The Louisiana gambling industry will always remember 2020.
Whether that’s a celebration that the year is over or a fond remembrance depends on the topic in focus. In any case, the consensus is that this particular orbit of Earth around the sun came with a lot of surprises.
The year’s events touched gaming in Louisiana at every level. Looking to 2021 and beyond, the industry has never been more prevalent. And that prominence comes at a crucial time.
Louisiana gambling 2020: What went wrong?
Like every other facet of life in the Bayou State, the COVID-19 pandemic left an indelible mark on the gaming industry. For a period of time, nearly everything came to a halt.
On March 16, Gov. Jon Bel Edwards ordered all 20 riverboat casinos to close. That initial order called for a two-week cessation of operations.
Edwards, though, extended the order several more times. Ultimately, Louisiana casinos didn’t reopen until May 18. During the two-month shutdown, operators estimated they lost about $1.6 million in revenue per day.
Although open since that date, casinos continue to operate with restrictions. That includes implementing a capacity limit of 50% and closing off gaming positions to promote social distancing. The same has applied to video lottery terminal operators.
It will be some time before the Louisiana gambling industry can put a final total on the cost of the pandemic. Regardless of whatever that number comes out to, it was a loss that operators didn’t plan for.
During the pandemic, any progress on expanding gambling would have been a pleasant surprise. It’s even more surprising, then, that expansion efforts were successful.
Keeping gambling expansion a priority in Baton Rouge
This coronavirus may have actually worked in the gambling industry’s favor in one way. The state lost 28% of its income tax revenue between March and May. That, in turn, may have caused lawmakers to look for new revenue sources.
So while other states like Massachusetts tabled gambling expansion amidst the pandemic, officials in Baton Rouge made it a priority. Also motivated by lobbyists for the gambling industry, the legislature authorized a voter referendum on gambling expansion in late May.
Much like a bill did for daily fantasy sports in 2018, the recent sports betting proposal gave voters in each of the state’s 64 parishes the power to decide for themselves whether to legalize wagering on sporting events. Voters in all but nine of those parishes did just that in November.
Speaking of DFS, the legislature approved the final set of regulations necessary to license operators this month. Although it’s uncertain when that process will begin, it seems a sure thing that Louisianans in 47 parishes will be able to play legal daily fantasy games before the New Orleans Saints’ 2021-22 season begins.
So that’s the book on 2020 for gambling in the Bayou State. And the decisions made this year will have a significant impact on many aspects of the industry for years.
What will the future of gambling in LA look like?
The first order of business for lawmakers and gambling regulators in the state for 2021 will be deciding what the framework for legal sports betting in most of the state will look like. There are many questions to consider:
- Will it include online wagering and if so, to what extent?
- Will there be any restrictions on betting on collegiate events?
- How integral will the 20 riverboat casinos be to the process?
- Will sports teams and/or stadium owners be involved?
Additionally, legislators may face the question of tax relief for gambling operators. Casino lobbyists may press for temporary easements to help them recover.
There’s no guarantee that Edwards will lift all restrictions off casinos and VLT rooms in 2021. Additionally, if recent history repeats itself, Louisiana voters may see another ballot measure in 2022.
The next step in gambling expansion would be the legalization of online poker, slots and table games. If legal online DFS — and perhaps online sports betting — prove to be moneymakers, there may be similar pressure for a referendum on the aforementioned verticals in the next election.
None of these future considerations would be in play if not for the events of this year. Certainly 2020 was an exciting but frustrating year for many in different ways. That goes for the gambling industry in Louisiana as well.