TUNICA, Miss. — As he drove through town in his black Crown Victoria, Chuck Cariker, the mayor of Tunica, pointed out the gifts that he said gambling had bestowed upon his town. The town hall. The recreation center. The post office. The police station. The roads. Even the car.
When Cariker says “gambling put us on the map,” it is only modest overstatement.
But in recent years, the Tunica area’s aging casinos have struggled to fend off competition from local rivals and failed to attract young people. Casinos have closed. Residents have moved away.
Then last year, town leaders got new hope when Mississippi became one of the first states to allow sports betting after the Supreme Court struck down a law that had effectively banned it in most states.
The vast majority of states have shied away from permitting such gambling and tapping into the nation’s illegal sports gambling market, estimated to be worth $150 billion. But in places like Tunica, where people began legally betting on sports in August, the results, so far, have been underwhelming.
The reluctance of state lawmakers, gambling analysts say, is based on a growing consensus that legal sports betting may not bring the windfall that economic forecasters predicted only a few months ago.
“There were a lot of people who didn’t know what they were talking about,” said Allen Godfrey, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, which oversees the sports betting ventures around Tunica.
Since the Supreme Court’s decision last May, which raised the prospect of hundreds of millions in new tax revenue, just six states have given final approval to allow legal sports betting. In a seventh state, New Mexico, Native American tribes have begun offering sports betting with federal approval.
In all, about a dozen states are considering sports gambling bills. But lawmakers and gambling analysts say only two or three of those states are likely to approve sports betting this legislative session, in part because of disappointing experiences in states where betting was recently made legal.
West Virginia, for instance, has collected only one-fourth of the monthly tax revenue it projected. Pennsylvania and Mississippi have received only about half of the tax revenue they had anticipated, according to data from those states.
Rhode Island has done even worse: State budget officials had assumed that sports betting would bring in nearly $1 million a month, but only about $50,000 is coming in each month.
New Jersey, however, has been a bright spot. The state has brought in more than $2 billion since sports betting was legalized about 10 months ago. The vast majority of the bets there have come from smartphones or online, not allowed in most of the other states that have recently approved sports betting.
The nation’s three most populous states — California, Florida and Texas — have dropped plans to legalize sports betting for many reasons, including worries about undercutting Native American tribes that operate casinos.
Tribal officials say legal sports betting will cut into their gambling profits, and ultimately reduce the money their casinos send to state governments each year. Those funds have become crucial revenue sources for states including California, Connecticut, Florida, Michigan and Minnesota.
A year after the Supreme Court’s ruling, the disappointing results of sports betting have perhaps been felt nowhere more profoundly than in Tunica, a Mississippi Delta town of about 900 residents that had once been among the poorest places in the nation in terms of per capita income.
The area’s seven casinos sit just outside town limits, but they play an outsize role in nearly every aspect of daily life in Tunica, including providing two-thirds of the town’s annual revenue. As part of a complex formula worked out between the casinos and the state, the town receives a percentage of revenue earned by the casinos.
Along Tunica’s Main Street, there is a bank, a grocery and an antique shop alongside a few empty storefronts. The residential sections include well-tended homes shaded by oak trees, but also tiny shotgun shacks.
Before casinos arrived in 1993, the unemployment rate in Tunica County was more than 26%. And when the town of Tunica was known by outsiders, it was for an embarrassing relic of its past — an open sewer called Sugar Ditch, which ran through town. “60 Minutes” once documented the poverty.
But legalized gambling brought change.
Cotton and rice fields were transformed into casinos. Raw sewage stopped flowing into Sugar Ditch. The town began to modernize.
Early on, tourists waited for up to four hours outside casinos. Highway 61 from Memphis had to be widened to four lanes. Charter jets began arriving at the airport, and the runways were lengthened.
At the time, Mississippi trailed only Nevada and New Jersey as a gambling destination, and the Tunica area’s shiny new casinos were the big draw. As recently as 2006, Tunica’s casinos took in more than $1.2 billion in revenue.
But within a few years, people began to stay away. The largest casino, Harrah’s Tunica, closed in 2014. Nearly 1,000 people lost their jobs. Retail stores in the area soon closed, too.
As the revenue stream from casinos shrunk, so did the town’s budget. The annual budget for the town of Tunica was about $5 million in 2009. This year, it was $3.5 million.
The effect has been devastating: The county’s poverty rate — particularly among African Americans — has crept up. Over the past decade, the number of workers employed by the town has decreased to 34 from 65.
Some residents have long been skeptical about the morality of gambling. Some pastors tell parishioners that the gamblers helping to save the town are committing a sin.
Cariker, who said he does not gamble, said Tunica has long held a dual nature — rural, religious and conservative, but also inexorably tied to gambling.
“It’s strange being mayor of a town where people are dead set against it, but we’re dependent on gambling, in the middle of the Bible Belt,” he said. “The casinos brought something to Tunica to get us out of a hole.”
Sports betting, which Mississippi began to allow in August, fueled new optimism in Tunica.
But in January, only months into Tunica’s foray into sports betting, the casino at the Tunica Roadhouse, owned by Caesars Entertainment, closed because of a lack of business. Four hundred more jobs vanished.
So far, sports betting revenue has brought in only half of what Tunica officials had expected. State tax revenue from Tunica’s casinos, about $630 million annually, is just a fraction of what it once was.
In all, some 14,000 people worked in the area’s casinos in 2001 compared with 4,300 now. Competition has cropped up from a gambling complex in Arkansas.
“A lot of things happened at the same time, and unfortunately, Tunica got caught in the middle,” Godfrey said.
On a recent weekday afternoon, only a trickle of people came to bet on the games at the Horseshoe Tunica, where employees recording sports wagers were dressed in referee uniforms. There were offerings for baseball, hockey, NASCAR, boxing, Major League Soccer, the Bundesliga, and the Masters Golf Tournament. Most people were making small bets of $10 or so.
Pete Polkowski, 68 and from Iowa, came to bet on the NCAA basketball tournament and decided to stay a few extra days in the casino’s hotel to try his luck at other sports. He was fixated on a television set showing an early season game between the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays. No one else was watching.
“I come in the morning, look at the betting lines, go back to my hotel room and study for a couple of hours,” he said. His strategy, he said, had paid off, though he declined to say how much he had won.
R. Scott Barber, regional president of Caesars Mid-South and chairman of the Tunica Tourism Commission, acknowledged that the crowds the casinos had hoped for had not materialized. But he said it was premature to judge whether sports betting had been a failure. Barber said there had been some positive signs, including a group that had driven five hours from St. Louis to bet on a St. Louis Cardinals game.
“We’re fairly pleased early on,” he said. “It takes time. We’re starting to see some growth for the first time in 10 years, so I think the market has bottomed out and sports betting will help drive that growth.”
Many gamblers never make it to Tunica’s downtown shops, and Cariker says he is still devising ways to get them to visit and spend money.
“My job is to bring them 10 minutes south to see what we have in town,” he said. He sighed, and for a moment, his optimism dissolved. “That’s a real challenge.”