Two major players in the casino industry, MGM and Golden Nugget, have taken steps to enter the budding Pennsylvania online gambling market. Last week the state received petitions from the two operators to become “qualified gaming entities” just before the official deadline.
Since both companies are established casino brands but neither has had a presence in Pennsylvania before, it’s worth taking a look into how these forays become possible and what effect they will likely have on the developing environment.
How did we get here?
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board initially made iGaming licenses available to all existing land-based casinos in the state, if they were interested. Essentially they created one permit for each operator for each vertical (online slots, table games, and poker).
After the exclusive application window had passed, if any casinos had not applied for a license that meant there would be extra available, and those would be potentially offered to qualified out-of-state operators, who could win the right to apply for a permit(s) via raffle. This occurred in the last half of October, with only MGM and Golden Nugget biting at the opportunity. The raffle proved completely unnecessary as there were a total of 11 licenses — three slots, three table games, and five poker — still up for grabs.
That means several other permits remain unclaimed and may be awarded to other entities in the future, but it is not currently clear who or when.
What will Golden Nugget do?
Golden Nugget’s decision to penetrate the PA market is an obvious and natural one. While the operator’s New Jersey online casino is far from the most successful brick-and-mortar in Atlantic City (it consistently ranks sixth out of nine entities in gaming revenues, even behind the only months-old Hard Rock Casino) its online site goldennuggetcasino.com is among the top gaming websites in the market.
There are several reasons for this: Golden Nugget benefits from a strong relationship with partners Betfair and Play Sugarhouse, its flagship site offers one of the largest library of games in the state, and it leads the pack in innovations for new offerings such as Live Dealer games available via the Ezugi Studio located at Golden Nugget Casino in Atlantic City.
Golden Nugget has reaped incredible amounts of revenue from offering the best online casino experience in New Jersey, so there was little question it would attempt to do the same in Pennsylvania when the opportunity arose. It had been expected it might offer a skin on SugarHouse’s license if the option to become an outside Qualified Gaming Entity had not arisen, but having its own permit will allow it greater leeway in its potential ambitions.
We can expect Golden Nugget to launch a formidable product with a huge game library again powered by SG Digital. There will likely be a loyalty program and frequent leaderboard competitions similar to what Golden Nugget offers in New Jersey, if not the exact same program and leaderboards.
It would also be extremely surprising if Golden Nugget did not also offer Live Dealer games in Pennsylvania at the earliest opportunity, though it is not immediately apparent how this will take place. There may likely be hurdles that would prevent the use of the Atlantic City studio, necessitating a brick-and-mortar casino in PA set up its own Live capabilities (SugarHouse being a natural choice).
What will MGM do?
MGM’s interest in Pennsylvania was also extremely predictable and expected. In addition to being the next most successful operator in NJ (as part of the Borgata iGaming license) after Golden Nugget, the entity has been interested in staking a claim in PA for some time.
MGM was believed to be very close to purchasing Sands Bethlehem last year, but the sale instead went to Wind Creek Entertainment. MGM has also been rumored to be looking into taking over the unfinished Stadium Casino, but nothing official is known at this time.
In any case, even without a land-based property MGM stands to profit greatly off an online license in Pennsylvania. The MGM license, if awarded, could be based on the credentials of the Borgata in Atlantic City (consistently the most successful brick-and-mortar in the market) but the operator could conceivable create skins for any of its New Jersey sites: Borgata Casino, playMGM, or PartyCasino.
A Pennsylvania MGM online casino site could be expected to offer an above-average game library with a very large selection of jackpot slots. The possible loyalty program could tie into land-based rewards offered at existing MGM locations, though this may be less useful while MGM does not have a land-based presence in the state.
Any MGM skins would likely also pursue Live Dealer games when possible, as the current MGM sites in NJ offer these (through Golden Nugget’s studio.)
The poker element
Unlike Golden Nugget, which only applied for slots and table games license, MGM is also seeking permission to offer online poker.
Poker in Pennsylvania would also be a major aspect of MGM’s plans in the state. The operator’s Borgata/PartyPoker/playMGM shared poker network has persevered in the struggling NJ market, remaining securely in third place behind WSOP/888 and PokerStars.
Not only will the launch of a poker site in PA more than double the available population of poker players, it can be argued from the opposite perspective that MGM’s poker aspirations would be crushed without this opportunity. Failing to secure the license would leave MGM the only major NJ online poker network without an avenue for interstate liquidity once Pennsylvania enters into a compact with the other U.S. markets.
Up until now WSOP/888 has been the only network that links players from other states, running poker sites in Nevada and Delaware. Currently it plans to offer poker in PA through the Harrah’s Philadelphia site. PokerStars has long seen Pennsylvania as an opportunity to catch up to WSOP (the Stars Group is still locked out of Nevada) and has made arrangements to offer poker through a partnership with Mount Airy. Even Pala Poker (which is a distant last place in NJ) is believed to have only been created in anticipation of a potential better Pala PA poker room, which could in theory surpass MGM’s network if it doesn’t manage to get a foothold in Pennsylvania.
It should also be noted that Stadium Casino has recently passed on the option of an online poker license, so even if MGM does acquire the property, it still needed another avenue to offer online poker in the immediate.
These two potential operators would certainly be capable of offering identical sites to their New Jersey online casinos, but it stands to reason they could decide to approach the market slightly differently. There will be different challenges to face in Pennsylvania, for instance local brand recognition for the two is suddenly a major disadvantage in the state whereas in New Jersey is was an asset. It’s also very likely that profits will be less fruitful since Pennsylvania is requiring a much higher tax rate on slot revenue, which may in turn result in operators offering less appealing games and promotions. Thus it can not be assumed that what worked best in NJ will be as successful across state lines, so minor adjustments could eventually evolve into significant differences.
It should be considered, however, that the brands not being tied to existing properties in the state could have some advantages. The fact that the operators will have freedom to market their sites independently of existing associations can be turned into an opportunity with careful enough planning.
Finally, it is important to remember that MGM and Golden Nugget have only made applications at this point, permission has not yet been granted by the board. While there is no reason at this time to think they would be rejected, a lot can happen at the state level.
Should the two be granted licenses, there would still be one remaining permit each for online slots and table games thanks to Rivers Casino recently rescinding its application. There would still be four permits for online poker, but these might be best unclaimed as the potential poker market would suffer more from over-saturation than online casinos do.
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