Once he accepted the job offer, new American Gaming Association (AGA) CEO Geoff Freeman immediately identified his challenges. As an outsider to gaming, Freeman understood that he was filling enormous shoes by succeeding former AGA chief Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. Freeman also believed that at 38, he could offer a fresh perspective towards gaming for younger generations, ultimately meaning millions of new customers.
Freeman officially assumed the AGA reins on July 1, 2013. From the first day, he was eager to transfer his professional executive skills, experience and optimistic outlook to his new position. Coming from a neutral philosophy and other industries, Freeman has advocated for changes within the AGA program.
Although Freeman is not a political insider, the Wisconsin native always desired a career that would eventually take him to Washington. While a student at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1990s, Freeman studied budgets and developed an interest in policy making.
“At the young age of 22, I knew Washington D.C. was where I needed to be. Early on in my first job at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy think tank in Washington, I was exposed to thinkers,” Freeman says.
He worked there for one year and then joined APCO Worldwide, a strategic public affairs firm. His role would be to serve as a problem solver for such issues as tobacco. Through this work, Freeman interacted with Harrah’s casino in New Orleans. That communication introduced Freeman to the gaming industry and its members.
“After working in industries with a sometimes ‘less-than-wholesome’ image, I was more interested in topics that kept me awake trying to solve these issues,” Freeman states.
He loves trade association work and joined the U.S. Travel Association (USTA) in early 2006. Freeman was convinced the travel industry needed strong advocacy because of multiple declining years following the September 11, 2001 attacks. As COO, Freeman helped maximize the positive impact of travel on American culture while also uniting the travel industry’s diverse groups.
“The government did not recognize this trend. I worked with big names in the travel industry to change how it operates. Because the service sector is growing, I aimed to make the travel industry relevant by affirming the importance of its many jobs,” says Freeman.
During his tenure at USTA, Freeman developed close contacts with the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Bureau. The scope of their conventions and international visitors meant Freeman cooperated with big operators like Caesars Entertainment and MGM.
Freeman says, “I got to know Frank Fahrenkopf, my predecessor, reasonably well since our paths crossed on our jobs. I leaned on Frank for advice.”
In January 2013, opportunity knocked and Freeman’s life took a new direction. Fahrenkopf had just announced his plan to retire in late June 2013 and the AGA immediately launched a search for his replacement. A professional recruiter first approached Freeman in January 2013; by mid-April, the offer came his way.
As someone without previous gaming experience, Freeman brings an objective viewpoint to the industry and its challenges. Drawing on his experiences and successes in the travel industry, Freeman believes he can similarly influence gaming. However, he does acknowledge gaming’s distinct constituencies, economics and regulations.
After years of dealing with governmental entities in Washington D.C., Freeman believes he also understands how to navigate the current political atmosphere of partisan gridlock.
“During my tenure with the USTA, I proved that I can get things accomplished in Washington. It is a different environment. While less is done, there is more transparency and fewer back room deals. Traditional lobbying is a means and not an end,” says Freeman.
The initial seven months have been a whirlwind of activity and education for Freeman. He feels even more excited and enthusiastic about the job since taking charge. By methodically researching the gaming industry and traveling nationwide to personally witness its operations, Freeman quickly formed three initial impressions. He reported his earliest findings at the September 2013 G2E in Las Vegas:
Gaming has a unique quality because it serves as an economic engine within every community. Gaming strengthens the business climate where manufacturers and jobs may have vanished. Local casinos also use new technology and become multi-faceted entertainment centers that employ residents and improve their lives.
It is critical for casino industry members to unite for common causes that benefit everyone while also protecting gaming from harmful regulations and legislation. Because casino sizes and customer demographics, taxes and operations vary, Freeman will not direct the AGA to address isolated needs over the common good
Each casino department must recognize the necessity of improving relations with others throughout a property. Freeman wants to dispel any perceptions that the AGA works harder for the “big guys” of gaming instead of the average casino operator and thousands of unknown gaming employees. He wants everyone affiliated with gaming to feel a personal stake in its future and back its successes.
Freeman has taken his advocacy to heart, strongly believing that the time for the gaming industry to “toot its own horn” beyond its own members is long overdue. In his opinion, the gaming industry has allowed itself to be miscast.
“For too long, the critics have ruled the day. The AGA must zealously tell its own story. Every day, I grow more excited about the industry’s willingness to do new things. Across the country, the masses think differently than the ‘opinion elites.’ We should be ‘unapologetic’ about our value to every community. Many of our detractors trot out the same old lines in their criticism, but the facts are on our side,” says Freeman.
He concedes that some opponents may have some reasonable, legitimate concerns that must be addressed, but also contends that many strictly want to insert their ideology and morality on others.
He urges pushback against any negative press. Freeman is convinced that in the 20-plus years that gaming has proliferated into hundreds of communities, casino companies and their employees have proven themselves to be good citizens.
“We are guilty of perpetuating our own unfavorable image. Out of a subtle guilt, the gaming industry has allowed itself to be taxed unfairly for purposes like education or healthcare. In other words, unlike other industries, in order to be permitted to operate, we have tolerated jurisdictions taxing us until they feel they have enough. We must fight to empower the middle ground because the tide is turning in our favor,” Freeman claims.
Freeman is eager to take on the battle. To combat this negative dynamic, Freeman insists on using the 23 states with commercial gaming – 40 when counting tribal gaming – to build a “deeper base of champions” as supporters.
“Our key delegation of advocates comes from Nevada. Where are the other 39? We must recruit strong activists, mobilize more Congressional champions and educate lawmakers.
“I think Internet gaming will begin a federal discussion, but other issues like travel, immigration, labor and taxes will also put gaming on the radar screen,” he says.
Internet gaming, in some form, is now fully operational in three states: Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware. Although each has its own programs and regulatory restrictions to run independently, Freeman supports “sensible online gaming regulations” on a federal level.
During recent testimony before the Congressional House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, Freeman stated that Americans illegally wagered $3 billion with offshore gambling operators in 2012. Freeman stressed that regulated Internet gaming should be available to millions of responsible customers while also protecting children and providing help and resources to problem gamblers.
As a proponent of states’ rights, Freeman’s ideas for recommended federal regulations would also permit states to operate in their own best interests. Law enforcement would be empowered with the appropriate tools to expand their abilities to eliminate black market operations. A successful legal marketplace could create more than 22,000 new jobs and generate more than $26 billion in tax revenues.
According to Freeman, another critical reason to institute federal Internet gaming regulations is the development of an operational model for Native American tribes. While not members of the AGA, the hundreds of tribes that own and manage casinos in dozens of states mean they are too large a segment to ignore.
Freeman expects a more favorable reaction from the tribes towards national regulations. Each tribe had to first receive federal recognition from Washington, which then paved the way for the individual state compact agreements. These compacts formed the basis of the tribes‘ casino operations.
As someone who grew up during the decades of explosive computer advancements, Freeman reflects the youthful generation that has embraced technology and social media. He understands the necessity for American gaming to keep pace with innovation in an increasingly global economy.
At the October European iGaming Congress conference of 1,500 international online gaming professionals and executives, Freeman stressed that the U.S. gaming industry “welcomes new competition” within “a legal and fair regulatory environment” that is a more modernized system. He wants the industry to succeed in a new era that he calls the “intersection of digital technology and social media.”
Freeman plans to travel internationally and attend more global conventions and conferences that helps him build partnerships with foreign associations. “We have similar interests to network and share. A thriving international industry helps the U.S. bottom line. For example, the G2E is a living organism with high value in Las Vegas and Macau. It can be an asset in other markets,” he says.
Macau’s explosive gaming market demands interaction with American industry leaders. Freeman states the U.S. industry must explain its inner workings of investors and businesses to Macau’s government because engaging western firms will help them build future regulations.
Throughout 2014, Freeman wants to introduce several changes within the AGA’s Washington office. Last month, the AGA added several new staff members, but also terminated some familiar employees. Freeman recruited some of these new hires from the travel and gaming industries, but also found professionals who are complete industry outsiders. He believes a new, diverse team will successfully meet his goals and that their style and philosophy will evolve on a more proactive level.
Freeman says, “College football fans will understand that what I want for an office environment is an Oregon-style aggressiveness. It is long past time for the industry to share our positive facts. The new AGA will run a campaign in perpetuity that demonstrates the real value of the gaming industry.
“Our new in-house staff should be so involved that they will lose sleep when considering how to address and communicate the industry’s needs. Their sole focus will be on gaming; we should not be outsourcing anything that must be done,” says Freeman.
After more than 30 years in Washington, Frank Fahrenkopf understood the bureaucracy, politics, legislative players and how they all related to gaming. He helped launch the AGA in the mid 1990s as a way of preventing new taxes.
It is a new day for Geoff Freeman, who represents a younger generation of executive director. He has made it his mission to quickly master the industry’s learning curve. Freeman has no doubt that he can create a fresh destiny rather than react to an old narrative.
He is optimistic about the future and anticipates a bygone era of viewing gaming as shadowy and unsavory. Instead, consumers and politicians will recognize gaming for what it is… a mainstream business that offers huge benefits.