Will blockbuster casinos go the way of Blockbuster?

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A story on the front page of this newspaper Nov. 24 outlined the proliferation of casinos within 170 miles from Washington. The 11 that are either operating or due to open in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia are nibbling away relentlessly at each other’s bottom lines in an example of what the Observer-Reporter’s business writer Rick Shrum aptly described as “contemporary cannibalism, a latter-day Malling of America.”

Now, even as casinos become ubiquitous and chase a limited number of gamblers, they face a potential threat that could prove to be even more grave than an over-saturated marketplace – online gambling.

So far, only Nevada, Delaware and New Jersey have approved online gambling, with the latter having made games available on the Internet late last month. The Garden State is looking to online gambling to prop up Atlantic City’s tottering casino business, which has seen revenue decline by half in the last seven years. The online games operate under the aegis of the casinos and, advocates say, they keep the proceeds in the country and in the communities where the casinos are located, rather than drifting offshore to the netherworld of unregulated sites.

After having recently approved a bill allowing small games of chance in bars across Pennsylvania, lawmakers in Harrisburg are considering adding online gambling to the menu of ways the commonwealth’s citizens can have the change rattled loose from their pockets.

They should look long and hard before they leap.

Observers of the gambling industry are divided on how online gambling will affect brick-and-mortar outlets, with some believing it will be negligible, and that the whole “experience” of going to a casino – of leaving your house, seeing other people and hearing the constant, insistent hum of the slot machines – will still be pre-eminent. Others, however, think it could be their death knell.

Sheldon Adelson, the magnate who owns the Sands Casino in Bethlehem along with other casinos in this country and elsewhere, is perhaps the most high-profile and outspoken of online gambling’s opponents. His protestations of online gambling being a harbinger of moral decay ring hollow from someone who has amassed a massive fortune from parting customers with chunks of their paychecks. But, in a recent article in Forbes magazine, Adelson said European casinos have seen decreasing numbers of visitors and have had to shed employees as a result of online gambling. He forecasts that “the hit on ... Native American casinos (and) the racetrack-casinos across the land could be substantial and even lead to their eventual demise.”

He added that “when gambling is available in every bedroom, every dorm room and every office space, there will be no way to fully determine that each wager has been placed in a rational and consensual manner.”

To us, this brings to mind Blockbuster Video. For close to 20 years, the chain’s outlets were here, there and everywhere, as readily accessible as McDonald’s or Subway restaurants. Then, the easy availability of video-on-demand and online movie rentals effectively cashiered Blockbuster, as it did most other video stores. When it was announced last month that Blockbuster was bringing the curtain down for keeps, most people were surprised it was still even around.

Those Blockbuster stores that once seemed so shiny and enticing are now boarded up and waiting to be retrofitted for some other enterprise or, perhaps, the wrecking ball. Such a development would have been unthinkable in 1988.

Does the same fate await all those neon-lit casinos cropping up on the landscape? We wonder.

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