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Thomas Farragher

Easy bet for Conn. casinos

Somewhere, far from the blackjack tables, poker parlors, and glittering roulette wheels of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, I think something counterintuitive — something curious and fascinating — is going on.

The titans who run two of the world’s largest gambling palaces are furiously rubbing their favorite rabbit’s feet. They’re shining their lucky pennies and assembling their horseshoe charms just so.

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And they’re betting their lucky stars that Massachusetts voters smother the state’s casino business before the first bet is laid down.

At least they should be.

As long as Massachusetts stays in the casino business, both Foxwoods and Mohegan have to be in the game here. They need to protect their flank. And both are furiously bidding to be players in the Commonwealth casino sweepstakes.

But what happens if voters this November decide that Massachusetts should remain a casino-free zone?

The clicking of the champagne glasses in the back-room accounting offices in Uncasville and Ledyard, Conn., will be audible from Springfield to Boston.

Why? Because the casino business is gasping for air.

Foxwoods and Mohegan have just registered their sixth straight year-to-year decline in gross gaming revenues, according to the Center for Policy Analysis. Casinos along the Eastern Seaboard are wheezing, their commercial lungs choked with red ink. The ratings agencies have declared that a saturation point has been reached.

So here’s what happens if voters here kill casinos: Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun — if they were to emerge as successful contestants in the ongoing competition for licenses here — do not have to spend $1 billion to build swanky betting buildings.

And, more critically, they don’t have to worry anymore about that giant sucking sound as Massachusetts bettors leave their Eastern Connecticut parking lots, drive north and stay there, squandering their gambling money closer to home. Bay State customers account for nearly 20 percent of Mohegan Sun’s business. At Foxwoods, where prayers for repeal have to be especially intense, that number is 32 percent.

“Foxwoods is just a sitting duck,’’ said Clyde W. Barrow, the former director of the University of Massachusetts-based Center for Policy Analysis who is now at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.

For the record, Mitchell Etess, chief executive of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, said my theory about clandestine cheering for casino repeal is half-baked. Actually, he said it’s flat wrong.

His company is challenging Las Vegas developer Steve Wynn for the only Greater Boston resort casino license because Mohegan Sun is convinced that expansion will yield economic strength, he said.

“We’re in hand-to-hand combat with Steve Wynn,’’ Etess told me on the phone the other day. “If we were to win this license and have the referendum overturned in November, I will be devastated.’’

Devastated? Really?

His company saves a billion dollars, protects a healthy chunk of its Connecticut business. And nobody does business in Massachusetts. Sounds like the fulfillment of that old gambling adage: The house always wins.

When I was a reporter in Eastern Connecticut in the mid-1980s, I sat one afternoon with Richard A. Haywood, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, as he sketched for me his grand vision for the woodlands of Ledyard.

We sat in a booth at Mr. Pizza, a small, wooden building on Route 2 that was then one of the struggling tribe’s few treasures. Haywood talked about four-star hotels, a championship golf course, and a lavish resort gambling casino that seemed to me — Mr. Nose for News — a pipe dream.

That was the dawn of a spectacular — and spectacularly lucrative — casino gambling era in Connecticut.

But those glory days are now a dim memory. Casinos are shutting down and laying off employees by the thousands.

What terrible timing for Massachusetts. If the casino effort tanks here in November, there will be cheering. And all of it won’t be coming from gambling opponents.

The glee at Foxwoods will be unmistakable. And if Mohegan officials are really “devastated,” I don’t think it will take too long to dry those crocodile tears.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.
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