Tribal casino revenue takes a tumble - East Valley Tribune: Business

Tribal casino revenue takes a tumble

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Posted: Wednesday, September 29, 2010 5:01 pm | Updated: 9:01 pm, Thu Sep 30, 2010.

Arizonans are spending less money -- a lot less -- at tribal gaming casinos.

New figures Wednesday show tribes took in nearly $1.7 billion last fiscal year from the money gamblers plunked into their slot machines and laid out on their gaming tables.

The figures from the Arizona Department of Gaming reflect the amount of money the tribes kept after paying out the winnings. It does not include what they paid out in salaries and other operating costs.

How much Arizonans actually wagered is a trade secret and not released. But state law generally requires tribal casinos to pay out at least 80 cents on every dollar wagered over the life of a machine.

Revenue figures for individual tribes also are not released.

Overall, the numbers show a sharp drop-off of interest in gambling from even just a year earlier, when gross tribal gaminng revenues were close to $2 billion.

Sheila Morago, director of the Arizona Indian Gaming Association, said the drop-off is no surprise, especially given the condition of Arizona's economy.

"We are an entertainment industry that is solely reliant on disposable income,'' she said. "People just haven't had it lately.''

Most immediately, she said, the decline means less money for tribes to use to provide services to their residents. But she also noted there is fallout for the state.

Under the terms of a deal approved by voters, the tribes got exclusive right to operate casinos in the state. In exchange, they agreed to provide a share of revenues to the state, on a sliding scale from 1 to 8 percent of gross revenues.

For last budget year that revenue sharing totaled $77.9 million, a figure state gaming officials said is about 10 percent less than the prior year.

Morago said, though, the drop in gaming is not unique to Arizona. She said only Oklahoma posted an increase.

That's also the assessment of Mark Brnovich, the state gaming director.

"We are seeing similar decreases in other gaming jurisdictions as well,'' he said. "There is no doubt that the state of the economy continues to affect us all.''

The key now for tribes, she said, is making sure that they are doing the best they can to keep showing up. And one way they do that is by making a trip to a casino more attractive.

That is what is happening at the Sol Casinos operated by Pascua Yaqui Tribe.

``We're loosening up a lot of our machines in order to give our players more value,'' said Wendell Long, the chief executive of the casinos.

``We're also being more value oriented on our food and beverage, offering a lot of specials, sort of like all-you-can-eat pasta, prime rib specials, just so their dollars go farther,'' he continued. And he said the casinos also have free entertainment Thursdays through Saturdays.

That is not unique to the Pascua casinos. Morago said many other tribes now offer more than just gaming to reach a wider audience.

"You also have the option now of going to some concerts,'' she said. And then there's food.

"Properties have two or three options, if not more, for folks to sit down and have nice dinners, and even just to hang out and enjoy a happy hour now,'' Morago said.

That, she said, does more than appeal to gamblers.

"Let's say that you and I go somewhere and I don't gamble but you do,'' Morago explained. "That gives me something else to go to and the option of going to a (gambling) facility rather than trying to decide on something that we both like.''

But Morago said while marketing is important, casinos have to be careful with their plans.

She said the Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut sought to bring back their regulars by offering to trade their points on affinity cards for actual cash. The theory, Morago said, was that these people then would take their dollars and put them into the gambling machines.

That didn't happen.

"People got their money -- and they went home,'' she said.

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