Connecticut’s gaming future may have started to take shape Tuesday just as the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, one of that future’s major players, was announcing its involvement in the reopening of an iconic casino in Puerto Rico.
Rodney Butler, the Mashantucket chairman, had to be in two places at once.
After participating in a news conference in Puerto Rico, Butler took to Zoom to join an informational forum conducted by the state legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee, which is working on a gaming bill that would legalize online gaming, sports betting and the online sale of lottery tickets.
A compromise, in which each of the state’s four licensed gaming operators could expand their portfolios, is emerging.
The Mashantuckets and the Mohegan Tribe, respective owners of Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, appear to be willing to ease up on their insistence that only they be allowed to provide online gaming and any form of sports betting in the state. They could be allowed to provide online sports wagering while other in-state operators provide sports betting at retail, or brick-and-mortar, locations.
“Let’s do no harm. Whatever we do, we should do it on a government-to-government basis,” Chuck Bunnell, the Mohegan chief of staff, said during the Zoom hearing. “We’re willing to be reasonable, to talk. That’s what partners do.”
Tribal representatives have been meeting with Gov. Ned Lamont to reach an agreement on gaming expansion. The tribes maintain that sports betting is a casino game and as such is covered by their exclusivity agreements with the state. In talks with the governor, “We’ve been pretty clear that no one new should come into this market,” Bunnell said.
In one scenario, Sportech Venues, which operates a dozen locations at bars and restaurants around the state as well as an online betting service, could be authorized to provide sports betting at its locations but not online.
“I haven’t been convinced that they shouldn’t have an opportunity for sports betting,” Rep. Kurt Vail, R-Stafford, said of Sportech, responding to Bunnell. “Maybe you guys could work something out together.”
Ted Taylor, the Sportech Venues president, rejected the idea, saying online sports betting represents about 80% of the sports betting market, which is dominated by younger males. He said the last thing he’d want is to have patrons at Sportech locations watching sports on multiple screens while placing bets “on somebody else’s app.”
Butler, in a Zoom interview after the hearing, challenged Taylor’s view, saying sports betting could be a boon to brick-and-mortar locations. He said sports betting centers could be developed in places like the XL Center in Hartford and at a location in Bridgeport, as suggested by Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bridgeport, the public safety committee co-chairman. The tribes could be willing to partner on such centers, Butler said.
Greg Smith, president of the Connecticut Lottery Corp., said lottery sales have been growing during the pandemic after an initial dip and that authorizing online ticket sales would increase sales further. He said online sales would ensure the lottery stays relevant to young people making increasing use of mobile devices. Rob Simmelkjaer, chairman of the lottery corporation’s board of directors, made a pitch for sports betting, calling the quasi-public agency the ideal operator because it contributes all of the net revenue it generates to the state.
The lottery sells its products at some 3,000 retail locations statewide, not all of which would be suitable as sports-betting sites.
Butler was joined at the news conference in Puerto Rico by the governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Pierluisi, and Andro Nodarse-León, founder and chief executive officer of LionGrove, the hospitality investment firm that owns the Fairmont El San Juan Hotel. The Mashantuckets and LionGrove announced they will reopen the El San Juan Casino at the hotel, renaming it the Foxwoods El San Juan Casino.
The casino has been closed since 2016. Its reopening, involving an investment of $12.5 million, will come after $137.5 million worth of renovations to the hotel before and after Hurricane Maria in 2017. The renovations and the reopening of the casino are expected to generate $22 million in economic impact and 360 new jobs, including more than 150 at the casino.
During its heyday in the 1960s, the El San Juan’s Tropicoro nightclub, which the partners also will reopen, drew stars such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Sammy Davis Jr.
Butler called the Mashantuckets’ involvement in the deal “a match made in heaven.” He said 50% to 60% of the Caribbean hospitality market comes from the U.S. Northeast.