all-in for Donald Trump, who now seems likely to lose the November election. Most recently, Adelson donated $75 million to the Super-PAC Preserve America, which runs negative ads against Joe Biden. Biden has gone on the record as a believer in states’ rights to decide online gambling issues individually.
Fortunately for Adelson, the story isn’t the same everywhere. The values of the Chinese Communist Party may be a far cry from those professed by Republicans like Adelson, but they are at least very clear on the issue of online gambling. In fact, they’ve just passed a law handing down 5 to 10 year jail sentences for anyone involved in offshore casinos, especially those based in the Philippines.
Thus, Sands’ five Macau casinos should be safe from the menace of smartphones for the foreseeable future. This is even more true of the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, a country which applies harsh penalties not only to online gambling operators, but even to those caught playing. These authoritarian jurisdictions offer Adelson the environment he was seeking – but fortunately failed to achieve – in the US.
Assuming Sands does sell off its Las Vegas properties, that doesn’t mean that CSIG will disappear overnight. Nor are America’s social conservatives going anywhere on the issue. There are many separate groups with moral objections to any gambling expansion in the US. The fight won’t be over, with or without Adelson.
That said, money talks. Without any US business interests, Adelson will presumably be less inclined to open his wallet in future. That will make a huge difference, particularly at the federal level. If the Wire Act case does end up resolved favorably and the federal government stays out of the way in future, then that’s one fewer impediment to progress at the state level.