Stakeholder Ready For Arkansas Online Casino Conversations

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Saracen Casino Resort is ready to begin Arkansas online casino discussions in hopes of eliminating unregulated operators in the state.

Saracen Chief Marketing Officer Carlton Saffa sent a letter last month to the Arkansas Racing Commission to let the regulator know the company is ready to have discussions to legalize Arkansas online casino. Saffa told LSR Wednesday the letter was “simply a request to start a conversation that needs to occur on their timeline.”

“[Unregulated operators] are a serious issue, and we want to address it,” Saffa said. “We look forward to visiting the commission about a problem, which is unlicensed, unregulated and untaxed real-money gaming occurring in Arkansas today. You need a legitimate alternative because there is consumer demand for this.”

Along with a Las Vegas-style casino in Pine Bluff, Saracen also operates BetSaracen, one of three online Arkansas sportsbooks.

What is driving Saracen’s concern?

While illegal online casinos are the main concern, Saffa said it was “sportsbooks booking player props masquerading as DFS operators” that initially got his attention. In February, Arkansas sent a cease and desist to PrizePicks and Underdog to shutter their pick’em products. Both websites still show Arkansas as a live market for their pick’em products.

“We follow OSB policy closely, it’s become our second-largest line item behind slots,” Saffa said. “We monitor this closely. So, that got us thinking, the state has limited capacity to shut down folks operating outside the scope; what else is out there?”

While irked by the DFS products, Saffa said real-money online options, like the sweepstakes-modeled Chumba Casino, are a bigger problem. Saffa believes the best option is to provide regulated options for online gambling.

Simple change for online casino?

Saffa said the process of legalizing online casinos will be similar to online sports betting, which is a “fairly simple” rule change by the ARC. In his letter to the commission, Saffa provided an identical definition to West Virginia online casino.

In Arkansas, sports betting is considered a casino game, so to go online, the ARC needed to change its geographic scope beyond the casinos. For online casinos, Saffa said the state already allows online poker, so the ARC can amend that rule to include other casino games. The Arkansas legislature would need to ratify the rule change.

“In Arkansas, you can do poker and sports betting anywhere in the state,” he said. “We have an amendment that says let’s take that interactive framework for poker and add in all other games.”

Saffa said Saracen plans to use live dealers. He said Saracen’s online casino offerings could contribute $12 million in state taxes annually.

When could Arkansas online casino happen?

While Saffa wants Saracen’s online casino products as quickly as possible, he said he understands the ARC has a bigger topic in mind. The state has three casinos, but there is a fourth license available.

The process for that license is caught up in litigation, Saffa said. When that issue is sorted out, Saffa hopes online casino takes center stage.

“This conversation will be ripe for discussion when there is clarity on that,” he said. “The Pope County issue has taken the oxygen out of the room. While this is important, I believe sometimes you don’t want two big deals at one time.”

No concern for cannibalization

While multiple states considered online casino legislation this year, there was no successful effort. Many of the arguments against the issue include brick-and-mortar cannibalization, including in Maryland.

Saffa said he does not believe it cannibalizes in-person revenue.

“We’re in the middle of a $250 million addition,” he said. “If we believed for a moment it would cannibalize revenue, we would go all digital and not invest that.”

Arkansas sports betting OK without top operators

Online Arkansas sports betting went live March 2022. However, because of a rule requiring operators to share 51% of sports betting revenue with Arkansas casinos, no major US sportsbooks are in the state.

Saffa said in a big month, BetSaracen will take more than $20 million in wagers.

The other Arkansas sportsbooks are Betly and Oaklawn Sports. In March 2024, Arkansas sportsbooks took $50 million in wagers, generating $3.4 million in sports betting revenue. That sent $510,490 to the state in taxes.