Sports betting no jackpot for Atlantic City

A sports bettor in Las Vegas. Sports betting likely can replace only 10 percent of the gaming revenue Atlantic City lost.
A sports bettor in Las Vegas. Sports betting likely can replace only 10 percent of the gaming revenue Atlantic City lost. (OSKAR GARCIA / Associated Press)
Posted: October 11, 2011

According to addiction experts, problem gamblers endure five distinct stages before shaking the habit: winning, losing, desperation, hopelessness, and, finally, recovery. Right now, Atlantic City is somewhere between losing and desperation, and recovery seems impossibly remote.

Reading The Inquirer's Sunday report on Atlantic City's bid for legalizing sports betting, I couldn't shake the image of a bedraggled bettor on full tilt, convinced he's found a way to beat the system, nudge the odds in his favor, and get a big win. Just one big win, baby, and he'll be back on track.

Sports betting itself doesn't trouble me. New Jersey's casinos and racetracks are correct when they argue there's no good reason for the federal government to permit legal sports betting in Nevada and a few other states but outlaw it everywhere else. And if New Jersey voters decide next month they want to test that federal prohibition, fine.

No, the problem with sports betting is the assumption that more gambling is the answer to Atlantic City's ills.

To begin with, potential profits from sports betting are small compared with the industry's problems. Atlantic City casinos are netting about $2 billion less in annual gaming revenue today than in 2006. Sports betting would generate only about $200 million, or a tenth of the gaming business Atlantic City has lost in the last five years to competitors and the lousy economy.

For addicts, though, losing leads to desperation. And the casinos are losing in a big way. Their long-standing business model - keep tourists on the gaming floor at all costs - is failing. Adjusting for inflation, casino gaming profits are at their lowest levels since the 1980s. On its own, legal wagering on Eagles games won't begin to reverse the trend.

For Atlantic City itself - and by that I mean the community of 40,000 people, not the casinos - losing is nothing new. After 33 years, we can safely conclude that gaming has failed to deliver on the false promise of prosperity, at least for the vast majority of residents. Crime and unemployment have remained high. Speculation and misguided public policy have created vast tracts of empty land. The town is saddled with urban woes more typical of big cities or devastated postindustrial centers like Camden.

Gambling is not solely to blame for the state of Atlantic City, of course. The resort was in sorry shape before gaming was legalized. But it hasn't helped much, either. The casinos built themselves into self-contained fortresses, trapping guests inside and thus starving the broader city of its lifeblood: tourism dollars.

Now that strategy is backfiring on the casinos. With their East Coast monopoly broken by the rise of widespread legal gaming, Atlantic City's gambling executives have belatedly realized the resort needs to offer a lot more than slots parlors to remain relevant. Which means connecting with the beaten-down city they have tried so hard to wall off from their customers.

In theory, that's what Gov. Christie's tourism district aims to accomplish. The casinos have diversified a bit, putting greater emphasis on entertainment, dining, and retail, like their Las Vegas counterparts. And the new Revel resort, slated to open next year, embraces the beach and Boardwalk in a way older casinos never did. All of which suggests the industry understands it needs to evolve.

But the casinos have come to this point so reluctantly, and so slowly, that I find it hard not to see the agitation over sports betting as an addict's relapse, as sad as it is predictable.

"What we have is a city in need of change, that says it wants change but now only knows how to do one thing," says Bryant Simon, a Temple University professor who wrote Boardwalk of Dreams, a history of Atlantic City. "So is it going to change much? Probably not."

After desperation comes hopelessness. It may take that for Atlantic City to realize that gaming is, at best, only a piece of what the city's recovery requires.


Patrick Kerkstra is a former Inquirer reporter. He can be reached at Patrick@PatrickKerkstra.com or @pkerkstra on Twitter.

 

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