BY BETH BRESNAHAN
There may be 1.5 billion reasons to buy a ticket for tonight’s Powerball drawing, but Massachusetts residents really don’t need too much of a push to go place a bet.
Last year Lottery retailers in Massachusetts rang in more than $5 billion in ticket sales. Think about the math. The state boasts an adult population of about 5.23 million, so it equates to each resident over the age of 18 dropping an average of $957 in lottery tickets annually. That ranks Massachusetts as the highest of any of the 52 North American lotteries in terms of per capita spend. In fact, tiny Massachusetts, per capita, spends more than twice that of the next highest state (Georgia).
Combine our state lottery sales with the $10 billion a year that residents are estimated to spend at out-of-state casinos and the $5 billion estimated to be spent on online gambling, horse racing, illegal wagering and other games, and it becomes pretty clear — Massachusetts is a gambling state.
One would think that those figures would indicate that the state was ripe for more gaming, and Massachusetts lawmakers placed a big bet on it.
Hoping to capitalize on residents’ penchant for gambling and capture a chunk of the dollars spent elsewhere, the state legislature expanded gaming in late 2011 to allow casinos to operate in the Commonwealth. Their decision to allow up to three resort-style casinos in three geographically diverse regions across the state and one slot parlor has certainly generated spirited competition within the gaming industry and a great deal of controversy. But, it has yet to produce much of the $400 million in new annual tax revenue that was aggressively projected when the law was passed more than five years ago.
In fairness, casino gaming in Massachusetts has been off to a slow start. Of the three resort casinos allowed under the current law, only two — Wynn Resorts in Everett and MGM in Springfield — are licensed. Both are in varied stages of development and the earliest we’re likely to see a resort casino open in the Commonwealth is 2018. While there has been much speculation about and developer interest in the third license for a Southeastern Massachusetts location, it is unclear if or when one will be issued. To date, only the slots parlor is up and running.
Plainridge Park Casino, located on the Rhode Island border in Plainville, opened its 1,250-machine facility in June of last year to much fanfare. In its first month of operation, the casino generated $18.1 million in gross gaming revenue. Not a bad take, especially considering that the state collects 49 percent of that revenue in taxes and 82 percent of that haul is directed to local aid. However, revenue from Plainridge has dropped significantly each month since the facility opened, leading state budget makers to drop the annual tax-revenue projection from $128 million to $78 million. That’s $41 million less than expected for cities and towns.
There are varying opinions as to why Plainridge isn’t generating the excitement, and thus dollars, expected. Some say it may be a sign of the times that slot parlors have lost their appeal. Others say it’s a sign of the time it took to bring expanded gaming to the state. In the decade-plus that Massachusetts debated gaming, opportunity was lost to other markets and interest lost from potential players. They point to long-established competition in the marketplace, including Twin Rivers Casino located just 23 miles away in Lincoln, R.I.; Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut; and newly introduced competition in cyberspace from DraftKings and FanDuel.
Whatever the case may be, it causes great concern around the viability of the Massachusetts two casinos in development and their potential to generate much-needed revenues for the Commonwealth’s cities and towns. Already, both the Everett and Springfield projects have been scaled back from their original plans. It also should cause the State Gaming Commission to pause even further before deciding whether to issue license No. 3.
We are at the point where there’s just too heavy a reliance on gaming-generated revenue to support the economic vitality and vibrancy of our communities. We should focus on improving upon our current offerings, rather than further cannibalizing their potential by adding more.
This brings me back to the Lottery and tonight’s $1.5 billion jackpot.
The top prize, which is at a world-record level, has been growing since it was last won on Nov. 4 by a ticketholder in Tennessee. Over the course of the 19 drawings it has taken to build this jackpot, Massachusetts Lottery retailers have sold more than $53.8 million in Powerball tickets alone. Approximately 42 percent of sales from the jackpot game are returned to the state in net profit — that’s $22.6 million in local aid generated in less than 10 weeks from only a single $2 game. And that’s only a small fraction of the close to $1 billion in net profit that the Lottery is on track to return to the Commonwealth this fiscal year.
It would seem to me that the Lottery is still the state’s safest bet. But, maybe I’m biased.
Beth Bresnahan is CEO of The Item (and the former executive director of the Massachusetts State Lottery). She can be reached at [email protected]