During the years of debate over whether to allow casinos in Massachusetts, proponents invariably returned to this point: The state was losing out on a revenue jackpot enjoyed by Connecticut and other states where gambling was legal.
But with the Massachusetts gaming industry up and running at three sites, the bonanza casino operators promised when they applied for licenses here has yet to materialize. And the amped-up expectations are giving way to a more prosaic reality.
Three months after it opened to much fanfare, Encore Boston Harbor is on pace to come in more than $100 million less than anticipated in first-year gambling revenues. The MGM Springfield, which marked its first anniversary in August, fell short of projections by more than $100 million. And although the slots-only Plainridge Park casino is taking in more money per machine than the other two casinos, business in Plainville has dropped off in recent months.
The disappointing trend lines have some wondering whether the industry didn’t fully understand how tough it would be to attract gamblers in a regional market that has become increasingly competitive.
“Fundamentally, the theme that I glean is that everybody may have overestimated how easy it was going to be to . . . get a new player,” Massachusetts Gaming Commission member Enrique Zuniga said during a recent public discussion over the prospect of adding another casino, in Southeastern Massachusetts.
It’s too early to say legalized gambling is a bust in Massachusetts. The gambling commission notes that the state has collected about $460 million in gaming revenue since the first casino — Plainridge — opened in 2015. While less than what was hoped for, it’s still a hefty take. (The state takes 25 percent of gambling profits from Encore and MGM and 49 percent from Plainridge.)
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter whether casinos’ tax revenue overestimates are honest projections or driven by political gimmicks,” said Lucy Dadayan, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “What matters is that casino tax revenues are behind the projections and not meeting the promises.”
The early shortfalls contrast sharply with the upbeat sales pitches casino companies made when they were seeking public support and regulatory approval. Les Bernal, national director of the group Stop Predatory Gambling, said the overly optimistic public relations campaigns were carefully calculated. “They deliberately oversell how much revenue they’re going to bring into the state,” Bernal said, “because there’s no merit to the business.”
Industry observers say there’s time to turn things around, especially at Wynn Resorts’ $2.6 billion Encore casino in Everett, which is still ramping up following its June debut.
“Going into these multibillion dollar openings, the expectations are high without necessarily a realistic sense of how long it takes to develop these businesses,” said Harry Curtis, a managing director who follows gaming and hospitality stocks at the financial firm Instinet.
Curtis said it can take a year and a half to realistically assess the overall success of a new casino. Also, he said, factors such as the performance of Encore’s hotel and restaurants must be part of the equation.
Many in the industry also believe that the introduction of sports betting — should Massachusetts choose to legalize it — could help. Though in-house sports books are not a major revenue driver for casinos, they can get people in the door to eat, drink, watch sporting events, and perhaps gamble on other games.
Massachusetts isn’t the first state where casino revenues have fallen short of predictions. It’s a tough industry, especially in the Northeast, where the market is growing ever more crowded. Upstate New York, in particular, has recorded a string of disappointing casino results.
Revenue projections typically are based on market studies of the demographics around a proposed casino, with particular attention given to economic factors such as disposable income.
Clyde W. Barrow, a professor at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley who has followed the Northeast’s gambling market, said such models can be useful.
But he said they’ve also been confounded in recent years both by the increasing competition in the region and by an apparent drop in the propensity of people to spend money on gambling after the Great Recession.
Another major reason the projections can be wrong, Barrow said, is that casino operators have a significant incentive to cast their prospects in the sunniest possible light. Wynn Resorts, for instance, had to persuade the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to choose its proposal over one from the operators of Mohegan Sun.
“You’ve got to make your forecast sound better than everybody else’s,” Barrow said.
With more than 13 months in the books, the MGM Springfield’s total of $293.6 million in gaming revenue remained well below the roughly $400 million it had projected for its first 12 months.
Encore has brought in $166.8 million since it opened June 23, which puts it on pace to come in below the $800 million in first-year gross gaming revenue predicted in 2014.
The gambling commission sought to counter this tendency to inflate the numbers by doing an independent assessment of the companies’ estimates. It predicted MGM Springfield could take in $500 million in gross gaming revenue by its third year and Encore could reap between $705 million and $825 million by its third year.
There is still time to meet those goals — Encore is not far off pace to hit the low end of the projection — but Barrow believes regulators should have been more skeptical.
“The commission just got dazzled by the bells and whistles that Wynn and MGM dangled in front of them,” he said.
The gambling commission argues that the casinos should be judged on more than gaming revenue. Together, the three operators spent close to $3.6 billion to build their facilities. And the industry has created thousands of new jobs.
About 4,800 people work at Encore, and MGM said recently it employs about 2,300 — though that number is hundreds lower than when it opened.
“Gaming as an economic development tool is a long-term play,” Elaine Driscoll, spokeswoman for the commission, said in a statement. “It is a dynamic industry that is accustomed to market and regulatory changes and gaming expansions. It will take time to truly assess the economic outcomes of the Commonwealth’s decision to authorize expanded gaming.”
In a statement, MGM Springfield president Michael Mathis said the company is still developing its business here. “We recognize in this early ramp-up period that results will continue to vary month to month as our operation, programming, and customer base stabilizes,” he said.
MGM also emphasized its other businesses, such as retail, dining, and entertainment events.
Officials from Wynn and Plainville declined to discuss their financial results for this story.
On Beacon Hill, policy makers have adjusted their expectations since then-Governor Deval Patrick signed into law the 2011 bill that allowed gambling expansion.
After early revenue projections fell short at Plainridge Park, which opened in 2015, the state “has rightly been cautious about forecasting state revenue,” said Heath W. Fahle, director of policy and research at the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business group that tracks the state budget.
Budget projections for fiscal 2020 from both the administration of Governor Charlie Baker and state lawmakers anticipated $294 million in casino tax revenue, and Fahle said the state is well on pace to get that kind of money.
State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, emphasized in an interview that the money the state is collecting — no matter whether it is above or below projections — would have otherwise gone somewhere else.
“We are capturing revenue that was being sent off to other areas,” he said. “While there are certainly a lot of factors in the gaming discussion, at the end of the day the bill that was crafted has produced a net positive so far.”