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New head of American Gaming Association notes industry’s competitiveness (LVRJ)

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Geoff-FreemanIt didn’t take long for American Gaming Association CEO Geoff Freeman to comprehend one of the casino industry’s key dynamics.

As the new face on Capitol Hill for gaming, Freeman works closely with representatives of the major casino operators and slot machine manufacturers to further the industry’s collective interests.

The industry is relatively young by many standards; casinos have been infiltrating U.S. jurisdictions outside of Nevada and New Jersey only since the early 1990s. The American Gaming Association, founded in 1995, was created to protect the industry’s common causes in Washington D.C., much like other trade associations for carmakers, banks, lodging companies and the travel industry.

Gaming leaders work together, but the industry operates in a highly competitive environment, said Freeman, 38.

That aspect creates some friction in the room.

“Our companies are pitted against each other every day,” said Freeman, who took over as the association’s leader on July 1. “In lodging, you’ll find a street corner with a Hilton on one side and Marriott on the other. But with gaming, a locality might have just one license available, and that can disrupt any collegiality that has been built. The competitiveness has been the most eye-opening.”

After little less than three months on the job, Freeman will oversee his first Global Gaming Expo beginning Sept. 23 at the Sands Expo and Convention Center. The four-day trade show, convention and conference — which is jointly produced by Reed Exhibitions and the American Gaming Association — is the gaming industry’s largest annual gathering.

The 2013 G2E will cover 286,000 square feet of exhibit space and will feature more than 455 exhibitors displaying the newest slot machines, casino management systems and other gaming-related products. The trade-show floor is nearly 10 percent larger than last year’s show and will be the largest show floor since 2008. G2E 2013 will be more than double the size of the inaugural event in 2001.

Based on preregistration figures, the 2013 G2E attendance is tracking more than 20 percent ahead of the nearly 25,000 people who attended the 2012 show. G2E officials expect to exceed last year’s numbers.

“Of course, I’ll take full credit,” Freeman joked.

He said the preregistration numbers signify that gaming is bouncing back following the recession, which damaged the industry financially throughout the United States.

For Freeman, G2E is an opportunity to network with the industry. Much of his first 60 days has been spent on the road in gaming jurisdictions — from Las Vegas, Atlantic City and regional markets — meeting with gaming industry leaders and employees to gain a better knowledge and understanding of the casino business.

Freeman has met with Indian gaming industry representatives to find common ground between commercial and tribal casinos.

The American Gaming Association will celebrate 20 years in 2015. Freeman said he’s talked with trade organizations that predate his own to gauge how they have confronted issues that face gaming.

“We have had conversations with other industries that may have similarities to gaming, such as hotels and lodging, cruise lines, and the electronic software alliance,” Freeman said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

Freeman spent time in Las Vegas in recent weeks for G2E strategic planning and has met with gaming industry leaders.

“I’ve spent the past few months to learn the industry’s common concern,” Freeman said. “As an association, we need to address those concerns to benefit gaming, not just one company or a specific region, but gaming as a whole.”

Freeman followed longtime Washington, D.C., lobbyist and Republican Party power broker Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. into the association’s leadership position. Fahrenkopf, who retired, was the only leader the group had ever known.

Freeman was chief operating officer of U.S. Travel Association before he joined the American Gaming Association. He spent seven years with the Washington, D.C.-based group.

As the American Gaming Association was transitioning leadership from Fahrenkopf, Freeman found himself in the middle of a potential membership split.

At the end of June, Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman Sheldon Adelson, who has expressed his opposition to legalization of Internet gaming for the past several years, penned an opinion article for Forbes.com, blasting the activity as “fool’s gold.”

Adelson said Internet gaming is potentially dangerous and can’t be regulated.

The American Gaming Association supports an effort in the Congress to legalize, regulate and tax Internet poker. Adelson’s company is represented on the board of directors by Las Vegas Sands President Michael Leven.

Freeman said the Las Vegas Sands team “was transparent” about Adelson’s position. The AGA offered a “no comment” on the matter.

Meanwhile, Freeman is trying to get the AGA out in front of potential fallout from the Oct. 4 release of “Runner Runner,” a feature film depicting the seedier side of illegal Internet poker that stars Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake.

Last month, Freeman told the association board that the movie gives the group an opportunity to raise awareness of the need for proper regulation of online gaming. He said his group would look for ways to leverage the opportunity.

“It’s about preventing harm and doing so in a proactive manner,” he said.

Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.