Tribal gaming income up slightly, study says

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MIAMI (MCT) - Gaming income from the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes; eight Florida casinos are a closely guarded secret, with the only known certainties being that Indian gaming has grown over the years and the state had not received one cent from it until this year.

Those are among the findings published in Casino City's Indian Gaming Industry Report, an annual economic study of Native casinos nationwide and one of the few available insights into the finances of the Seminoles and Miccosukees.

Florida's tribal casinos, which are not required to report income in public, generated revenues of about $1.6 billion in 2007, the study reported. That was an increase of 2.3 percent over the $1.5 billion generated in 2006 - a significantly lower growth rate than in previous years, largely because of increased competition from the pari-mutuels.

''It went from where the tribes had no competitors in terms of casino gaming, like slot machines, to now having some competition,'' said the study's author, Alan Meister, an economist with Analysis Group, a private consulting firm.

Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the Seminole Tribe, declined to comment on the revenue estimates in the study but said that Meister is ''well respected'' in the industry.

In 2008, Indian gaming revenues are expected to increase significantly due to the addition of more lucrative Las Vegas-style slots and table games such as blackjack, Bitner said.

Indian gaming in Florida has experienced big changes in the past year, the biggest being the shift from Class II to Class III gaming, which began in January under a compact between Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Tribe.

HOUSE TAKES A FEE

Class II gaming is regulated by federal and tribal entities, and includes bingo and card games such as poker, in which players compete against each other and the house takes a fee. Class II slot machines are bingo-based video gaming machines.

Class III is representative of Las Vegas-style gaming and generally includes games in which players compete against the house, including slot machines, blackjack and table games such as roulette and craps.

Class III slots are preferred by customers and casinos - and they generate greater revenue for casinos.

The Seminoles' first Class III slots began operating at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino near Hollywood in January - and Bitner projects they will boost Indian gaming revenues in 2008.

''Since the slot machines have been added to now six of the seven Seminole casinos,'' Bitner said, ''the numbers are up significantly and they've gone up in every location where the slot machines have been added.''

Only the Seminoles' Big Cypress site still uses Class II machines. The Miccosukees offer only Class II machines and gaming.

Under the compact with Crist, the Seminoles also received so-called house-banked games such as blackjack, baccarat and pai-gow poker - but only at the Seminole Hard Rock near Hollywood and only since June.

''Those numbers are obviously going to be significant in terms of 2008,'' Bitner predicted.

BEHIND THE NUMBERS

The Seminoles operate seven of the eight Indian casinos across the state, including two near Hollywood and one in Coconut Creek; the Miccosukees operate one casino, in Southwest Miami-Dade.

Under the compact with Crist, the Seminoles agreed to submit annual revenue information to an independent financial auditor - in part because the state's future share of gaming revenues will be based on the tribe's net win from gaming.

Until then, Meister's annual study, now in its seventh edition, has been among the most relied-upon sources for Indian gaming industry data.

CONFIDENTIAL DATA

Meister said he arrived at his estimates by researching publicly available state and federal studies, newspaper accounts, and other information. He also receives confidential data from Indian tribes across the country, though he declined to identify those tribes. He also declined to comment on his sources for Florida Indian gaming data.

The study is paid for by those who purchase it from the publisher, Casino City Press, Meister said. It sells for $249 (or $275 for the book and CD versions) at www.indiangamingreport.com.

Customers who buy the report range from Indian tribes, government regulators and gaming companies to investment banks and academics, Meister said. ''So it's truly independent,'' he said.

Meister's Indian gaming report does not take into account the social costs of gaming, such as potential addiction and crime, he said.

But he makes no apologies for the study's conclusions, either, such as that Indian gaming has positive economic benefits for communities, especially rural ones.

''It is a net benefit,'' he said of Indian gaming. ''It is what it is.''

Las Vegas-style slot machines began operating at Broward County horse and dog racetracks in early 2007, and that summer Florida granted the pari-mutuels longer operating hours, more slot machines and higher stakes for poker, as well as permitting ATMS on-site.

50 PERCENT TAX

But the pari-mutuels also are regulated by the state, and they pay a 50 percent gaming tax on casino-related revenues, such as slots and card games.

The only government agency in Florida to receive a direct payment from an Indian casino in 2007 was the city of Coconut Creek, which collected about $2,000 from the Seminole Tribe, which operates a casino there.

Otherwise, Florida has not reaped any revenue from Indian casinos in the past, though that will change for 2008.

To date, the state has received $60 million of a scheduled $100 million payment from the Seminole Tribe under a revenue-sharing compact that gave the tribe the same Las Vegas-style slot machines as the pari-mutuels, and added exclusive table games such as blackjack and baccarat.

Copyright (c) 2008, The Miami Herald. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.