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Caesars has identified space inside the Horseshoe for a permanent sports book, according to Barber, who said he expects the new spaces to open within 12 to 14 months of Caesars breaking ground

A new product and new day for Tunica gaming

Sports betting gives Delta casinos an opportunity to regain lost business

By Ted Carter

Tunica County casino executive R. Scott Barber’s long wait for the light to change is almost over.

Legalized sports betting is about to materialize in Mississippi and with it prospects for a change of fortune for the Delta’s gaming sector.

Scott Barber

Barber, Caesars Entertainment regional vice president, attributes years of decline in the region’s casino business partly to the absence of a new product. “Imagine if you are a 25-year-old amusement park and haven’t added a new ride or anything,” he said.

But with sports books, Tunica County is back in the game as a draw for visitors from as far away as Jackson, Tenn., Birmingham and Little Rock, Barber said. “We’ll be able to attract them,” he added, and noted there’s no lack of interest in sports, especially football. “We’re in the heart of SEC Country.”

Something shiny and new for the Delta gaming sector – without it Barber was unsure what might stop annual revenue declines of 3 percent to 4 percent that started in 2007-2008. Those declines marked the end of a gaming bonanza that came as Mississippians and others with a hankering to wager flocked to Tunica County, the birthplace of Magnolia State gaming a quarter century ago, while the Mississippi Gulf Coast casinos rebuilt after Katrina.

Today, the 12 gaming venues on the Gulf are the prosperous cousins to those of Tunica. April revenues showed just how well they are faring. Earnings at gambling centers there hit an all-time high of $108.6 million last month, the Associated Press reported.

That’s $1.4 million more than the previous high set in April 2007 when volunteers and contractors were flooding the coast after Katrina.

In recent months, Barber and gaming executives across the country expected the U.S. Supreme Court to rule against a federal ban on sports betting. Allowing sports books to operate in Nevada and three other states but no other states didn’t pass constitutional muster, the justices said.

Mississippi lawmakers also anticipated the court’s action by enacting legislation that legalizes sport gambling that occurs on a casino gaming floor.

The immediate task for the two casinos Barber oversees in the Delta – Horseshoe Tunica and Tunica Roadhouse – is to install temporary sports betting areas while making plans for larger, permanent sports book rooms.

“We want to have temporary facilities by football season,” he said.

So far, Caesars has identified space inside the Horseshoe for a permanent sports book, according to Barber, who said he expects the new spaces to open within 12 to 14 months of Caesars breaking ground.

He envisions the permanent Harrah betting rooms to be smaller versions of what Caesars has in Las Vegas. But he noted nonetheless, “I think you are looking at some very large-scale investments in the facilities.”

He said he expects owners of other Delta casinos and resorts to make similar investments.

In addition to the two Harrah’s casinos, Tunica gaming properties are:

*Casino Strip Properties

*Hollywood Casino

*Resorts Casino Tunica

*Sam’s Town Casino Resort

*Casino Center Properties

*Gold Strike Casino Resort

*North End Casinos

*1st Jackpot Casino

*Fitz Casino & Hotel

Renovations, including $10 million in upgrades to the Horseshoe, have occurred at the casinos and resorts over the last 25 years. “We’ve kept them in shape,” Barber said.

But what they haven’t done is duplicate the Mississippi coast’s success in adding new properties and the visitor and industry buzz they create, Barber said.

“They’ve done some large capital investments down there,” he said.

The important thing for Tunica, Barber said, is at long last it can offer a visitor “an expanded experience.”

Sports books are not highly profitable as a stand-alone, the gaming executive said, but that changes when they’re put in a casino and resort setting. With them, Barber said, “We can get some markets we haven’t touched for some time.”

Like the state gaming officials who will write the new rules for sports betting, Barber expects the offerings and the way the wagering is done will evolve with time.

That could include Mississippians and others placing sports bets from their portable devices wherever they are. The caveat: People making the wagers would need to have online accounts with a casino in the state.

“I think at a time in the future that would be allowable,” said Barber, who also oversees a pair of Caesars casino properties in Cherokee, N.C.

More immediately, he expects visitors to Mississippi casinos will be able to use their phones, tablets and other portable devices to make sports bets while on casino properties.

He said he also thinks in-game betting is worth exploring. Alan Godfrey, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, agrees. “We may get there but we are starting off slow,” Godfrey said in a recent interview.

Larry Gregory, executive director of the Jackson-based Mississippi Gaming & Hospitality Association, said he expects sports betting to be a much-needed tonic for Tunica’s economic lethargy. “This may be the silver bullet to get Tunica back on its feet,” he said in a recent interview.

Both Gregory and Barber think the Delta flood of 2011 marked the start of gaming’s decline in Tunica County. That forced the casinos to close for a few weeks, losing customers they never regained.

Opening of casinos in Alabama and Louisiana further diminished visitor numbers and gaming revenues in Tunica. Closer to home, Southland Park Gaming and Racing in West Memphis, Ark., lured gamblers away from Delta gaming venues.

But with the head start Mississippi will have in debuting sports wagering, look for Tunica to regain some of that trade, Barber said.

“We’re very excited,” he said. “The Tunica market is hungry for a new product.”

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