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What Would A Sale Of Sands Bethlehem To MGM Mean For Pennsylvania Gamblers?

Although not set in stone, in the coming months Las Vegas Sands will likely pen a deal with MGM Resorts International to purchase its sole regional property, Sands Bethlehem.

The acquisition price: somewhere in the vicinity of $1.3 billion.

If the deal goes through, it will represent the single-biggest upheaval in the Pennsylvania land-based casino industry since the introduction of the first table games in 2010.

For the tens-of-thousands of players that visit the northeastern Pennsylvania casino daily, it would also probably mean getting used to several broad changes.

A new loyalty scheme

Almost without question, Sands’ current loyalty program would be given the axe, and in its stead would be MGM’s M life Rewards.

The two programs could not be more fundamentally different.

The current My Sands system is a two-tiered program where Preferred patrons only receive a handful more benefits than baseline members. M Life Rewards is a multifaceted loyalty system consisting of five distinct tiers, with top cardholders entitled to significantly more perks.

The biggest difference recreational and low rolling players will notice is that under M Life, they will earn cashback and comps on their play, the amount of which scales based on their loyalty level.

Currently, My Sands cardholders only earn comps for use at the facility’s restaurants and shopping outlets. There are no cashback rewards and Preferred holders do not earn comps at an enhanced rate.

Another significant difference is that MGM clearly defines the benchmarks players have to reach in order to move up a tier. At Sands, the playing requirements to become a Preferred card holder are rather obscure.

Current Sands players might be pleased to know that they can use the M Life Rewards card at any participating MGM facility. The same doesn’t apply for My Sands, which cannot be used at the Venetian and Palazzo in Las Vegas, despite being under the same ownership.

Travel opportunities

Anyone who has kept a watchful eye on the US casino industry probably already knows that MGM has been rapidly expanding its foothold in the northeast.

The enterprise recently opened MGM National Harbor in Maryland, has completed its acquisition of the Borgata in Atlantic City, and is scheduled to open a $950 million facility in Springfield, Massachusetts sometime in 2018.

The upside to this is that MGM will likely grant loyal players plenty of opportunities to travel to its nearby (and Las Vegas) destinations.

A different set of game rules?

Our advice to Sands players is neatly summed up in a simple phrase: Play the table games, dodge the slots.

That’s because Sands, and most Pennsylvania land-based casinos for that matter, offer some pretty lousy returns on slot games. In Fiscal Year 2015/16, slots at Sands Bethlehem returned just 89.9 percent to players.

By contrast, the casino features some of the best table game rules around, especially for its blackjack games, which allow for surrender, splits up to four hands, doubling down on any two cards, re-splitting aces, and most importantly, 3:2 payouts on blackjack.

The fear is that with MGM coming in, the table gaming climate would become far less hospitable. That’s because part of MGM’s Profit Growth Plan has been to increase the house edge on table games, and its favorite target has been blackjack.

These days, 6:5 payouts at low limit blackjack tables at MGM-branded venues in Maryland and Las Vegas have become the norm. Maryland’s gaming oversight board even went so far as to gift casinos far more flexibility in setting their payout tables and game rules.

PA rules unlikely to change

Fortunately, Pennsylvania looks to be holding steadfast in its conviction that casinos retain their player-friendly rules. In an interview with Player’s Advantage in December, PA Gaming Control Board Executive Director Kevin O’Toole had this to say:

“Our board has consistently recognized their responsibility to protect the gaming public in all aspects of legalized gaming. Part of that is to have rules of the game that provide an appropriate house advantage to the casino but something that still meets a standard of reasonableness and a standard of fairness. We’re pleased with how we have accomplished that in games that have been on the books since 2010.”

Then again, MGM will probably earn significant sway in Pennsylvania, especially if it promises to build up the undeveloped areas that neighbor the current Sands. Mark this change in the “Maybe” category.

Pennsylvania online gambling integration

To put it mildly, Las Vegas Sands and MGM Resorts are at polar ends of the spectrum when it comes to PA online gambling.

The CEO and Chairman of Las Vegas Sands is Sheldon Adelson. Adelson is the driving force behind the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling (CSIG), and the Restoration of America’s Wire Act (RAWA).

The CSIG has lobbied fiercely against pending legislation that would legalize online gambling in Pennsylvania.

By contrast, MGM is a proponent of online gambling expansion. The company recently rolled out real-money online casino tournaments in Nevada — the first to do so.

It is also exploring the possibility of launching a self-branded online poker and casino site in the New Jersey online gambling market.

If Pennsylvania legalizes online gambling by the time MGM closes on Sands, then it would presumably incorporate the vertical as part of its gaming strategy.

For players, that would likely mean the opportunity to accrue M life Rewards points online. Plus they could earn other incentives to visit the land-based casino from the comfort of their own homes. These could include discounted or free hotel stays, event tickets, and food and beverage comps.

And in the case that MGM enters the equation before online gambling legislation crosses finish line, the pro-iGaming side gains a powerful ally; one with enough pull to cause local lawmakers to take pause.

As per State Sen. Pat Brown (R-Lehigh) in a statement to the Morning Call:

“I know I would consider changing my opinion if a new player arrives on the scene with a different view of it. If MGM is the buyer, I’d like to know where they stand before I consider new legislation.”

Image courtesy of GTS Productions / Shutterstock.com

Robert DellaFave

About

In addition to being an ardent poker player, Robert DellaFave works as a contributor to and editor of several online publications dedicated to regulated US online gambling. Based in New Jersey, Robert also works as a game developer.