After five years as CEO of the American Gaming Association (AGA), it didn’t take Geoff Freeman long to return to a senior role within gaming.
While the 43-year-old's full-time job now sees him leading the Grocery Manufacturers Association as President and CEO, Freeman was recently appointed to the board of directors at supplier AGS.
After the appointment, he spoke exclusively with Gambling Insider, reflecting on his time with the AGA, uniting an industry and the future of US casinos. But not before AGS President and CEO David Lopez explained his delight at welcoming Freeman.
He told Gambling Insider: "Geoff is a great addition to our board. We have worked with him on a number of initiatives and he has attended and spoken at all three of our GameON Customer Summits.
"We know Geoff well, and not only is he a great cultural fit for AGS, he brings a depth of knowledge and experience from across the hospitality spectrum that will be invaluable to us as we continue our growth and look at ways to add more value for our shareholders, customers, and partners. We are honoured, and frankly excited, to continue our relationship with Geoff; his energy, passion, experience, and insights are important to AGS."
Read on for the full interview with Freeman below.
What most attracted you to join the board of directors at AGS?
First of all, I really appreciated the opportunity. I got to know David and the team during my time at the AGA. It’s a dynamic team. It’s a team that works hard but doesn’t take itself too seriously. I couldn’t have been more excited about the culture of the organisation and the way they’re thinking about the future of the industry. I had the great opportunity to meet a lot of people in the gaming industry during my time at the AGA. AGS always stood out to me, so this was a no brainer.
How would you sum up your time with the AGA?
It was tremendously rewarding. I thoroughly enjoyed my five years with the AGA. What I’m most proud of is how we united an industry. We set some clear goals of what we wanted to achieve and we achieved those goals. That’s something I’m very proud of. I came into an organisation that, I think it’s fair to say, was a little more insular, a little more focused on the Las Vegas Strip. There were many manufacturers that were part of the organisation but didn’t feel like their voice were heard. That includes companies like AGS, who weren’t part of the organisation when I came in.
That was true with casino operators across the country, both commercial and tribal alike. So we united an industry, found common cause and set some very clear objectives. Beyond that, we achieved those objectives, whether it was the declaration on sports betting (the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act) being found unconstitutional, or the progress made on anti-money laundering issues. I left with great pride in what we achieved.
What gaming industry trends did you notice most during your tenure?
Quite frankly, what stood out to me was going around various casino floors and seeing the empty space, particularly in Las Vegas, and seeing the fact the business today is not what it used to be. What worked in the past obviously doesn’t work today; the consumer is more empowered than they were yesterday. They have many more options.
Gaming is no longer a novelty, it is relatively omnipresent. So, if you want to capture people’s imagination, you have to do it in a much different way. The requirement for the industry is to be nimble; the lifespan of slot machines, for example, is much, much shorter today. That forces the whole industry to think a little bit differently about how they adapt to the consumer and the investment made on the frontend of the product, because you’re not going to have as long of a time to recoup that investment. You’ve got to strike while the iron’s hot and give people what they’re looking for, before having the ability to quickly move on.
Let’s be honest, that’s not unique to the gaming industry at this point. That’s true of every industry, including the one I’ve moved over to in consumer-packaged goods. The consumer is now in charge. It’s really putting a lot of stress on these legacy companies. This is an industry, in some respects, that has relied on regulation over the years as a barrier to entry, thinking we can control the market. As the consumer is empowered, the more and more we can welcome disruption, as it’s the only way we'll capture their imagination.
What was the main difference between the industry when you took over at the AGA and when you left?
The biggest difference – and the one I’m proudest of – is the ability to work together. I used to comment that the foundation of any association is a rising tide lifts all ships. Folks in the gaming industry weren’t necessarily convinced of that. The collaboration muscle is not one that had been well exercised. This is an industry that had a "go-it-alone" approach, barring a crisis, for a long time. So the thing I’m most proud of is the ability to identify common cause, the willingness to work together and achieving great results while doing so.
It was the fall of 2013 when the head of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network came to G2E and told the industry she didn’t think they took their anti-money laundering compliance seriously. The reaction of our industry could have been to tell her to go fly a kite. I think, indeed, that would have been the industry’s reaction a certain time ago. But the industry took a much more collaborative, open-minded approach and, today, the casino industry is a model for anti-money laundering compliance. When I say the industry, it’s commercial, it’s tribal, it’s manufacturers, all identifying what we need to accomplish and saying "let’s go get it done."
You’ve had and still have a number of executive roles outside the gaming industry. How have they compared to working in gambling?
I’ve spent the past 13 years between gaming and the travel industry, working in some element of hospitality. There’s no doubt hospitality is very enjoyable. There’s a lot to love about it and there are aspects of it I’m already missing. The industry knows who it is, what its product is and it wakes up every day trying to give the customer a good experience. We’re not trying to save lives; we’re not being overly ambitious in terms of what our goal is. Our goal is to give a great experience to the customer and build a great business in the process.
You look at some of these other industries and the aspirations are a little bit different. That leads to some different thinking at times. But what stands out to me most, moving over to the industry I’m in now, is just the scale. We have 260 gaming jurisdictions in the US, we have upwards of a thousand casinos. But you compare that to the scale of the consumer-packaged goods industry I’ve moved into: I was at Procter & Gamble recently, just think of everywhere you can find a Gillette razor or a bar of Ivory Soap.
This industry, and the scale at which it operates, creates a whole new dynamic in terms of supply chain, how efficient you need to be and the detriment of bad policy. There’s been a lot of bad policy in the country. It destroys a business with very, very low margins and extraordinary scale. That’s been quite something to adapt to and it’s a different type of thinking as to where you can make a meaningful difference.
How will the casino market be affected by new competition in regulated sports betting?
I look at it as all upside, all opportunity. Not everybody looks at it that way; sometimes people see threats on a sunny day. I see all opportunity here with sports betting. At the AGA, we did what we set out to achieve, which was grow the pie and help the industry fight for its share. I think that’s the best thing an association can accomplish. We’re in the very early stages of a disrupted regulated sports betting market and you’re seeing a relationship with the leagues, broadcasters and sports bodies in general. Those relationships and the regulated markets are still in their infancy; we’re only up to a handful at this point.
There’s still plenty of opportunity for companies to get in on this because, for all the work that’s happening right now, some of it is going to fail. I continue to think the in-play sports betting market is where much of this market will go. There’s a tendency in the UK to look at some of the in-play markets and not get as excited about its potential. But I’m convinced the product in the US, particularly football and baseball, sets up for an in-play opportunity that is vastly different to what you can find in the UK. Soccer and some other sports don’t set up in the same way. So I think that in-play opportunity can fundamentally change the experience in stadiums, on the couch at home and within the casino environment.
That’s where I think there’s a role for the regulated industry to be an incredible disruptor. A lot of these companies stepping in, among them DraftKings, haven’t done so with their fabulous technology but more with their brand and their consumer identity. The company that steps forward with a unique product has a great opportunity.
What can be done to increase the discussion on online casino regulation?
For those passionate about online casino regulation, my honest opinion would be sit back and be patient. Allow sports betting to thrive, allow it to prove it can operate in a regulated market. I believe that will make people far more comfortable with the concept of online gaming. As sports betting becomes something more ubiquitous and proven to be safe, I think the comfort level of online gaming will increase. Let the market take care of itself as sports betting proves how it can work, in terms of issues such as age verification and responsible gaming.
You have to keep in mind the big difference between sports betting and online casinos in this environment is there are simply a lot more interested parties in sports betting. It’s not just casinos, it’s sporting bodies and broadcasters. That’s why I recognise we should sit back and let sports betting prove itself, seeing what opportunities there are further down the line.
What do you make of the recent mergers and acquisitions within the casino industry?
M & A is the new norm, not just in the gaming industry. There’s more of a requirement to be nimble and efficient today than there’s ever been before. It is what it is. We as an industry have to accept and embrace it. There will be a lot more of it to come and I think it is particularly true when you have such a heavily-regulated environment, where a lot of your disruptive companies struggle to get to scale. That makes the M & A possibility so much bigger and I expect to see so much more of it in the months and years ahead. To me, that’s one of the exciting parts of the industry.
What are your future plans, both inside and outside gaming?
I’m generally not one to worry about future plans. I put my head down and try to execute a strategy, achieve good results and let everything take care of itself. Right now, my focus is on learning and being a great resource to AGS and working in my full-time job, becoming a great leader in the consumer-packaged goods industry. I’ve got plenty on my plate but the focus is on doing these two jobs to the best of my ability.