Careful, this new job could get dangerous

29 April 2013

Overseeing the American Gaming Association (AGA) is not like herding cats. It’s more like herding mountain lions. One misstep and you’ll lose body parts.

I wonder if anyone informed Geoff Freeman of this job description.

Last week, Freeman, 38, left a seven-year position as the No. 2 official with the U.S. Travel Association to become the second chief executive in the nearly 20-year history of the Washington, D.C.-based trade organization. The AGA monitors gaming industry interests on Capitol Hill.

There may be a synergetic relationship between the travel and gaming industries, but there are vast differences among tourism leaders and gambling bosses.

Have you ever been in the same room with Caesars Entertainment’s Gary Loveman, Las Vegas Sands’ Sheldon Adelson, MGM Resorts International’s Jim Murren, Penn National Gaming’s Peter Carlino and Boyd Gaming’s Keith Smith — all at the same time? (Luckily for Freeman, Steve Wynn’s Wynn Resorts Ltd. is not an AGA member).

And we haven’t even gotten to Bally Technologies’ Richard Haddrill, International Game Technology’s Patti Hart, SHFL Entertainment’s Gavin Isaacs and the rest of the gaming equipment manufacturing group.

Departing CEO Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., who helped found the AGA in 1995, will somehow exit at the end of June with all his appendages. Freeman has until July 1 to bone up on the personalities and idiosyncrasies that make up the gaming industry.

“I’m not going to try and step into Frank’s shoes,” Freeman said this past week. “There is a great team at the AGA. Gaming is a great industry and is similar to the travel industry in its creativity and the way it has evolved.”

Freeman’s leadership style differs from Fahrenkopf’s. That’s what led the AGA board to unanimously select him.

Freeman has testified in front of Congress, but is not a typical lobbyist. He’s nonpartisan in his political leanings and he’s adept at social media and grass-roots consensus building. Freeman knows members of Congress, but has never held public office himself.

Nor does Freeman have ties to any American Gaming Association member company. As chief operating officer of U.S. Travel, Freeman interacted with Las Vegas casino leadership, but he’s not viewed as anyone’s plant in the organization.

Murren, chairman of MGM Resorts and vice chairman of the AGA board, said Freeman quickly emerged as the preferred candidate because he met everyone’s qualifications.

“We felt strongly about having someone with deep experience in trade organizations who also understood a regulated industry,” Murren said. “We rejected having a retired elected official in favor of someone with more tactical experience.”

Fahrenkopf’s announced retirement in January drew a slew of candidates, including Washington lobbyists and ex-lawmakers with casino industry ties. Most were interested in his annual salary of $2.6 million in 2010, as reported by Congressional Quarterly.

Freeman, however, is built more for 2013 than for 1995.

The AGA was created to battle anti-gaming forces that could have halted casino expansion and prompted federal taxation on casino earnings.

Fahrenkopf seemed as if he came straight from central casting for the AGA position. A Reno native and attorney, Fahrenkopf became the consummate Washington, D.C., insider through his role as chairman of the Republican National Committee during the Reagan administration.

Over the years, anti-gaming forces were silenced and federal taxation ideas faded.

In 2012, 22 states with commercial casinos produced some $35.64 billion in gaming revenues.

“The AGA was born under the alarming belief that we were under attack like never before,” Murren said. “We needed someone with impeccable credentials and deep relationships. Frank has been peerless in his efforts.”

Issues facing the gaming industry today require a different style.

Haddrill, chairman of Bally Technologies and the current AGA board chairman, said Freeman’s experiences in boosting the image and role of U.S. Travel will translate for gaming.

“The political world moves at a much faster pace than ever before,” Haddrill said. “We’re no longer on defense as an industry. We need to be on offense. At the outset, he’ll be less visible than Frank, but he’ll be effective in a different way. Like Frank, he will become the public face of gaming.”

Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority CEO Rossi Ralenkotter said Freeman has the talent, leadership skills and political savvy to manage the AGA, address gaming issues and handle the industry’s personalities.

Ralenkotter, who is completing a two-year term as U.S. Travel’s board chairman, isn’t concerned Freeman will be eaten alive.

“Geoff has been successful at identifying and understanding an issue, building consensus, doing sound research and being a good presenter,” Ralenkotter said.

We’ll soon see how good he is at taming mountain lions.

Copyright GamingWire. All rights reserved.

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