With its higher rated amenities and ability to expand to other properties, the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut is better positioned for the coming casino gaming revolution, one gaming expert says.
As surrounding state governments become more receptive to casinos in their backyards, Connecticut's two resort casinos — Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods — need to diversify. This includes expanding their non-gaming offerings, growing their convention business, and moving beyond their current locations, said Clyde Barrow, director of Center for Policy Analysis at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He's one of the featured speakers at New England Gaming Summit Sept. 20-21 at Mohegan Sun.
Massachusetts is the biggest threat to the Connecticut casinos, Barrow said, as gamers from northern New England will choose the closer location when the Bay State approves its three resort casino proposal. Strong support remains for the measure that passed the legislature and was vetoed by the governor.
Foxwoods — and owner Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation — will suffer more because 35.7 percent of its customers come from Massachusetts, outpacing Connecticut as Foxwoods' biggest market, according to a February study by the Center for Policy Analysis.
Mohegan Sun gets 18.5 percent of its customers from Massachusetts. Connecticut is Mohegan's biggest market with nearly three-fourths of its clientele coming from here or New York.
Mohegan stands to gain if Massachusetts allows casinos as it is poised to open one of the three locations in the state. The tribe is ready to develop 152 acres in Palmer, and 64 percent of that town's voters support the move.
A Mohegan casino in Palmer will undo Foxwoods proximity advantage in the Massachusetts. While Foxwoods is the closer resort casino, the Palmer site is closer to Boston, Worcester, Springfield and Hartford.
Foxwoods wants to expand its brand into Massachusetts, but doesn't have money to pay the licensing and start-up costs, said Bill Sherlock, Foxwoods interim president.
Foxwoods is saddled with a $2 billion debt from an expansion of the Connecticut property just as the recession chased gamblers away. Mohegan planned a similar expansion but shelved the project as the economy turned.
As a result, Mohegan can expand as more states allow casinos.
With the economic crisis, states need job creating strategies and casinos are one of the few service-sector industries with comparable wages to lost manufacturing jobs, Barrow said. Casino gambling increases government revenues at a time when voters oppose tax hikes. Now 36 states allow casinos. States such as Pennsylvania have gone beyond slot machines and added table games.
Nationwide, 86 percent of people support gaming, according to the center's survey.
In 2006, Mohegan opened the first slots casino in Pennsylvania at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, which draws from Scranton and southern New York. The location opened Pennsylvania's first table games on July 13.
In addition to Palmer and Pocono Downs, Mohegan is looking at expansion in Wisconsin and Washington, although those two properties are mired in land and regulatory issues, said Mitchell Grossinger Etess, president and CEO of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority.
Foxwoods efforts to expand beyond Connecticut have met with less success. Although it has held a license for a casino in Philadelphia since 2006, the facility has encountered numerous regulatory and funding difficulties. Efforts by the Foxwoods Development Company to partner on casinos in Kansas and California also failed, Sherlock said.
Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun are the two largest casinos in the Western Hemisphere, Barrow said, so they aren't going anywhere. They have brand recognition, customer loyalty and are vacation destinations. Foxwoods and Mohegan's expansion in convention and meeting space offers opportunity for stable revenues and national recognition.
But even when it comes down to the Battle of Connecticut, Mohegan retains the upper hand.
"Our research says people find Mohegan Sun a lot more attractive facility," Barrow said. "It is more manageable in its setup."
As fewer customers came to the casinos and spent less money during the economic recession, Mohegan Sun has grown its share of the market. Over the past five years, Mohegan's slot win is down 12.1 percent to $749 million while Foxwoods is down 20.5 percent to $652 million.
Foxwoods is building up its Connecticut brand, though. By October, the comedy club Comix and the high-end bowling alley High Rollers will open. This is part of an effort create a 60/40 mix between gaming and non-gaming revenues, Sherlock said, instead of the current 78/22 percent mix.
To better use its $2 billion expansion, Foxwoods needs more out of its MGM hotel and casino, Sherlock said. Foxwoods plans to jointly market with MGM to build up that property and use of MGM's presence in Las Vegas, especially to bring in conventions.
Mohegan Sun is changing up its mix of gaming and non-gaming amenities, too, Etess said, but with its 1,200-room hotel at a 96 percent occupancy rate the casino is very comfortable with its current size.
The losses of the last five years are more the result of the economy than competition, and Etess said Mohegan will be running once customers start spending more.