Casinos in Oklahoma are on track to have one of their most profitable years in history, as revenue rebounds following some of the industry’s darkest months amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.
Casino exclusivity fees were up nearly 6.5% from January through August 2021, compared with the same pre-pandemic period in 2019, says data by the Office of State Management and Enterprise Services. Fees were up nearly 35.4% compared with 2020, when tribal operators were forced to close operations, reports CNHI Oklahoma.
At the Remington Park and Cherokee Casino Will Rogers Downs, the state’s two commercial race tracks and casinos, revenue is up 1.4% from January through August compared with 2019, while fees were up 93% compared with 2020.
In the state, tribes have the sole right to operate casinos in exchange for paying the state exclusivity fees, which range from 4% to 10%. In calendar year 2019, they generated about $152.8 million in fees, while from January through August 2021, they have already generated $107.5 million.
“It makes sense that they took a hit in 2020, but they’re back in ’21,” said Oklahoma House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, according to the previously cited news source. “That really could only be good news for everyone involved.
The exclusivity fee is seen as an important revenue stream for the state, especially in areas such as education. Moreover, gambling venues are big economic drivers, making the rebound important for Oklahoma as a whole.
According to Matthew Morgan, chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, revenues have continued to increase since reopening at levels not seen previously. “I think that our customers are feeling safe with what we put in place and that shows. It is reflected in our numbers,” he said.
But the Oklahoma casino industry's comeback has not only seen local guests returning, but increased traffic from out-of-state visitors. Casino operators are seeing more guests from other states compared to pre-pandemic levels.
Gaming facilities are also aiming at diversifying their offerings and increasing options available as they leave the worst days of the pandemic behind. Some tribes have even launched ambitious casino expansions in recent months or opened new hotels.
“People are rebounding from the coronavirus and have more disposable income, and so they’re spending more money,” said State Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow, linking positive casino figures to Oklahoma’s general rebound.
Oklahoma’s gaming industry is one of the country’s most prolific, second only to Las Vegas and California: nearly all of the state’s 39 tribes conduct gaming operations, with 132 facilities currently active. The largest casino in the state is Chickasaw Nation’s WinStar World Casino, which has 8,600 electronic games.