Numbers Don’t Lie: AGA Report Shows Gaming’s Impressive Comeback

Numbers Don’t Lie: AGA Report Shows Gaming’s Impressive Comeback
By Bill Ordine

The gaming industry’s rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic is demonstrably impressive. The numbers tell the story.

For the first nine months of 2021, gross gaming revenues exceeded the first nine months of pre-pandemic 2019 by 18.5%, according to the American Gaming Association, the industry’s trade group. In dollar figures, the GGR for the first three quarters of the current rebound year was about $38.67 billion, which included total revenues from casinos (slots and tables), sports betting and iGaming (casino games played on a computer or mobile device).

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Coincidentally, the AGA’s industry-wide quarterly update came out just as it became evident that the total U.S. sports wagering handle (not revenue) has reached a monthly all-time high of $5.2 billion for September (with one more state left to report), but more on sports betting in just a bit.

Of course, percentage comparisons to 2020 are even more impressive (GGR for the nine months of a year ago are up 86%) but such a comparison needs to be footnoted with the reminder that the casino industry was devastated by months-long shutdowns last year.

It’s the 2019 figures that are more of an apples-to-apples comparison, except for one important aspect. The 2021 figures include relatively new components within the overall gaming revenues picture. Those are a surge in sports betting and growing participation in iGaming.

Of the $38.67 billion in industry-wide GGR year-to-date, $5.36 billion, nearly 14%, came from sports betting and iGaming combined. The sports betting piece was $2.74 billion and the iGaming portion was $2.62 billion.

The AGA was eager to promote the fact that the third quarter 2021 GGR represented an all-time record for a quarter with the message being that the industry has done an exemplary job of recovering from the pandemic. The point is well-taken. The third quarter’s total GGR was $13.89 billion eclipsing the pre-pandemic 2019 third quarter by 24.7%. But it’s worthwhile to note that the growth in both sports betting and iGaming helped drive GGR upward.

In the case of online gaming and sports wagering, comparisons with 2020 are more relevant than the comparisons involving traditional casino revenues. During the pandemic’s slowdown of in-person visitation in 2020, online play was still available, although even online sports betting was hobbled by cancellations of live sports for long stretches in 2020 (the exception being the resolute NFL, which played every game).

And here’s where the comparisons get a bit more interesting.

Sports Betting & iGaming Numbers Soar

The increase in sports wagering for the first nine months of 2021 was more than 306% compared to the same period in 2020 and up nearly 414% compared to the same period in 2019. For iGaming, the jump was more than 145% compared to January-September 2020 and up nearly 650% compared to the first nine months of 2019.

Certainly, there’s a story behind those gaudy numbers and it’s tied to recent history. The advance in sports wagering and iGaming has been driven by the march of sports betting legalization across the country since 2018 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA).

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As more states have moved to legalize sports wagering, whether retail or online or both, the handle numbers have skyrocketed and pulled along revenue. The same is true for iGaming, although the political reality has been that sports wagering is perceived to be an easier sell to state legislatures and possibly, even to voters, than legalizing casino games that can played at home on a computer or smart phone.

Regarding the bottom line, let’s face it, real slot machines in real casinos are still the money-making king. For the first nine months of 2021, slots GGR made up nearly 63% of all gross gaming revenues.

2021 National Sports Betting Numbers

January$4.37B $333.8M
February$4.01B $179.9M
March$4.63B $310.9M
April$3.70B $256.1M
May$3.71B $244.7M
June$3.68B $308.4M
July$2.80B $243.9M
August$3.07B $196.1M
September*$5.20B $334.1M

* – September totals do not include Arizona, which launched in September but has not reported totals yet.

Sports Betting as Revenue Generator

However, sports gambling — which was long considered a casino component that was most useful in getting sports gamblers into the building to play slots and tables — is showing now that it can stand on its own as a revenue generator. In the old days when PASPA limited sports betting to Nevada’s physical sportsbooks, the rule of thumb was that sports wagering would contribute about 2% to revenue.

Now consider that in the first nine months of 2021, with sports gambling in more than 20 jurisdictions and gamblers able to bet on sports in almost all of those jurisdictions online, the sports betting contribution to the industry-wide GGR was about 7%.

Not to be overlooked is the impact of iGaming. Those online slots and table games, despite being legal in only a handful of states, contributed about 6.8% to the industry-wide GGR in the first nine months of this year.

More States Eye Sports Betting

With Florida easing into sports wagering via the Hard Rock sports betting app (it’s facing court challenges) and New York on the cusp of flipping the switch on online sports betting, it is an absolute certainty that sports wagering handles and likely revenues will continue to break records.

The September handle record of $5.2 billion (with Arizona sports betting, which launched on Sept. 9, yet to report) will surely be wiped away by Super Bowl Sunday. The political prospects for more iGaming are not so clear but the smart money says that the revenue potential for both gambling operators and state governments is going to be too juicy pass up and, somehow, it’ll happen.

So, while the numbers released by the AGA for the third quarter of 2021 are a celebration of the gaming industry’s continuing comeback from the pandemic, they also tell a story of a sea change that portends where gaming companies will increasingly concentrate their efforts.



A longtime reporter and editor who began writing on casinos and gaming shortly after Atlantic City’s first gambling halls opened, Bill covered the world Series of Poker and wrote a syndicated column on travel to casino destinations for a decade.

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