By a Biometrica staffer
When 2021 began, it was not a Covid-19-free world as many had hoped. For all of 2020 and several months into 2021, casinos across the country were either entirely closed or operating under capacity restrictions and other measures to control the spread of the pandemic. In the casino industry, the first three months of this year was a period when some casino employees were coming off furlough, casinos operated for shorter hours than normal, and capacity restrictions were still in place across several states, with some only admitting up to 25% of overall capacity.
According to the American Gaming Association’s (AGA) Commercial Gaming Revenue Tracker, 2020, the year that life came to a virtual standstill on account of the Covid-19 pandemic, marked the first market contraction for the U.S. gaming industry since 2014 and the lowest gaming revenue total since 2003. Yet, somehow, the casino & gaming industry went from that to, quite possibly, breaking the all-time revenue record by the end of 2021. How did that happen? To answer that, here’s a quick recap of what this year held for the casino & gaming industry.
As we mentioned before, early 2021 could also be classified as “more of the same” when compared with 2020. In March, we wrote in a piece that the economic impact of the pandemic had been hard for casino workers and operations, with job losses, casino owners facing dramatic revenue losses, and general city, county, and state economic sales and revenue impacted by losses from gaming taxes. Then, in April, came one of the first signs that, maybe, things were starting to improve.
U.S. commercial gaming revenue totaled $30.0 billion in 2020, down more than 31% year-over-year. Against this backdrop, it was unsurprising that the year also saw fewer Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) filed by casinos — commercial and tribal — and card clubs than any other year in the recent past. But, SARs spiked in the first quarter of the year, suggesting that things may be getting back to normal.
As if proving that early indicator correct, in May the AGA announced that the commercial gaming industry posted record revenues in the first quarter of 2021 (Q1 2021). What’s more, the AGA said Q1 2021’s revenue matched the industry’s best-ever quarter — Q3 in 2019, which was well before the pandemic struck. Also in May, travel appeared to be returning as Americans were gearing up to flock to Las Vegas over Memorial Day Weekend to kickstart the summer in true pre-Covid style.
In June, as cities like Las Vegas began the long road to recovery, stakeholders in the brick-and-mortar gaming industry were grappling with an age-old issue — whether to ban smoking inside casinos entirely. Though the debate is not new, the pandemic certainly revived it. The underlying struggle is one of weighing fiscal realities against public health needs.
That debate aside, it was in August when the rebound was really cemented. Nationwide commercial gaming revenue from traditional casino games, sports betting, and iGaming came in at $13.64 billion in Q2 2021, smashing the industry’s previous best-ever record from Q3 2019 by a whopping 22.5%. It was the easing of Covid-19 related restrictions, rising vaccination rates, an increasingly optimistic economic outlook, and, of course, pent-up consumer demand that helped the casino industry in Q2, the AGA said back then.
Come September, we wrote about how in just the first week of the National Football League (NFL), the season was already smashing some non-football records. The games generated a record volume of legally placed sports bets since the season began on Sept. 9, through to 7 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 12. These numbers further underscored a trend that the country had been witnessing in the recent past: a spike in legal online sports betting. It also showed that consumers have long hungered to place sports bets legally.
In November, once again, nationwide commercial gaming revenue smashed all quarterly records and reached $13.89 billion in Q3 2021. The AGA also said then that with $38.67 billion generated in revenue through the first nine months of the year, the industry had already beaten 2020’s total revenue and is well on its way to surpassing its annual revenue record of $43.65 billion, set in 2019.
Finally, in early December, the AGA projected that this year, commercial casinos in the U.S. will likely break the all-time record for gross gaming revenue in 2019. Just between Jan. and Oct., the industry generated around $43.43 billion, just short of the current record from 2019.
Here are a few other interesting casino pieces from our 2021 archives: