Nevada gambling regulators on Thursday voted to allow the world's largest casino company to do business with a Gibraltar company that offers online wagering, marking the first time state officials have blessed a tie to Internet gambling despite the industry's murky legal status.
The Nevada Gaming Commission approved the relationship between Caesars Entertainment Corp. and 888 Holdings PLC, which runs online casinos in the United Kingdom and is publicly traded on the London stock exchange.
The approval came the same day as Nevada lawmakers in Carson City held an initial hearing on a bill that would legalize Internet poker statewide — a bill pushed by a top poker website and opposed by top gambling companies including Caesars, which wants federal legislation instead.
"Whether this bill passes or not, there's going to be pressure on this board and this commission to authorize Internet gaming," Commissioner Randolph Townsend told a Caesars executive just before joining others in unanimous approval of the business tie.
"This is the first of perhaps many relationships that will be developed over time," Townsend said near the end of the two-hour hearing.
The tie allows Caesars, which owns more than 50 casinos in several countries including Caesars Palace and the annual World Series of Poker, to work with 888 to run online gambling sites in the United Kingdom, and free-money sites in other jurisdictions using Caesars brands.
Caesars has been considering online gambling for years, and is positioning itself to be ready in case lawmakers eventually make online gambling legal in the United States.
"The UK is not the end of our plan or our vision," said Mitch Garber, chief executive of Caesars subsidiary Caesars Interactive Entertainment.
Caesars and 888 executives and lawyers told the commission they have been careful in assessing their relationship and the legalities of Internet gambling. 888 stopped offering online wagers in the United States after a federal law in 2006 made it illegal.
Gigi Levy, chief executive of 888, said worldwide online gambling revenue is expected to be $24.2 billion in 2011, and reach $26.1 billion in 2012. He said sports wagering accounts for 41 percent of that, while casino games make up 23 percent and poker 19 percent.
The $4.6 billion online poker industry is 60 percent controlled by the top two operators, Levy said.
Those operators, PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker, have been helping push the Nevada legislation after a last-minute federal effort by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid fell short in December.
Reid's legislation was different from the bill proposed in Nevada in that it would have punished sites that offered gambling to Americans after 2006 by making it tougher for them to get a license under new regulations.
Garber declined to comment on the specifics of the Nevada bill, but said hearings in New Jersey, California and Nevada, as well on the federal level, show the movement is picking up momentum.
"As a company, you clearly know that we have been lobbying and are in favor of legalized and taxable online gaming," Garber said. "We see this all as a very positive development for online gaming and we intend to be at the forefront of all these developments."
The privately held Caesars lost $196.7 million during the fourth quarter ending Dec. 31, on revenue of $2.12 billion.