Casino applicants' revenue estimates vary

Live! Philadelphia predicts $203 million in first-year slot-machine revenue.
Live! Philadelphia predicts $203 million in first-year slot-machine revenue.
Posted: January 27, 2014

When applicants for Philadelphia's second casino license make their final public pitches this week, promises of jobs, wages, and spin-off spending will fly.

But the key numbers to watch are the estimates of how much gamblers will lose playing slot machines, because those losses supply the bulk of the casino taxes flowing to state and local governments - the main reason elected officials took Pennsylvania into the gambling business nearly a decade ago.

What is more, none of the developments - all boasting flashy hotels, restaurants, stores, and entertainment venues - would be viable without profitable slots-dominated casino floors at their core.

The five projects have supplied a variety of economic projections, including revenue from slots. Two of the applicants have provided the processes that result in their forecasts for the revenue, and they make for interesting reading.

Market8 in Center City has set its sights the highest, predicting a bullish $363 million in annual slots revenue in its first year, in 2016 dollars.

That is 79 percent more than the lowest estimate, by Live! Philadelphia, proposed for near the stadiums in South Philadelphia. Live! is aiming for $203 million in slots revenue in its projected first year, also 2016.

The Market8 projections have set tongues wagging over how the casino, proposed for a parking lot at Eighth and Market Streets, would achieve such a high number in what many see as a saturated market.

Developer Ken Goldenberg is spearheading the project, which would be run by the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority.

"We have confidence in these numbers, strong confidence in these numbers," said Bobby Soper, president and chief executive of Mohegan Sun, the tribe's flagship casino in Uncasville, Conn.

From 2005 through 2012, Soper was the top executive at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre, a casino that has outperformed the company's own estimates.

Live! Philadelphia is backed by the owners of Parx Casino in Bensalem and Maryland Live! near Baltimore, two of the most lucrative casinos in the Mid-Atlantic. An executive with Cordish Cos., which owns Maryland Live!, said the team understood the Philadelphia market better and had more realistic expectations.

"It is irrelevant to us . . . that other applicants have projected, or that they have used exceedingly aggressive assumptions. Our policy is to tell it like it is, not to embellish numbers," Joe Weinberg, managing partner for Cordish, wrote in an e-mail.

During the first round of casino licensing in Pennsylvania in 2006, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board had the help of hired experts from PricewaterhouseCoopers to assess potential revenue.

That is not the case now because 2010 amendments to the state's gaming law made it illegal for a firm to work for the industry for a year after completing a contract with the gaming board. That made it difficult for the gaming board to hire outside help.

This time around, the board's financial investigative unit will determine "if the project's revenue projections are reasonable and in an expected range based on historical data," said board spokesman Doug Harbach.

The applicants' numbers are not complete guesswork. Consultants estimate revenue using the so-called gravity model.

The model has that name because it is based on the idea that the closer a casino is, the more likely an adult is to be sucked through its doors. The bigger the casino, measured by the number of slot machines and the number of positions at table games, the greater the pull the casino exercises on the surrounding population.

In addition to the sizes of the casinos in a particular market, other key inputs to the model are:

The adult population in defined areas.

Income.

The percentage of adults expected to go to a casino at least once a year.

The average number of visits per customer.

The expected average loss by gamblers per visit.

Plug those numbers into a formula, and out comes a revenue projection.

Experts said the model had worked well.

"The problem is that casinos are exploding in the Northeast, and projecting how much revenue each new casino drains away revenue from others is pretty hard," said David Gulley, a professor of economics at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass.

As with any model, much depends on the inputs, especially those based more on judgment than on hard numbers.

Market8 and Live! provided a look at those judgments in their reports.

"It opens them to more scrutiny, but if they are confident in their numbers, at least they are putting them out there for people to challenge them," said Clyde Barrow, a casino expert and director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.

Gaming board officials will be able to get more detail than is available publicly.

Three factors used by Market8 - the percentage of adults in the primary market who will gamble, the average frequency of gambling trips, and the average amount gamblers lose per visit - stand out.

Market8 said that 45 percent of the adults in its primary market, defined as Center City, South Philadelphia, and extending west along the Market-Frankford line, will visit a casino 16 times a year on average.

Barrow said "45 percent is at the high end of the known range in the U.S., but not incredibly high given the easy availability of casino gambling in Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia area."

Market8 says it expects to capture 70 percent of those visits, given its accessibility by public transportation.

By contrast, Live! said that 36 percent of the adults in its primary market - defined as anywhere within 30 minutes by car, including parts of South Jersey, will visit a casino 12 times a year. Live! says it expects to capture 43 percent of those visits.

Market8 projected an average loss of $101 per gambling visit, compared with $86 for Live!

Casino Revolution and Hollywood Casino Philadelphia, both in South Philadelphia, each predicted average gambler losses per visit of $75. Provence's economic report did not provide that figure.

Another reason for Market8's relatively high projections is the assertion that it will capture more gambling revenue from tourists and other visitors to Philadelphia than the other applicants.

Barrow said that was a common strategy, but he discounts that revenue.

"That's just a shot in the dark," he said. "You know that there probably will be some of that, but there's very little hard data on it."


hbrubaker@phillynews.com

215-854-4651

@InqBrubaker

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