The sale could have wide-ranging implications. The proposed $1.3 billion deal would not only have a major impact on land-based gaming in Pennsylvania. It could also be the final nudge the state needs to pass a bill legalizing PA online casinos.
Why the Sands Bethlehem matters for iGaming
Las Vegas Sands is adamantly opposed to online gambling. Unsurprisingly, state Sen. Lisa Boscola was one of the most skeptical lawmakers at a recent hearing on online gambling legalization. Her district includes Sands Bethlehem.
Of note, the other voice of opposition at the hearing was Sen. Robert Tomlinson, whose district includes Parx Casino. That’s the other Pennsylvania casino operator that opposes online gambling.
These lawmakers aren’t necessarily in cahoots with casino operators. But casinos are often the largest employers and economic drivers in the lawmakers’ districts. Therefore, their position on pertinent issues is important.
If MGM replaces Sands, the online gambling opinions of Boscola and other lawmakers in the vicinity of Sands Bethlehem are likely to evolve.
“It definitely changes the online gaming landscape a bit,” said state Rep. George Dunbar, the vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, in an interview with The Morning Call. “Some members could be swayed by a change, if it happens. Things are going to get interesting.”
In the same column, Sen. Pat Browne said, “If I’m going from an operator that thinks iGaming is dangerous to its business model, to one that uses it to build brand, it absolutely changes things.”
Sands opposition to online gambling has been unwavering
Sands didn’t testify at the hearing. But the casino’s parent company and its chairman, Sheldon Adelson, have made their position perfectly clear.
In 2013, Adelson famously told Forbes he would “spend whatever it takes” to stop online gambling in the US.
Soon thereafter, the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling lobbying group was formed — widely believed to be funded by Adelson — and prohibition bills were introduced in Congress.
At a June 2015 hearing in Pennsylvania, Las Vegas Sands Senior Vice President of Government Relations and Community Development Andy Abboud submitted the following testimony:
“We are opposed to internet gambling… because of the negative effects internet gambling would have on employment and investment in Pennsylvania, and on its families and children and because of the threat it poses to the public interest.”
“The Las Vegas Sands stand in opposition to internet gambling in Pennsylvania and across the country, because internet gambling is bad for Pennsylvania jobs, Pennsylvania families and brings the wrong element to Pennsylvania gambling.”
And last year, Sands Bethlehem President Mark Juliano submitted similarly worded testimony:
“Las Vegas Sands testified last year before this committee in full opposition to internet gambling and this position has not changed. Internet gambling is a job killer that seeks to move jobs from casinos in Pennsylvania to server farms in foreign countries.”
Meanwhile, MGM embraces online gambling
On the other hand, MGM sees things differently, viewing online gambling as a driver of growth and reinvestment.
MGM already offers online gambling in New Jersey, through Borgata. It plans to launch an MGM-branded online gambling website in the near future.
In 2016, MGM praised legislative efforts to bring online poker to New York:
“This legislation recognizes that millions of New Yorkers play online poker on unregulated and unprotected off-shore poker websites that operate with no oversight, fraud controls, or age restrictions.
“We applaud the Senate Finance Committee’s vote to create a safe, legal environment for online poker through legislation that will generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue for taxpayers, and create open and fair opportunities for all providers of online poker.”
Final thoughts on Sands and online gambling
The sale of Sands would cause a dynamic change in Pennsylvania’s support and opposition coalitions.
Casinos opposing online gambling currently number just two (against 10 in support), but they are the two largest casinos in the state — Parx and Sands.
If Sands is sold to MGM, the opposition not only loses half its strength, but it would be transferred to the already significant support coalition.
Furthermore Boscola’s skepticism could quickly shift to cheerleading for online gambling if the casino in her district becomes an MGM property.
While Sands’ brass has cautioned that too much gambling expansion could lead to less investment in its Bethlehem property, online gambling would ramp up MGM’s willingness to invest.