Since the first Arkansas casinos opened in Hot Springs, West Memphis and Pine Bluff in 2019 and 2020, gaming’s popularity has grown at an impressive rate. 2021 gaming revenue reached $565 million, an increase of 32 percent from 2019, said American Gaming Association (AGA) Director of Research Anton Severin.
“Arkansas casinos support thousands of good-paying jobs and generated approximately $81 million in direct gaming taxes in 2021,” Severin said. “That figure does not include millions more paid by the casinos in the form of income, payroll, sales and various other corporate taxes. Gaming tax revenue in Arkansas is allocated each year for state education and public safety programming, while also supporting local governments and the state’s horse racing industry.”
The casinos now are poised to generate even more revenue since the Arkansas legislature approved online sports betting from anywhere in the state starting in early March. Severin said the timing was good by making online betting available in time for March Madness, providing Arkansas consumers a safe, competitive alternative to the illegal sports betting market.
“Mobile sports betting launches in states like New York and Louisiana show that Americans have always bet on sports, and given the opportunity, want to do so legally,” Severin said. “Regulated mobile wagering in Arkansas will help root out the predatory illegal market and provide Arkansans with better access to the consumer protections only the legal market provides while generating important tax revenue.”
According to AGA’s research with Oxford Economics, Arkansas online sports betting could reach $1.6 billion in annual wagers. The individual placing the bet must be 21 years of age and physically be within Arkansas, said Department of Finance and Administration spokesman Scott Hardin.
“We anticipate this will result in some out-of-state visitors driving across the state line and making a day or a weekend of legally placing sports wagers on their favorite teams,” Hardin said. “Only two neighboring states offer mobile sports betting, Tennessee and Louisiana.”
Sports betting has been taking place at state casinos since mid-2019. However, bets could only be placed on casino property. Hardin said since mid-2019, $120 million has been wagered on sports at the three casinos. Now the mobile option opens it up to anyone within the state of Arkansas.
Carlton Saffa, chief market officer for Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff, fully expects to see large volumes of Texans, Oklahomans and Missourians cross into Arkansas to place mobile sports bets. He sees this as helping more than just the casinos and the towns they are located in.
“Sports betting in the gaming business will be a trip generator that brings folks into our state,” Saffa said. “We have seen this in other places where neighboring states didn’t have sports betting. The benefits to Fort Smith and Texarkana could be huge. This will help a lot of border towns. And what do we have in Arkansas? A lot of border towns. We have a real-life similar example in Arkansas. For many years, Mississippi didn’t have a lottery and Arkansas did. You would see huge lines in Lake Village to buy lottery tickets. We know people will go across the border to gamble.”
Saracen, owned by the Quapaw Nation, is averaging about 150,000 visitors per month with an estimated 70 percent of its players coming from Little Rock. But Saffa said it also has tremendous play from out of state including Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. While Mississippi and Louisiana have had gaming for decades, Saracen is attracting a good number of day trippers from those states.
“People in those states are familiar with gaming,” Saffa said. “You have casino cultures in Mississippi and Louisiana. People know the games, are comfortable with them and are looking for a new venue to do what they love to do. We offer a really good product, and out-of-state folks will travel for it. We have 2,000 slot machines, and every one of them is brand new. As casinos age, their offerings get updated, and people like what is spiffy and new.”
While slots are king and make up the vast majority of the income at Saracen, Saffa said they are very proud of its table game revenue.
Saracen is undergoing an expansion to add a 13-story hotel with more than 300 rooms, additional restaurants and a 1,600-seat event center for concerts, conventions and meetings. Saffa said the project currently out for bid represents an additional $150 million investment.
“The Quapaw Nation and Saracen will have nearly half a billion invested in Pine Bluff in just a few years,” Saffa said. “We currently have 900 employees. With construction of the hotel and event center, we will create hundreds of construction jobs on a temporary basis and 200 to 300 permanent jobs in the hotel. Since we have opened, Saracen has paid about $30 million in gaming taxes in just over two years with about a third of that going to local government.”
Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs, said the bottom line is that America is and has been buying gaming for years. Now Arkansas finally has more products to offer.
“We’re attracting new dollars to the state,” Arrison said. “We’re keeping some dollars in the state. It’s an entirely new dimension for travel. The three Arkansas casinos thus far are making the biggest investment in the history of Arkansas tourism/hospitality. About $750 million has been invested, and that might reach $1 billion when the fourth casino starts up in Pope County.”
Together, the three operating casinos have hired thousands of Arkansans, Arrison said. In addition, they are creating many new options for travelers: gaming, lodging, restaurants, entertainment, leisure activities and meeting-and-convention space.
“The Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort model here in Hot Springs is a bit different than the others,” Arrison said. “Oaklawn hopes to help Hot Springs become more of a regional draw. Thus, it is emphasizing its quality hotel, the Astral Spa and other elements of its operation. In addition, Oaklawn is using gaming to enhance its traditional business and brand, which is thoroughbred racing.”