A few years ago, the American Gaming Association would have stayed away from the recent Massachusetts ballot referendum matter, where voters had a chance to kill the state’s nascent casino industry before the first hand of blackjack was dealt.
The Washington, D.C.-based association wanted states and cities to decide whether gaming expansion was right for their own backyards without any influence from the trade association.
It still does.
American Gaming Association CEO Geoff Freeman, however, would like to believe the trade group had a small role when Massachusetts residents overwhelmingly voiced support for casinos by a 60-40 margin.
He’s probably correct.
Using findings from a month-old economic impact study, the association targeted a series of “Get to Know Gaming” advertisements in the Boston area in the weeks leading up to the vote.
Casino companies with skin in the Massachusetts game — MGM Resorts International, Wynn Resorts Ltd. and Penn National Gaming — were the primary financial backers of a $12 million campaign to kill the anti-casino referendum.
The association’s part was to bring a simple message to Massachusetts. The ads touted the economic benefits of casinos found in a study conducted by the research arm of Oxford University.
Expect to see these numbers — $240 billion in annual economic impact across the country, $38 billion in taxes, and more than 1.7 million jobs — as part of the American Gaming Association’s educational efforts in 2015.
Freeman, who has overseen the lobbying organization since June 2013, knows he’s navigating a thin line.
The association doesn’t want to be viewed as an advocate when casino legalization lands on a ballot.
“Expansion is a local issue and it needs to remain a local issue,” Freeman said.
But the association also doesn’t want to remain mute.
Times have changed. Commercial and Indian casinos are in 40 states. The industry is in a fundamentally different place.
Freeman said the American Gaming Association should be the group to clear up misconceptions or untruths about a regulated casino industry. That’s what the organization did in Massachusetts, and will do in other markets.
Delaware lawmakers are considering changes to the state’s gaming policies. Last week, they heard testimony from association Senior Vice President of Public Affairs Sara Rayme, who added recommendations to the debate.
Freeman hopes other states reviewing their gaming regulations — Indiana is deciding whether casinos should be moved from riverboat locations to land-based — will view the association as a resource.
In a separate study this year, national pollsters working for the association found voters across a wide political spectrum have a positive view about legalized gambling.
The message being delivered? Casinos create jobs, strengthen local businesses and benefit communities.
“Critics have sold unchecked stories tied to public policy,” Freeman said. “It’s our job to dispel misinformation.”
It could be a busy year for Freeman.
Florida, Texas, and Kentucky may again debate legalized casinos and the association will want a seat at the table to counter critics and offer economic and social information about the industry.
But each market has to decide casino expansion on its own, Freeman added.
One area where the association won’t take a stand is Internet gaming.
In March, MGM Resorts Chairman Jim Murren — who is chairman of the lobbying group’s board — told Freeman to dial down the lobbying and advocacy efforts on behalf of legalizing Internet poker. The activity was fracturing the organization’s membership.
Nothing has changed. Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Wynn Resorts oppose Internet gaming legalization. Sands Chairman Sheldon Adelson is bankrolling an anti-online gaming coalition and sending lobbyists to oppose the issue when Internet wagering bills pop up on state legislatures’ radar screens.
Pro-Internet gaming companies, including Caesars Entertainment Corp. and MGM Resorts, funded their own coalition to counteract the Adelson-backed group.
That’s where the fight will remain.
Freeman was chief operating officer of the U.S. Travel Association in 2012 when a gaming expansion ballot issue in Maryland had MGM Resorts and Penn National on opposite sides. Each company spent more than $40 million on the referendum. The gaming lobby group stayed far from the heated debate.
In Massachusetts, MGM Resorts and Penn National were connected in defeating the casino repeal vote.
Freeman said the association will carefully choose its battles.
“The industry has an obligation to present the facts so that gaming is properly understood,” he said.