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Indian gaming catches up, then passes, commercial competition

By Nick Sortal

Indian gaming began booming only about 25 years ago, three decades behind Las Vegas.

But according to recent figures, gamblers now spend more at Native American casinos nationwide than they do at traditional, commercial casinos. Alan Meister, principal economist for Nathan Associates in Irvine, California, highlighted the shift on April 11, when he released his 15th annual Casino City’s Indian Gaming Industry Report, with revenue figures for 2015. (It takes some time to compile the data because most Native American casinos don’t have to reveal their revenues.)

The top Native American casinos – Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun, and Seminole Hard Rock Tampa – are relatively well known, but those are just the top end of the 494 Native American casinos dotted across the 28 states. Meister found that these casinos generally are faring well amid a slow growth economy.

“Indian gaming’s strong growth in several large states, including California, Oklahoma, and Florida, drove the nationwide growth rate,” Meister says, with Indian gaming outpacing other casino gaming segments. California led the nation in Indian gaming revenues with $7.9 billion, followed by Oklahoma ($4.2 billion), Florida ($2.6 billion), Washington ($2.5 billion) and Arizona ($1.9 billion).

Meister differentiates between commercial casinos and racinos because the latter is newer, relatively speaking. Overall, he computes that $30.5 billion was gambled at Native American casinos in 2015, compared to $29.8 billion at commercial casinos (think Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Biloxi, Mississippi) and $8.5 billion at racetrack casinos (think of your nearby horse track or dog track, and their efforts to add slots).

Meister also had a quick observation on the racinos: “We’ve seen their greater proliferation in recent years and we can see a vastly different growth pattern.”

“The racino segment generally has grown faster because it’s relatively newer, has less competition in some markets, and it is a little bit more urban; they can more easily draw people who don’t have to go as far,” he says

The tribes have done a good job learning from commercial casinos, Meister notes. The tribes’ non-gaming casino revenues also increased 4.5 percent, to $3.9 billion.

“Tribal gaming has continued to follow the trend of adding more nongaming amenities,” he says. “Nowhere is this trend more true than commercial casinos Vegas, where nongaming revenue is greater than gaming revenue.”

During his presentation at the National Indian Gaming Tradeshow & Convention, where Meister released his new study, he also talked about the effect on gambling of having Donald Trump as president. “There is some optimism.  When you look at his pre-presidential actions regarding Indian gaming, both the positive and the negative, they have been made based on what was in his best business interest,” Meister says.

“In addition, with his pro jobs and pro economy stance, I think there’s an opportunity to have a positive impact on the gaming industry, including tribal gaming. But it’s not all up to him,” Meister says, adding that courts and Congress also provide vital voices.

To purchase a copy of Meister’s study, see the Casino City Press information at