Opinion

Rock and Hard Place – sports betting’s shy competitor

There have been recent stories of Hard Rock seeking a market entrance – but that would be in the moribund UK casino sector, not the US.

Hard Rock is a brand that clearly likes to hide its light under a bushel. 

So much so that the only recent news concerns the bid to gain entry into the UK market via a buyout of the Ritz’s license.

Although Hard Rock is up-and-running in New Jersey, the tribal casino interests that own the brand have yet to take advantage of any other state openings.

It means that lucrative opportunities in Pennsylvania, Illinois and now Michigan – along with any number of other state openings – have passed Hard Rock by.

Observers might rightly be bemused by Hard Rock’s lack of proactivity. After all, executives from the firm have been ever presents on the conference circuit over the past three years. 

One-state play

But appearances on conference stages aside, when it comes to the business at hand all is quiet.

It has raised suspicions that Hard Rock is a single-state play – but it’s not New Jersey that is the target.

The Hard Rock brand has been owned by the Seminole tribe from Florida for over 14 years. 

Its initial online efforts in New Jersey came via an ill-fated arrangement with GiG which has since been nixed.

Hard Rock is now on the SG Digital platform. But it has barely joined the online sports betting and gaming party that is moving at great pace across the country.

According to the latest data from New Jersey, the sports betting element of the business remains a mere adjunct to the main casino business. 

In 2020 it generated $290m of gaming revenue overall. But only just over $6m of that was from sports betting, while a further $59m came from online gaming. 

Snow birds

The suspicion is that when it comes to online and sports betting the New Jersey business is something of a placeholder. 

Hard Rock can learn – and already has learnt – some key lessons about online operations in a state where it is never going to compete to be top five.

All this is in preparation for the state that really matters. Florida – the state Hard Rock’s tribal owners, the Seminoles, would consider their home market. 

Under the current tribal compact, it is highly likely the Seminoles would be looking argue in favor a continued gaming monopoly in the state.

Such moves have been resisted previously elsewhere. Extending a gaming monopoly into sports betting was never envisaged when tribal gaming first came into being.

Under strain

Moreover, relations between the Seminoles and the state are already strained. 

Tribal payments to the state have been suspended since May 2019 in a dispute over gaming machines at pari-mutuel facilities.

A potential push for sports betting might come in March when the state legislature next convenes. Whether anything comes to pass at that point might be somewhat hopeful.  

It could mean Hard Rock is pursuing a strategy suited for a market that might never come to pass. The lack of any wider ambitions might, over time, come to be seen as shortsighted.

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Scott Longley

Scott Longley has been a journalist since the early noughties covering personal finance, sport and the gambling industry. He has worked for a number of publications including Investor's Week, Bloomberg Money, Football First, EGR and GamblingCompliance.com. He now writes for online and print titles across a wide range of sectors.

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