The recent passing of Sheldon Adelson, founder of the Las Vegas Sands (NYSE:LVS) gambling empire, marked the end of an era for the resort company, which helped shape the industry. Yet it could also herald a new beginning for the iconic casino brand since Adelson was a strict opponent of online gambling, and that's one sector of the industry that is booming and remains a growth opportunity.

Reports surfaced that the Sands was considering entering the sports betting market prior to Adelson's death, but with his veto no longer an obstacle, it's possible the company could now move more quickly. 

However, even if Las Vegas Sands does enter with its own app or through a partnership, has it delayed too long to be a contender?

Sports betting odds board

Image source: Getty Images.

A void in its business

Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that acting CEO Robert Goldstein was in the early stages of discussions of either using the Sands brand or developing its own platform. While it does have a sportsbook at its Venetian resort in Las Vegas, it's being operated by William Hill, which is being acquired by Caesars Entertainment (NASDAQ:CZR). It's a retail-only operation, though, and is not available online.

Although Adelson's opposition to online gambling was reportedly based on moral grounds (that gambling via a computer or mobile device made it too easy), and he had long lobbied to prevent its legalization nationally, that form of wagering also represents a potential threat to the company's brick-and-mortar casinos.

Yet Caesars and MGM Resorts (NYSE:MGM) have found online gambling boosts their bottom line. And during the pandemic, it has been a lifesaver for the industry, allowing it to survive while casino floors were closed.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the federal ban on sports wagering in 2018, some 19 states now allow it in some fashion, while six more have legalized it but have yet to implement it. There could be another half-dozen or so that legalize it this year.

Las Vegas is still a ghost town

Even though Las Vegas casinos have reopened, they're only able to operate at 25% of their capacity, and tourism remains depressed. MGM's Mirage hotel and casino is now closed during the middle of the week, only operating Thursdays through Sundays, and will continue that way past February. 

Wynn Resorts (NASDAQ:WYNN) implemented midweek closures of its Encore hotel in October, and Sands' Palazzo is completely closed. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority says just 17.8 million visitors came to the city in 2020 (through November), down 54.5% from 2019 and the lowest turnout in 32 years.

While Las Vegas Sands had reportedly considered selling all of its Las Vegas casinos to fully focus on the Asian market, keeping them solvent could be the real driving force in its embrace of online gambling.

Making up for lost time

Getting into sports betting now, though, would leave the company far behind industry leaders like Flutter Entertainment's FanDuel, DraftKings, MGM, Caesars, and others, but it could also give it exposure in more states.

Las Vegas Sands has far-flung operations in Asia, with Macao accounting for the lion's share of its revenue and profits, while in the U.S. it is only represented in Las Vegas, having sold off its Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, casino in 2019.

That concentration in an era of lockdowns and social distancing means adding an outlet for gambling that can be done from home is almost essential. And though New Jersey is currently the biggest market for sports betting, New York may soon come online and could readily surpass it if for no other reason than it houses some of the biggest sports franchises and is so densely populated.

MGM established an early foothold in the state when it acquired the Empire City Casino, but that still leaves plenty of opportunity for others, including Las Vegas Sands, to make their mark. And other big states could eventually join in, including California and Texas.

A good bet for growth

While Las Vegas Sands will be behind the eight ball if it enters online sports betting, that's only in states where the practice is established. With consumers flocking to online gambling and more than half the country yet to legalize or implement sports wagering, there are plenty of plays yet for Sands to make.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.