With New Jersey lawmakers just days away from considering big tax breaks for Atlantic City's casinos, saying that as many as four are in danger of closing, state regulators released the latest evidence Thursday that the casinos appear to be doing just fine.
Figures released Thursday by the state Division of Gaming Enforcement show the nine casinos and three horse tracks that accept sports bets collectively won nearly $440 million in November, up more than 52% from a year ago.
For the first 11 months of the year, the casinos have won $4.3 billion, up nearly 69% from the same period last year.
Of course last year was when the coronavirus pandemic broke out, forcing the casinos to close for 3 1/2 months. And even when they were allowed to reopen in July 2020, they were still subject to capacity limitations designed to try to prevent the spread of the virus.
The casino industry instead uses 2019 — the year before the pandemic — as its reference point. And even that comparison shows the casinos doing much better this year, bolstered by sports betting and internet gambling winnings.
The $4.3 billion won so far this year is still more than 34% better than the amount they won over the first 11 months of 2019.
On Monday, the state Senate and Assembly are due to vote on changes to a state law governing how much the casinos should pay in lieu of property taxes to Atlantic City, Atlantic County and the school system.
Changes to the so-called PILOT bill will see the casinos pay about $55 million less next year than they otherwise would have. The bill also would exempt New Jersey's two fastest-growing revenue streams — sports betting and internet gambling — from calculations on how much the casinos must pay. (Normal state taxes on these items remain in place.)
New Jersey's outgoing state Senate president, Steve Sweeney, has said that if the tax break bill does not pass, as many as four of the nine casinos would be in danger of shutting down. He has offered little evidence to back up that statement, and no casino has publicly made that claim.
Thursday's figures instead paint a picture of an industry enjoying a strong rebound from the pandemic, with every casino reporting higher revenue in November than they did a year earlier.
The Borgata was tops at nearly $90 million, up over 44% from a year ago; Hard Rock won over $43 million, up over 25%; the Ocean casino won nearly $31 million, up over 30%, and Tropicana won just over $30 million, up 47%.
Harrah's won $22.5 million, up over 78%; Caesars won over $17 million, up more than 34%; Resorts won $12.2 million, up 37%; Golden Nugget won $11.9 million, up 35%, and Bally's also won $11.9 million, up 83% from a year ago.
But the figures as reported by the state don't tell the whole story, according to Joe Lupo, Hard Rock’s local president and head of the Casino Association of New Jersey. They show that in-person gambling is down 5.5% from 2019 levels.
“COVID-19 continues to have an adverse impact on the industry,” he said.
Jane Bokunewicz, director of the Lloyd Levenson Institute at Stockton University, which studies the Atlantic City casino industry, said the casinos made strong in-person revenue gains in September and October, but slid back in November “with the return of colder weather and the resurgence of COVID-19 infection rates.”
“New Jersey’s gaming operators have managed a respectable recovery,” she said.
Seven of the nine casinos are showing declines in the amount of in-person money won from gamblers compared to 2019, Lupo said. Not counting Hard Rock and Ocean, the other seven casinos are down 22% in the amount won from on-premises gamblers.
While sports betting and online gambling has more than filled the gap, casino executives complain that such revenue must be shared among technology and sports book partners, and is not solely for the casinos to keep.
That gives a distorted view of the casinos' overall performance, Lupo has said.
New Jersey's casinos and the three horse tracks that accept sports bets took in $1.2 billion worth of wagers in November, just below the $1.3 billion national record the state set a month earlier.