With Nevada and New Jersey having already legalized online gambling, it may only be a matter of time before the trend sweeps across the majority of the nation. If and when this happens, many American casino companies like MGM Resorts International (NYSE:MGM) and Caesars Entertainment (NASDAQ:CZR) stand to benefit from their aggressive industry positioning.
However, for the larger and more traditional land-based casino operators like Las Vegas Sands (NYSE:LVS) and Wynn Resorts (NASDAQ:WYNN), the full impact of potential nationwide online gambling still remains something of an enigma.
Positioned to lead
Among major American casino operators, Caesars Entertainment and MGM Resorts have taken an early lead with regard to online gambling. The management teams at both companies have aggressively moved to capitalize on the impending trend.
MGM Resorts has teamed up with Bwin.Party Digital Entertainment to bring online gambling to New Jersey. Bwin.Party is currently the largest publicly traded online gaming company in the world, with a market cap of roughly $1 billion. The company operates primarily in four segments: sports betting, poker, casino, and bingo.
The CEO of MGM Resorts, Jim Murren, explained the company's latest move: "We are buying into [online gambling] because of our brands, Bellagio, MGM, Aria . . . resonate with people on poker."
Similarly, the CEO of Caesars Entertainment, Gary Loveman, has tried to better position his heavily indebted company by splitting it into two parts in order to raise money and focus on growth opportunities like those emerging in online gambling. The new company, Caesars Growth Partners, will include the online gambling business as well as several other popular venues.
The company's plan to succeed with online gambling is to integrate its strong brand names and large physical presence with its digital properties. Some of the incentives will include loyalty programs and casino perks and all will be promoted by Caesars' traditionally robust advertising campaigns.
Initial results indicate that there is tremendous demand for online gambling. More than 10,000 players have reportedly registered within the first three days of debut, according to New Jersey state officials.
The prevailing sentiment among top management at both MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment seems to be that the move to legalize online gambling across the country is happening whether major casino operators support it or not. Although the process has been slow to unfold, it is most likely better to get in on the ground floor and build brand recognition among consumers than to wait and miss out on some potentially lucrative opportunities.
Taking a back seat - Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resorts
Larger casino giants Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resorts have chosen to take a back seat for now. Steve Wynn, founder and CEO of Wynn Resorts, seems content to let his smaller competitors take the first step into the online-gaming world.
Wynn recently explained, "I have been bombarded by my colleagues about the Internet...I fail to see the business opportunity myself. So what I do is, I hook up with my colleagues: I smother my own confusion and prejudice and benefit from it. That's the only rational thing to do."
While waiting to see if the online space is the next evolution of gambling may prove costly for Wynn and his company, Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson is on a public campaign to downright derail the entire notion of online gambling.
Adelson recently told Forbes that he was "willing to spend whatever it takes" to stop the legalization of online gambling. He cited a strong moral objection to the idea that compelled him to speak up on the issue. As the leader of the largest casino company in the world, as judged by market capitalization and revenue, Adelson explained that he has an obligation to set a moral standard for the industry.
While it may very well be that Adelson has a moral objection to the idea of online gambling, as an investor I can't help but wonder if there are other motives at play here.
In a recent article, I analyzed three of the major American casino companies. Compared to MGM Resorts and Wynn Resorts, Las Vegas Sands came out firmly in the lead. The casino giant is projected to lead both competitors by a wide margin in terms of revenue growth for 2014. Additionally, the company has a solid foothold in the booming Macau gambling destination, which only appears to be getting stronger.
Therefore, it stands to reason that Las Vegas Sands and Adelson, who together with his wife owns more than 50% of the company, also could have the most to lose from the widespread success of online gambling.
However, the casino giant only has the most to lose if it chooses to view the legalization of online gambling as a threat instead of embracing it as a positive, like most of its competitors are doing.
Even casino mogul Steve Wynn, through his recent comments and his company's short-lived deal with online poker site PokerStars in 2011, has demonstrated that he remains open to embracing the online world as it pertains to his business.
More than a gamble?
Unfortunately, for the most part investors still have to view the major American casinos as two separate groups, physical casinos/hotels and online gambling/mobile. Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resorts remain the strongest casino/hotel operators in the world, as they continue to benefit from their increasing global presence and the incredibly strong market in Macau. Not surprisingly, both companies remain the strongest with regard to fundamental metrics, debt levels, and dividends.
However, MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment are currently positioning themselves to lead in the online gambling space. While still confined to only a few states, if online gambling can gain acceptance in numerous states, the growth opportunities will multiply significantly. Accordingly, investors looking to capitalize on the potential growth of online gaming should only consider MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment at this time.