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Gambling boom in 2021 sets new record after pandemic slump

The commercial gambling industry made over $44 billion in 2021, surpassing the record set in 2019.

Fireworks illuminate the skyline over the Las Vegas Strip during an eight-minute pyrotechnics show on New Year's Eve 2019. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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The gambling business boomed like never before in 2021 as droves of pandemic-weary tourists returned to the Las Vegas Strip and casinos across America, flush with pent-up savings.

Nevada’s casinos are poised for their best year ever, state gaming officials said, with $12.3 billion in total winnings in the first 11 months of the year. Less gambling-centric states like Colorado and Michigan also saw huge increases at brick-and-mortar locations, according to the American Gaming Association. And a massive surge in online betting drove so-called “iGaming” revenue up more than 300 percent in the one-year period ending in October.

All told, gambling revenue for 2021 has already surpassed $44 billion ― an all-time high ― with many states yet to report November and December figures, an AGA spokesperson said in an email.

Though sports and online betting are seeing the most explosive growth, they account for just 15 percent of gross gaming revenue nationally, according to the AGA. Instead, in-person slots and table games are leading the industry’s recovery from a 30-percent slump in 2020 driven by the coronavirus pandemic, the AGA said.

On Friday on the Las Vegas Strip, local officials were preparing to welcome hundreds of thousands of revelers for the return of New Year’s Eve fireworks that had been canceled last year amid mandatory shutdowns.

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“The @CityOfLasVegas is excited to ring in 2022 @FSELV under the world’s largest video screen with all the great 80s & 90s stars! We’re going to party like it’s 1999!," Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman tweeted Thursday.

Some cities, including New York, have scaled back this year’s festivities citing the rampant spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus. But as of Friday morning, the Las Vegas fireworks show was still on, as was Katy Perry’s performance at the 5,000-seat Resorts World Theatre ― though concertgoers were being warned to wear masks.

Michael Lawton, a senior economist with Nevada’s Gaming Control Board, said in an email that he expects 2021 to break Nevada’s record for annual casino winnings, set in 2007. The state’s casinos already have recorded $12.3 billion in the first 11 months of the year — just $550 million short of the record.

October marked nine straight months of $1 billion or more in house winnings, state regulators reported this week. The state’s all-time monthly record of $1.36 billion was set in July, Lawton said.

Lawton said the state’s gambling industry has been buoyed over the past year by “healthy consumer savings, the sustained rebound of leisure travel and the return of International flights (other than Canada and Mexico), which allowed vaccinated foreign nationals to travel to the United States.”

Last month, Lawton said, spending also was bolstered by the return of conventions and special events, including concerts by Sting and the Rolling Stones. Two hotly anticipated boxing matches and a pair of Las Vegas Raiders home games also provided betting opportunities, he said.

The NFL once viewed sports betting as a threat. Now the league wants the action.

Elsewhere, gambling also boomed in 2021. Almost all of the 25 states that allow commercial gambling saw revenue increase over the pre-pandemic days of 2019, according to industry revenue figures reported by the AGA, with only New Mexico and Kansas staying roughly flat.

In New Jersey, casinos, racetracks and their business partners raked in $448 million in October, a roughly 50-percent increase over October 2019. Pennsylvania saw revenue jump by 54 percent over the same time period, putting the state roughly even with New Jersey.

Gaming revenue in Colorado increased to $116.8 million in October, marking an 81 percent increase over October 2019, according to the AGA. Illinois increased by 51 percent to $161.7 million over the same period. And gambling revenue in Michigan more than doubled to reach $248 million.

Industry representatives said it’s too early to tell whether the fast-spreading omicron variant is dampening casino foot traffic. The industry’s December revenue figures have yet to be reported.