Are You Game? How Gaming and Sporting Events Are a ‘Big Win’ for Our Economy

by RaeAnne Marsh

Chase Field, courtesy of Arizona Diamondbacks

Gaming and sports have gone together for a long time; the new trend in sportsbooks brings it out of odds-makers’ back rooms and into prominent display.

A Powerhouse Punch on the Economy

“With nearly $2.8 billion wagered, the positive economic boosts from regulated sports wagering have been vast and should only trend upward as the market matures,” says Christopher Boan, analyst with BetArizona. “Sports wagering has contributed more than $8 million to state coffers, bolstering the economic impacts of COVID-19.” While the Department of Gaming does not release demographics on bettors, a survey conducted by BetArizona ahead of the market’s launch showed that nearly 22%, or one in five, Arizona adults were planning to place bets in the legal market. Boan believes this signals that Arizona residents, visitors and even those in neighboring states without access to legal betting — and he names California, Utah and New Mexico — are placing wagers in the state. 

“It has been over a year since Governor Ducey signed historic legislation expanding gaming in Arizona and I am pleased with results so far,” says Ted Vogt, director of the Arizona Department of Gaming. Noting that in 2021, gaming contributed nearly $130 million to the state and its cities, towns and counties, Vogt says, gaming in the state has a significant economic impact: “Tribal casinos and legal event wagering promote Arizona as a top tourist destination while supporting nearly 40,000 jobs.”

And Vogt reports that, since the start of legal event wagering (aka sports betting) on September 9th, 2021, there has been approximately $2.8 billion wagered in Arizona and $22 million in licensing and privilege fees contributed to the state general fund.

Regarding tribal gaming specifically, Vogt cites a 2016 study from the American Gaming Association in reporting that Arizona’s tribal casino gaming industry has an economic impact of $4.75 billion and supports nearly 40,000 jobs. He points out that Indian gaming not only provides dollars critical to promoting tribal economic development, but tribal contributions from gaming directly support instructional improvement for schools, trauma and emergency care, tourism and wildlife conservation, through the Arizona Benefits Fund. Since 2003, the tribal gaming industry has contributed more than $1.8 billion to the state and its cities, towns and counties. In FY2021 alone, Tribal contributions from gaming revenue to the state, cities, towns and counties totaled $110,390,007. 

With a presence that is greatly expanded since Arizona’s first permanent casino — Casino Arizona — opened in 2000, there are currently 16 Tribes operating 24 Class III facilities offering gaming that includes gaming devices, table games and keno. 

Robert Miguel, chairman of the Ak-Chin Indian Community who came on board to help lead this July edition of In Business Magazine as its Guest Editor, is the newly elected chair of the Arizona Indian Gaming Association. Noting that, in 2021, Tribal Gaming employed more than 20,000 Arizonans, Miguel says, “This industry has been the most successful economic venture of Tribes in Arizona and nationwide. As chair, I am dedicated to upholding the organization’s commitment to advancing the lives of Indian people and helping achieve their goal of self-reliance.” 

Says Treena Parvello, director of government and public relations for another AIGA member, Tohono O’odham Gaming Enterprise, “The extraordinary success of tribal gaming traces back to the vision and determination of tribal leaders from the Tohono O’odham Nation and across Arizona. Gaming is funding critical programs on tribal lands, creating jobs, and providing other benefits. Tribal gaming has also had enormous positive impacts for the state and local communities. 

Casino floor at Harrah’s Ak-Chin; courtesy of Harrah’s Ak-Chin

“The Tohono O’odham Gaming Enterprise, with nearly 40 years in the industry, has grown into an economic engine operating four Desert Diamond Casinos in two markets. With over 2,800 team members, and more on the way, Desert Diamond Casinos offers world-class entertainment while all revenues go to vital programs on the Tohono O’odham Nation. We are also proud to partner with hundreds of vendors across Arizona and to be a leading supporter of nonprofit programs in our communities.”

Much newer on the scene is Caesars Sportsbook, although its senior vice president of retail operations, David Grolman, notes that Caesars Entertainment has operated in Arizona for more than 25 years. “We’re proud of the economic impact we’ve generated in the state,” he says, emphasizing, “The launch of Caesars Sportsbook in September 2021 provided us another opportunity to contribute to the economy in Arizona and connect with even more Arizonans. When you combine Caesars Sportsbook with the legacy of Caesars’ premium entertainment experiences, it’s a special equation for us.” 

The granddaddy of our sporting events benefitting our economy is the Phoenix Open, now the WM Phoenix Open. Presented by the Thunderbirds, an organization founded in 1937 with the mission of promoting our Valley through sports, the Open has contributed more than $165 million just in charitable contributions from 1932 through 2021. Since 2010, when Waste Management became the title sponsor, the tournament has raised nearly $100 million for local charities. And the overall economic impact is more than $400 million. Impressive? Yes; in fact, the positive economic impact of the WM Phoenix Open is one of the largest for any golf event nationwide.

NASCAR has been seeing its fanbase growing. In fact, Phoenix Raceway opened in 1964, and its president, Julie Giese, says, “We just announced the earliest NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race sellout in our sport’s history. That wouldn’t be possible without the outpouring of support the community and our fans continue to show for events at our facility. They continue to make Phoenix Raceway a must-visit sports and entertainment destination, and our dedicated team will continue their tireless efforts to deliver a championship-caliber experience that our race fans will remember for years to come.”

Phoenix Raceway hosts two marquee NASCAR Cup Series weekends each year and is the home of NASCAR Championship Weekend in November. “Those events fuel an economic impact that surpasses $450 million, as residents and tourists alike enjoy the thrill that only NASCAR racing provides,” Giese says.

She cites compelling reasons for the robust economic impact. “With more than 5,400 campsites throughout our 300-acre-plus GEICO Gecko Campgrounds, many of our fans arrive on property the Monday of race week and stay through Sunday’s action. That generates a boost to businesses throughout Avondale and the entire Valley during March and November.” 

The Fiesta Bowl also declares a mission to create a positive economic impact for Arizona. While that impact takes many forms, Fiesta Bowl Board Chair Randal Norton notes it is primarily in the hospitality and tourism industry, including hotels room nights, rental cars, restaurants, exhibits and the many amazing attributes that Arizona has to offer. “When fans and tourists travel in town for the Fiesta Bowl and Guaranteed Rate Bowl, they also take in outdoor activities like hiking and golf as well as partake in the amazing restaurants, unique adventures and excursions to many Arizona destinations,” Norton says. “During Bowl Season, we easily deliver more than 7,000 hotel room nights annually to properties across the Valley.”

According to Norton, Fiesta Bowl events over the past 13 years have driven more than $3 billion in economic impact to the state. “And we continue to prioritize positive economic impact and experiences in the events we stage and for fans, community and the universities that participate in our Bowl games. The Fiesta Bowl has been interwoven in our community for more than 50 years, be it community engagement, charitable giving, hospitality, volunteerism and delivering fan-friendly events that benefit The Valley and the State of Arizona.”

Predating Fiesta Bowl by 24, Cactus League has been an important driver in Arizona’s tourism economy since 1947. Executive Director Bridget Binsbacher shares, “In 2018, the last full season studied, an ASU study reported that the Cactus League generated $644.2 million in economic impact and $373 million for Arizona’s Gross Domestic Product. ASU researchers called the Cactus League a ‘mega sporting event’ on par with the Super Bowl — but one that happens every spring.”

Cactus League game at Camelback Ranch in Glendale; courtesy of Cactus League

While those numbers declined during the 2020 COVID-shortened season, they were still strong considering the all the restrictions we were experiencing at the time: $363.6 million in economic impact and $213.7 million for Arizona’s Gross Domestic Product.

“About six in 10 Cactus League fans come from out of state, and most say it is the sole or primary reason for visiting Arizona, according to multiple ASU studies,” Binsbacher says. “Our fan base stretches across all four U.S. time zones — from Cleveland to San Diego and Cincinnati to Seattle.” She notes it is an incredibly loyal fan base, as the 2018 study found that more than a third of all Cactus League fans had been attending spring training in the desert for at least five years.

“While all 10 Cactus League ballparks are in Maricopa County, there is a statewide benefit,” Binsbacher continues. “Nearly a third of out-of-state fans said they would visit another part of Arizona during their trip, according to the 2020 ASU study.”

Cactus League teams — with the notable exception of the Arizona Diamondbacks – have their home base in other cities. But Phoenix is home to sports teams in all the major professional leagues. The newest addition to our roster is Phoenix Rising, launched as Arizona United Soccer Club in 2014 and rebranded to its current name in 2017.

And it is increasing its presence. Says General Manager Bobby Dulle, “Phoenix Rising FC increased its stadium capacity from 6,000 to 10,000 in 2021 by moving to Wild Horse Pass in Chandler.” And he reports that, despite operating at reduced capacity due to COVID-19 for the first three months of last season, Rising enjoyed its highest single-season attendance and is on pace to surpass that total in 2022. “The increase in attendance and exposure led to Phoenix Rising having a greater economic impact in Chandler and the Gila River Indian Community’s Wild Horse Pass.”

Phoenix Rising FC game at the Wild Horse Pass Stadium in Phoenix; courtesy of Phoenix Rising

Creating New and Unique Experiences

Dulle says the team has seen an increase in families among its fanbase since moving to Chandler last year. Accordingly, Rising plans to roll out something new this year, thanks to its partners at Northern Arizona University: the NAU family four pack. “Families can attend a match for an affordable rate and have their food, beverages and parking all included for $80.”

Giese credits much of Phoenix Raceway’s current success to the investment made in the venue’s fan experience. Phoenix Raceway completed a $178 million renovation in 2018 that transformed its one-mile racetrack into a world-class sports and entertainment destination. “We reimagined the NASCAR fan experience from top to bottom, with new seats and amenities that brought them closer to the action than ever before,” she says. 

“Take, for example, our FanShield Infield Experience,” Giese continues. “It allows race fans to walk directly inside the garages as the world’s top drivers and mechanics prepare their state-of-the-art race cars. Allow me to put that in perspective for you: On NASCAR Cup Series Championship Sunday, this is the equivalent to walking through your favorite football team’s locker room hours before the Super Bowl. No other sport can boast such access and it sets us apart on so many levels.”

The Raceway also put in a pedestrian tunnel dubbed the “Tunnel of Triumph” that connects the FanShield Infield Experience with the Midway. As Giese eagerly explains, “As they stroll through the tunnel, our fans are treated to a multimedia display that pays homage to the history of our sport and Phoenix Raceway. Fans can stop and have their picture taken next to plaques of all the NASCAR Cup Series winners in Phoenix Raceway history.

“Once inside the Midway, fans are presented signature dining options, compelling entertainment and interactive displays for the whole family.” The cornerstone of that Midway is The Barn brewed by Busch Light, a world-class party destination that features live music, entertainment and appearances from NASCAR Cup Series drivers past and present.

When NASCAR isn’t in town, Phoenix Raceway remains a vibrant and active sports and entertainment destination. Thanks to Relentless Beats, it has become a top Valley concert venue that features some of the world’s top Electronic Dance Music acts and shows, including the popular Phoenix Lights festival. These shows have introduced Phoenix Raceway to an entirely new demographic, and Giese believes that would not have been possible without the investment in the overall fan experience.

Caesars Sportsbook at Chase Field; courtesy of Caesars Entertainment

Additionally, Giese says, “We’ve also become home to the popular RideNow Off-Road Expo, which is coming back Oct. 15-16. And our facility is now the host of Arizona Tough Mudder and Spartan races which are popular events for endurance athletes in The Valley and nationwide.” 

The Fiesta Bowl can proudly claim credit for many innovations since its inception in 1971, although many can’t be categorized as unique anymore since they have been so widely adopted. Norton notes the Fiesta Bowl was the first major bowl game to have a title partner, create a national championship college football game, develop a program to financially support teachers across the state, sponsor diversity programs and scholarships and deliver the highest annual charitable giving of any Bowl organization. He points out the Fiesta Bowl has had success in using dozens of non-football events, such as the Section 7 Basketball Tournament, as ways for companies to integrate with the Fiesta Bowl organization, the community, fans, beneficiaries and partners. “These,” he says, “are just a few examples of why The Fiesta Bowl Is More Than Just a Game®.”

Binsbacher points out that Cactus League, in recent years, moved up its season opening to mid-to-late February. “Many out-of-state visitors pour into Arizona during spring break, so the early start means there are often plenty of tickets available for local residents,” she explains.

As a spring training center, Cactus League is virtually unique to start with, as there is only one other spring training location in the country. But additionally, says Binsbacher, “I believe that part of the charm of the Cactus League is that all 10 ballparks are unique — and they’re all within an hour’s drive of each other, so visiting fans can easily sample numerous parks on one trip. That’s a big difference from Florida’s Grapefruit League, which has spring training sites all over the state.”

Derrick Hall, Diamondbacks president and CEO, shared with us news that has since become hot headlines locally: “The Diamondbacks and Caesars recently opened not only the largest freestanding sportsbook in Arizona, but also the largest retail sportsbook in a major sports stadium in the country. Visitors are also treated to Guy Fieri’s DTPHX Kitchen + Bar at Caesars Sportsbook, the first-ever full-service restaurant by the world-famous chef. The combination of the premier sportsbook in Arizona and the Guy Fieri-concept restaurant makes the new downtown venue a must-visit destination.”

Speaking with us in May about the sportsbook, Grolman said, “Our offerings continue to evolve as we strive to deliver on the promise of treating all of our customers like royalty. With Caesars Sportsbook, we’re constantly improving our tech offering and looking at ways to leverage our great partnerships, like the one we have with the Arizona Diamondbacks, for unique experiences that our sports bettors can enjoy. Our sportsbook is the only one in the state that provides unforgettable experiences through the best customer loyalty program in the U.S., Caesars Rewards. The unmatched experiences that our customers enjoy will culminate with the opening of Caesars Sportsbook at Chase Field, complete with a Guy Fieri restaurant concept.” 

Sports betting was authorized in Arizona in April 2021. Regulations were adopted by the Arizona Department of Gaming in June 2021 and sports betting was first offered live in Arizona in September 2021, commencing with the start of the National Football League season. Sports betting was authorized as part of a comprehensive “modernization” of the Tribal-state compact, which addresses Tribal Government Gaming in Arizona. Under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, sports betting is considered a Class III game because it is house banked, putting it in the same category as slot machines, blackjack and betting on horse races. 

Sports betting is offered both on-reservation at Tribal casinos and off-reservation through mobile wagering, at select retail outlets located in or near qualifying professional sports venues, and at limited event wagering operations offering off-track betting or horse racing. 

AIGA expects the newly authorized games at Tribal casinos will also enhance the patron experience. New games such as baccarat, roulette, craps, sic bo, dealer controlled electronic table games, event wagering (sports betting), and fantasy sports contests will provide Tribal casinos with the opportunity to match the Las Vegas experience and atmosphere. 

Vogt reports that, five months after commencement of sports betting, Arizona surpassed the $2 billion mark in all-time handle, making it one of the fastest states to accomplish the feat. “This hot start to sports betting in the state has helped establish Arizona as a top-ten market nationally,” he says.

The Arizona Department of Gaming announced in June that event wagering levels had skyrocketed in March, resulting in an approximate 40% increase in handle when compared to the February handle. Figures that became available for that month showed event wagering operators accepted more than $690 million in wagers during March, resulting in approximately $1.7 million in privilege fees being contributed to the state. “March was an exciting month for Arizona event wagering, with major sporting events like NCAA’s March Madness helping set a single month event wagering handle record,” Vogt says. “I look forward to seeing how the industry continues to develop as we finish out the first year of legal event wagering in the coming months.” 

Looking at the industry overall, Boan says, “Arizona’s unique success can be largely attributed to the diverse offering of betting platforms. The state is able to offer so many options due to the large number of licenses awarded to both tribal and non-tribal entities, such as sports teams. With arena kiosks, mobile apps and retail sportsbooks, Arizona bettors have plenty of access to make safe, regulated wagers.”

Betting on Changes to Come

“We can expect Arizona’s sports betting scene to see continued growth through the addition of retail and mobile operators at various casinos and sporting venues in the state,” says Boan. “The market will likely cool off over the summer, as we see in nearly all markets, before picking back up this fall for NFL and college football, establishing Arizona as one of the top five markets for sports betting in the country, behind only New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Nevada.”

Grolman, however, speaking in May, saw summer as a hot time. “This summer couldn’t be more of an exciting time for our presence in Arizona as we look forward to opening a state-of-the-art 20,000 square foot restaurant and sportsbook concept — Guy Fieri’s Kitchen + Bar at Caesars Sportsbook. The new venue, adjacent to Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, will raise the bar for what a sportsbook and restaurant can be. Guy Fieri’s Kitchen + Bar at Caesars Sportsbook will be a place for more than just sports fans and we’re thrilled to invest in Arizona to bring an elevated venue to the downtown Phoenix area with our partners the D-backs.”

Hall emphasizes that the goal of the Diamondbacks organization, year-in-and-year out, is to give its fans the best experience and multiple entertainment options, and believes the partnership with Caesars Entertainment raises the bar to another level with the opening of Caesars Sportsbook at Chase Field. “The sportsbook and restaurant showcases the D-backs’ investment in downtown Phoenix, and will serve the community, along with its visitors, as a new fun and clean entertainment venue,” Hall says. “The new joint venture, which has created numerous year-round jobs, will draw sports bettors and non-sports bettors to this best-in-class space.”

AIGA will be celebrating this year the 20th anniversary of the passage of Proposition 202. Prop 202 was passed in 2002, allowing Tribal Gaming to continue on Tribal lands and enabling non-gaming Tribes living in remote areas of the state to benefit from gaming revenue. It also established the Arizona Benefits Fund, providing a system for a percentage of shared revenue to benefit Arizona. As discussed previously, passage of new legislation on April 15, 2022, also allowed for the 2021 Amended Tribal-State Gaming Compacts to include new gaming activities. 

AIGA is looking forward to soon reaching $2 billion in total revenues contributed to the State of Arizona. These revenues will continue to benefit education, trauma and emergency services, wildlife conservation, tourism and cities, towns and counties throughout the state of Arizona. 

The current Tribal membership of Arizona Indian Gaming Association includes Ak-Chin Indian Community, Cocopah Indian Tribe, Fort Yuma Quechan Tribe, Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians, San Carlos Apache Tribe, Tohono O’odham Nation, White Mountain Apache Tribe, and Pueblo of Zuni. And recently, AIGA re-opened its Associate Member Program, inviting businesses to join and put their name and business in front of Tribal leadership, decision-makers and casino management in support of Tribal gaming, also offering them opportunities to meet with Tribal leaders and network with casino executives, among other benefits. 

And Vogt reports that the Arizona Department of Gaming recently completed an event wagering rulemaking review and published the final version of the rules. “In the coming months,” he says, “several locations throughout the state will begin retail event wagering operations at their facilities, further expanding legal betting options for Arizonans.”

Ahead of the soccer season now in play, Dulle told In Business Magazine that Phoenix Rising had attracted a record number of sponsors for this 2022 season, which he credited to “the growth and increased atmosphere at our games.” Phoenix Rising Stadium at Wild Horse pass nearly doubled the franchise’s capacity. Other improvements, thanks to investment from the Gila River Indian Community, are expedited ingress and egress, an additional training field for the pro team and academy, an onsite front office and a duel-sided video board. 

For Cactus League, anticipation of the next season is also high. Acknowledging that the past three years were a trying time for the League’s host municipalities and stakeholders in Arizona’s spring training industry, Binsbacher says, “In baseball, there is a saying: ‘Wait ’til next year.’ With a new collective bargaining agreement in place, we are all hoping for a return to normal in 2023 — the first ‘normal’ season in four years.”

Giese notes Phoenix Raceway has already had the honor of announcing that NASCAR Championship Weekend will return to here in 2023. This, she says, “is proof positive that NASCAR racing is alive and well in the Valley.”

Continually looking at ways to expand its camping capacity to meet what Giese terms “the torrid demand,” the Raceway is expanding into the glamping space to provide fans with high-quality, turn-key options that don’t require a camper or motorhome. 

“What’s more,” Giese says, “we’re planning for accelerated growth in the live music space after seeing the tremendous success of the Relentless Beats shows. The support we are seeing here is reinforcing our reputation as a top-notch sports and entertainment destination, and we can’t wait to see what the future holds for us here.”

Giese is also excited about the growth potential of sports gaming, noting that in 2021, Barstool Sportsbook became the exclusive sportsbook of Phoenix Raceway and began offering access online in the State of Arizona. “This initiative has furthered our mission of redefining the way we engage with fans and connect with new audiences.” Long-term plans include building a physical sportsbook on property as Phoenix Raceway continues its growth across multiple areas.

“Most importantly, we’ll continue to provide the high level of service and engagement that Phoenix Raceway guests have come to expect and deserve,” Giese says. “We host major events in a region that’s synonymous with major events, and we look forward to raising the bar in the years to come.” 

Speaking from a strategic standpoint, Norton says Fiesta Bowl is looking at what is expected to be a dynamic future for collegiate Bowl Season organizations and how the Fiesta Bowl positions itself to elevate in college football as well as within the community. “We are involved in discussions with our partners and stakeholder to help shape and support the future, which most likely will include a playoff expansion, more immersive fan experiences, evolving technologies and customer demands,” Norton says. “Our goal is to secure our position as the top bowl destination in the nation and to deliver an exceptional experience at every interaction. 

“Our evolution and adaptation will enable us to continue to drive economic impact and positively influence our communities.”

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