How casinos across the region are rebounding after COVID shuttered their doors

·6 min read

WOODLAND PARK, N.J. — Casinos from New York to Maryland are breaking new records for revenue as bettors return to slot machines and table games amid pent-up demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic, records show.

Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey all posted surprisingly strong growth in recent months, and New York casinos were creeping back to pre-pandemic wagering — a major boost to the states' economy and tourism during the critical summer season.

“We continue to welcome back guests, and feedback indicates their appreciation of our health and safety measures,” said Ed Domingo, senior vice president at Empire City Casino by MGM Resorts in Yonkers, New York.

The states operate in the nation's most competitive gambling market, and it was near saturation even before the pandemic, making the return after COVID a particularly critical time for casinos in Atlantic City and the New York City area, across Pennsylvania and down the East Coast.

And so far, so good.

Revenue from Pennsylvania’s casinos set a state record of nearly $3.9 billion in the latest fiscal year, which ended June 30, a roughly 44% climb for the previous fiscal year.

So did Maryland.

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In May, Maryland's six casinos set a single-month gaming revenue record for the second time in three months — hitting $172 million, up 13% compared with May 2019. The state plans to have sports betting this fall, which would add another boost to its offerings.

The Baltimore-Washington, D.C., gaming market is now the third-largest in the country, trailing only the Las Vegas Strip and Atlantic City, according to the American Gaming Association.

Delaware's three casinos also had revenue growth, increasing 25% between April and May, to nearly $4.8 million in net win, state records reviewed by the USA TODAY Network Atlantic Group showed.

Why casinos are booming again

Empire City Casino in Yonkers, N.Y., reopened on Sept. 21, 2020 after being closed due to the coronavirus shutdown.
Empire City Casino in Yonkers, N.Y., reopened on Sept. 21, 2020 after being closed due to the coronavirus shutdown.

Several factors helping casinos are at play — literally.

Casinos are benefiting from having months of full reopening after being closed for months in mid-2020, allowing them to lure back their clientele with incentives and rewards.

They also had a huge boost in online betting and sports wagering — although not in New York and Maryland, where it is still not operational.

Still, New York's seven racetracks with video-lottery terminals saw their net win — the money left in the machines after payouts to winners — grow nearly 12% between March and May.

In Atlantic City, total gaming revenues each month consistently surpassed 2020, which was expected, but also those from 2019. And the $392.8 million in revenues in June 2021 exceeded the same period in 2019 by nearly 24%.

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"This is clearly great news for the gaming industry and suggests post-pandemic recovery is strong," said Jane Bokunewicz, faculty director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Stockton University.

The numbers slid slightly in June in New York and Maryland, as casinos added more machines in hopes of large attendance but also had to compete with summer vacations and other activities.

The boost can't happen soon enough for some facilities.

In New York, Resorts World Catskills and del Lago Casino in the Finger Lakes were struggling to stay afloat before the pandemic, changing owners and hoping in-person sports betting could help their fortunes.

Then the pandemic shut their doors from late March 2020 through September 2020, hurting them during their typically busiest months.

“We are so glad to see guests, new and old, enjoying their experiences at Resorts World New York City and Resorts World Catskills," said company spokeswoman Meghan Taylor.

Some of the casinos in New York have returned to pre-pandemic revenue figures.

In the Southern Tier, for example, Tioga Downs had a gross gaming revenue of about $6.3 million in May 2019 with about 900 slot machines.

In May 2021, it was about $6.2 million with nearly 600 machines, records from the state Gaming Commission showed.

New hope for Atlantic City

Farther south in Atlantic City, the struggling resort town has seen a welcome resurgence at its nine casinos after they spent more than three months closed in 2020 due to Gov. Phil Murphy's lockdown orders.

For the first six months of the year, total gaming revenue was $2.1 billion, an increase of 106% over that period last year.

Sports betting and online gaming were key to the New Jersey casinos' survival last year, and now they show how much the gaming landscape has changed.

Internet gaming represented about 34% of total gaming revenue in the first half of the year, while sports betting accounted for 7%, Bokunewicz said. Together they now represent a greater share of revenue than they did in 2019, before the pandemic, she said.

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"Brick-and-mortar casino gaming revenue may no longer be as strong an indicator of a property’s performance as it once was, but it is still an essential part of a property’s overall business plan," Bokunewicz said.

"In assessing the industry’s overall recovery from the pandemic, and growth in the future, it will be important to include multiple revenue streams, gaming and non-gaming, in the calculation," she said.

Sports betting in particular saw "monumental growth" nationwide last year despite casino closures and the suspension of major sports last spring, the American Gaming Association said.

Americans bet more than $21.5 billion on sports in 2020, compared with $13 billion in 2019, according to the association. And it said revenue from sports betting increased 69%, to $1.5 billion.

The diversity of gaming helped Pennsylvania set a record of nearly $3.9 billion in the latest fiscal year.

The previous record for revenue was in the fiscal year between 2018 and 2019, at $3.3 billion. The boost was largely due to sports and internet wagering, the records showed.

“Since that time there has been significant growth in the nascent sports wagering and fantasy sports contests markets along with the establishment of both the iGaming and [video gaming terminals] markets,” the Gaming Control Board said in a statement.

While states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania are reaping the rewards of off-site gaming, New York's casinos are not performing as well, Bokunuwicz said.

In June, for example, brick-and-mortar casino revenue for New York was down 6.2% compared with May, she said.

As they catch up, New York's casinos are trying to add more amenities, such as new restaurants and, at JFK Airport at Resorts World New York City, a new Hyatt Regency to provide "the ultimate stay, play, shop, dine and be-entertained experience," the company said.

And in New York, there is still an effort to bring new casinos to the New York City area, a plan that has failed in Albany in recent years.

Follow Joseph Spector and Dustin Racioppi on Twitter: @GannettAlbany and @dracioppi.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: COVID restrictions lifted allowed casinos to rebound, bettors return