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By this point, most major US casino companies have made their entries to the new online gambling space. And yet the largest of all, Las Vegas Sands, has been sitting out. The reason is no secret: Its late owner and founder, Sheldon Adelson, was an adamant opponent of the idea.
Adelson passed away last month, leaving the company in the hands of Robert Goldstein, a 26-year veteran of the company. A pivot in corporate strategy was inevitable and in fact began almost immediately. Barely two weeks passed between Adelson’s death and the first public comments by Goldstein about the possibility of LVS branching out into online gambling and sports betting within the next 12 months.
In some ways, Goldstein is continuing with Adelson’s plans. He will continue to make investments in the company’s new properties in Singapore and Macau, and to seek authorization to build new casinos in Texas and New York. Selling off its flagship properties in Las Vegas also remains a possibility, one that was first raised under Adelson’s leadership.
Despite what Goldstein might say, there is very little chance that the company’s new plans for online gambling and sports betting would have happened under Adelson’s watch.
“Sheldon, he never questioned [online gambling’s] viability” Goldstein told Bloomberg. “He questioned the ability to police it properly. We are going to explore it.”
There is a kernel of truth to this statement. Adelson’s opposition to online gambling did stem in part from a lack of confidence in geolocation, identity verification, and similar technologies.
Beyond that, however, it’s a misrepresentation of his attitudes. By most accounts, including his own, he had deeper misgivings.
“This is not a money issue for me,” he told Politico quite straightforwardly in 2014, “This is a moral issue.”
This wasn’t hollow talk. Adelson invested a huge amount of money lobbying against online gambling, and after founding the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling, probably more than his businesses would have lost to it if he simply stood back. He threw insults at his peers who supported the idea and threatened to leave the American Gaming Association over it.
So make no mistake: Even if Sands’ foray into the iGaming space proves successful, it is not what Adelson had in mind for his company.
That’s a big “if,” however. There are a few reasons that Sands will face an uphill battle. First and foremost among these is that most of its competitors have a big head start.
The New Jersey market is the most extreme illustration of why a quick start is important. It has had online casinos and poker since 2013, and there are now 25 separate casino brands serving a market with a population of only about 9 million. The revenue rankings are dominated by a combination of early entries to the market and major online brands like DraftKings.
Yet more New Jersey online casinos are still to come. It’s hard to see any of them — or LVS, hypothetically — seizing much market share without bringing a clearly superior product and a massive budget for bonuses and promotions.
Elsewhere, the problem might not seem so bad. Pennsylvania‘s market is less than two years old, West Virginia‘s is still in its first year, and Michigan went live less than a month ago. However, even in these places, we see the online-focused brands dashing ahead of all but their most committed land-based peers. LVS will have to play catch-up even with that latter group and then still be at a competitive disadvantage against those companies that were built specifically for the online market.
The company isn’t simply starting cold, either. Prior to Adelson’s death, it was already in motion, just in the opposite direction from the rest of the industry. That will make an about-face all the more difficult.
Watching from the outside, there’s no way of knowing exactly what goes on within a company. However, it’s probably safe to assume that even late arrivals to the online market like Wynn were laying groundwork prior to launching their product. It’s probably also the case that Adelson’s influence has prevented LVS from doing much preparation along those lines.
Perhaps most important, however, was Adelson’s decision to sell off his property in Pennsylvania following that state’s legalization of online gambling. The casino, then known as Sands Bethlehem, went to the tribal gaming company Wind Creek Hospitality.
If LVS does launch an online casino product now, that sale will look very regrettable in retrospect. Every company to have successfully made that transition has a home base in a legal online casino state: MGM’s Borgata and the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City and the Hollywood and Rivers casinos in Pennsylvania being the main examples. LVS had such roots in place, yet chose to rip them up.
To a lesser extent, other decisions made by Adelson plot a similar trajectory going forward. The plan to sell the Las Vegas properties looked like he’d resigned himself to the inevitability of US online casinos. Meanwhile, heavy investments in Asian markets were probably based in part on China and Singapore’s aggressive stances against online gambling. Goldstein says he will move forward with those plans but will need to think about how they can fit together with his attempt to establish an online wing for the business.
All these issues will be compounded if LVS attempts to chart a course into online operations on its own. The casino companies that have most successfully launched online products are those that have made their digital business as independent as possible from the parent company.
Building such a division from the ground up takes years, however. Golden Nugget, for instance, was one of the original New Jersey online casinos, yet only spun off a truly separate online gaming company at the end of last year.
One thing to watch for this year, then, is for LVS to look for an online partner to help it make the transition. If it can, it will probably want to emulate the BetMGM model, which the casino company MGM Resorts International formed as a joint venture with European online giant Entain (known as GVC Holdings at the time).
The problem on that front is that the US market has also been a frenzy of mergers and acquisitions over the last two years. That’s yet another party that LVS will be late to.
One option it might look at is 888 Holdings. It’s a big company with lots of online experience and whose presence in the US is so far underdeveloped. Adelson’s political activism also means the two companies share a connection to the Israeli business world. That could facilitate networking between their respective leadership.
If not 888, though, then a deal would likely have to be with a company with no US presence yet. There are plenty of European companies it could consider. However, it’s anyone’s guess what their interest level in the US market would be.