Officials say sports betting has increased the “foot traffic” going into casinos. People coming into the casinos to place a wager on a sporting event also are playing other games. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Sports betting at Mississippi casinos is only expected to generate about $5 million annually in tax revenue for the state, but more importantly it has helped to stabilize the gambling industry that had been decreasing in size in recent years.

The key, said Allen Godfrey, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, is that sports betting, which began at the state’s casinos in August 2018, has increased “the foot traffic” going into casinos. People coming into the casinos to place a wager on a sporting event also are playing other games.

While the industry has stabilized, there still are concerns, especially for the casinos on the Mississippi River in the north Delta. At one point, the Tunica region in the North Delta was the state’s largest market, but it has struggled in recent years thanks in large part to gaming markets opening in Arkansas, Oklahoma and other locations.

Godfrey recently told legislators that actions in other states could further impact the Mississippi casino market, particularly the Tunica market.

Tennessee, for instance, has approved, but yet to implement mobile device sports betting. When enacted, people in Tennessee can wager on a sporting event from their cellphone.

In Mississippi, people have to travel to a casino to place a wager on a sporting event. But there is talk that legislation will be taken up (at least considered at some point) to allow people inside of the state of Mississippi to place legal wagers via their cellphone.

“I am looking at it,” said House Gaming Committee Chair Casey Eure, R-Saucier. “…We are going to do something this year or next year, next year is more likely. I want to make sure we do it right.”

Eure said Mississippi’s gambling laws, dating back to the early 1990s when the Legislature approved a proposal allowing counties on the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi River to have casinos, have worked well and have been considered model legislation. He said he does not want to pass legislation that would harm the industry.

Tax revenue generated directly from sports betting is directed at state road and bridge repairs.

Larry Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming and Hospitality Association, said the state’s casinos are working on a proposal to present to the Legislature to legalize mobile sports betting.

The bill, like all proposals dealing with gambling, is expected to face resistance in the Legislature. While there has been that resistance, nearly all the casino gambling proposals presented to the Legislature by the industry and its supporters have ultimately passed.

Soon after casinos were legalized in the early 1990s, the industry exploded in the state and was soon the third largest gaming destination in the nation. Now it is seventh as more states and Native American tribes have opened casinos, according to a 2019 report by the American Gaming Association.

The evidence of the increased foot traffic in Mississippi casinos caused by sports betting is that gaming tax revenue to the state increased 5.2 percent or $6.8 million in the 2019 fiscal year, which ended on June 30, over the prior fiscal year.

This fiscal year through January, revenue is up 1.15 percent to $79.4 million. Thus far, it does not appear the state lottery, which began in Mississippi in late November, is impacting the casino industry.

But overall, the industry has declined during the past decade. In 2010 there were 30 licensed casinos employing 24,000 people generating $2.4 billion gross revenue. In 2019, there were 26 casinos in the state employing 19,000 people and generating $2.2 billion in revenue, according to the Mississippi Gaming Commission, which is the state regulatory agency.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.