Top Ten PA Gambling Stories of 2020: COVID, Penn and Online Betting Dominate Headlines

Gaming news in Pennsylvania during the year 2020 was unprecedented.

PlayPennsylvania believes five stories set the tone for the wild year that was wagering in PA.

The top five 2020 PA gaming stories were:

  • COVID-19 and rocked PA’s 12 land-based casinos.
  • Dave Portnoy and his Barstool Sports brand made debut in PA.
  • Online casino revenue rocketed.
  • Online sports betting revenue rolled on when sports resumed.
  • And unregulated gambling devices proliferated with only spasmodic enforcement measures.

We also look at five more stories rounding out the unique year:

  • Live dealer games finally debuted.
  • The physical gambling landscape changed and is set to change more in 2021.
  • A rollercoaster year for PA-based Penn National Gaming and its $PENN stock in alliance with Barstool.
  • A tough year for live poker, with virus closures twice, though online poker had a bright patch.
  • And the six PA horse tracks, all attached to casinos, found the going abbreviated, sloppy, and choppy.

COVID walloped casinos along with the rest of the world, then did it again

Beginning in mid-March, daily life as we knew it was upended. Travel and sports were put on pause; horse tracks, offices, and schools closed. Those who weren’t laid off shifted to working from home, and hospital ICUs filled. And sometimes, morgues.

Casinos also closed, leaving 16,000 casino workers idled. Reopenings of gambling halls and associated race tracks took months. The process was slow and staggered, with jobs and revenue down and in some cases positions permanently disappeared.

And then, on December 12, it was déjà vu with casinos ordered closed again until at least Jan. 4 as a new wave of COVID-19 infections swept the state following Thanksgiving gatherings. Along with jobs, retail casino gaming took a major revenue hit in 2020.

Portnoy barged into PA gaming, turning from bad boy to philanthropist

Dave Portnoy and his Barstool Sports “stoolies” beat their collective chests as they waded into the PA online sports betting market in mid-September. That followed the late-January news that PA-based Penn National Gaming bought a 36% share of his lifestyle, sports, and gossip brand.

Portnoy planted a flag, overnighting in PA, boosting local colleges such as LaSalle, rating local pizza joints, all while making brash prognostications about Barstool and its partnership with Penn National – which saw its stock price drop, then take off when the Barstool app crashed the party after a September launch, settling comfortably into a top-three share of the market.

Then the bad boy really did the unexpected, going on a charm offensive of philanthropy. Portnoy raised big bucks for the Reading Terminal Market, going on to a major initiative to help ailing small businesses.

Closed retail casinos meant records for online casinos in 2020

While casinos were plagued with closures and capacity restrictions during much of 2020, resulting in a year-over-year decline in land-based slots and table games revenue, PA online casinos took up the slack and then some.

In November, brick-and-mortar slot revenue was down 31.6% YoY, and table games down 30.0%.

But online casino games were up 673.4% for slots, online table games up 595.2%, and online poker up 22.6% compared to the previous November, when there were just five operators and six online casinos. One year later, the number of sites had doubled, and December saw yet another addition with BetMGM joining the fun.

Sportsbooks set records with a shift to online books in 2020

By November, the combined handle for all PA sportsbooks during the 2020/2021 fiscal year broke the $2 billion mark for handle, even with the huge disruptions in the sports world earlier in the year. The Commonwealth’s 10 online sportsbooks and 14 retail books combined for $37.4 million in taxable revenue, up from the previous record of $36.8 million just the month before.

The disruptions solidified the rapid emergence of online sports betting preference, with 91% of bets placed at PA online sports betting apps. Online sports betting was up 153.7% YoY in November.

Unregulated gambling devices remain the elephant in the room

Unlicensed gambling machines popped up nearly unabated from corner pizza places and fraternal meeting places to illicit gambling parlors. Estimates range upwards of 25,000, about equal to the licensed machines in highly regulated – and heavily taxed – casinos. The drain on revenue for casinos, the Pennsylvania Lottery, and the state’s budget are huge.

Authorities are aware of the problem but without the fortitude, leadership – and perhaps guts – to address the issue. And that includes Attorney General Josh Shapiro. Governor Tom Wolf has paid lip-service but taken no meaningful actions. Both are Dems.

Meanwhile, some Republican politicians are attempting to expand the market. The VGT expansion issue is likely to be taken up for debate further in 2021.

Live dealer casino games brought a new meaning to socially distanced

Live dealer games, broadcast from a studio, were announced as coming to PA as early as January. But the wait lasted until October. BetRivers (and PlaySugarHouse) and DraftKings Casino (through its partnership with Penn National/Hollywood) were the first.

Hollywood Casino and Caesars Online Casino joined the party soon after. And the new BetMGM PA casino launched live dealer games in December.

With the addition, Pennsylvania online casinos can finally boast of offering all that their counterparts next door in NJ have had for many months. PA’s 13 online casinos come with robust game libraries with more titles added all the time. And now, PA players can interact with real-life dealers at their favorite table games – from the comfort of home.

The physical gambling landscape contracted and expanded

Live! Casino Philadelphia neared completion despite the challenges of construction during COVID. The Cordish Companies’ new casino in the Philadelphia Stadium District will shake up the market when it opens – possibly by the end of January and at least by the end of the first quarter.

Cordish made a splash already in 2020, opening Live! Casino Pittsburgh in November, the first of the so-called mini-casinos. But then they also had a setback: Cordish had set its sights on buying another mini-license in PA but apparently got beat out of the buy.

This brings us to other changes or pending changes:

  • Ira Lubert, a minority shareholder in Rivers Casino Pittsburgh, the winner of the last mini-casino bid, has plans for a mini-casino near Penn State University, his alma mater.
  • Work on another pending mini-site in Morgantown remains stalled, though work at a mall-conversion mini-casino in the York area has resumed. But the Morgantown site has already partnered with BetMGM for online casino play. Morgantown and York both belong to Penn National.
  • COVID permanently closed Oaks Race & Sportsbook in July. Meanwhile, in the shadow of Live! Philly, South Philadelphia Race & Turf Club, has remained closed for months, but without a final fate announced.

Penn National made some big plays and the stock market loved it

The first big news of the year came at the end of January when Penn bought a big chunk of Barstool. $Penn stock saw a modest lift to its value by about $12 a share on the news to rise to $38 in February. But then the virus hit, sinking the value to as low as about $3 in mid-March.

The PA company’s casinos closed as the virus swept the country, Penn burned through cash, more than 26,000 employees across jurisdictions were furloughed (thousands of jobs were permanently lost), and desperate measures such as the sale of real estate and two stock offerings followed in May and September.

But the financial market loved the launch of the Barstool Sportsbook app in PA in September. It will roll out in all approved jurisdictions with a Penn presence eventually. Demand pushed the price above $70 a share. The price was flirting with $100 a share in late December but has backed down a bit to around $90.

Barstool is not Penn’s only big-name gambling partner established in 2020. Late in the year, Penn made a deal to link up with BetMGM as the land-based partner for their online casino and sports betting app, adding to its other online betting products in the state.

Live poker forced to fold during 2020

The year 2020 meant an epic bad run for live poker players in PA. First, 10 poker rooms closed last March when casinos shuttered.

Then reopenings lagged, with only four rooms – at The Meadows, Mount Airy Casino, Mohegan Sun Pocono, and Rivers Casino Pittsburgh – back in business by fall. And the ultimate fate of the poker rooms at Hollywood Casino and Presque Isle Downs remained unclear.

Harrah’s Philadelphia decided by August to permanently fold its World Series of Poker card room. Wind Creek had removed all of its poker tables and made a slot space out of the card room by fall, though a final fate was unclear.

Parx had planned to reopen poker in mid-December. But a state directive again shut down all casinos and poker rooms on Dec. 12 before that could happen.

Online poker interest and revenue had a strong but brief uptick which has faded over time. For now, the lone online provider of poker remains PokerStars PA. Other sites including partypoker and WSOP.com are likely to break the poker monopoly in 2021, but timelines remain unclear as of now.

Rough run for PA horse racing

Horse racing had a rough run in 2020, beginning in February when Gov. Tom Wolf launched an attempt to grab more than $200 million earmarked for the horse racing industry’s support. His plan was to divert the money to a proposed scholarship fund for state university students.

While the racing industry mounted a strong defense, in the end, the financial strictures of the virus and state budgeting issues shelved the proposal. The pony money comes from a set-aside from casino-based slot machines.

Tracks were ordered closed in PA on March 16, along with casinos. By the end of April, the state’s Racing Commission asked Wolf to reopen tracks with safety protocols.

But Wolf was the last governor in the Mid-Atlantic region to allow racing to resume. The last track did not reopen racing until June 27. PA horse folks will hope for fewer disruptions come 2021.

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