Ulf Buchholz / In Business Las Vegas
Sunday, March 14, 2010 | 3 a.m.
Although the United States has lost millions of manufacturing jobs, Nevada has remained the global leader in a manufacturing niche — gambling equipment.
More than half of the global gaming supplier industry is in Nevada. These companies make the casino industry’s most iconic products: slot machines, table games and green felt layouts, card-shuffle machines, even gamblers’ chairs. They also include slot machine bill validators and slot voucher printers.
The industry’s five largest slot machine manufacturers have major manufacturing, distribution and sales operations in Las Vegas. Two, International Game Technology and Bally Technologies, are based in Nevada. Even companies based elsewhere — the Chicago area’s WMS Gaming, Australia’s Aristocrat and Japan’s Konami — maintain operational bases in Nevada.
The result is about 14,300 jobs in Nevada. The majority work for the biggest slot machine companies, led by IGT in Reno and Bally in Las Vegas.
Nevada’s gaming supplier employees make up 2 percent of the state’s workforce, but they are in a niche that employs most of the state’s computer engineers and generated $6.3 billion in economic activity in goods, wages and spending, according to an economic impact study commissioned in 2008 by the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers.
“There’s no question that Nevada is the hub of slot and supplier innovation,” says Marcus Prater, executive director of the global, 90-member association based in Las Vegas.
Much like Silicon Valley’s allure for high-tech companies, gambling manufacturers that do business in the United States — the world’s largest market for gambling machines — want to be in Nevada, where both local and foreign-based slot giants have increased their manufacturing operations in recent years, he says.
High-profile games such as “Sex and the City” are exported throughout the country, further cementing Nevada’s reputation as the Hollywood of the slot business. Most licensed brands resonate with American audiences, but don’t translate well in other countries or cultures, with a few exceptions. One is Bally’s “Playboy” slot machine, which is distributed in about 40 countries.
The recession has pummeled casinos, and slot manufacturers have been hurt in turn because there is less demand for new machines in the U.S. They’ve been helped a little, however, by new opportunities to sell slot machines in markets less affected by the downturn, such as the growing Chinese gambling hub of Macau.
In recent years, IGT has lost market share to competitors that are also creating high-profile and popular machines using licensed brands. Facing down increased competition, the company is creating fancier machines with licensed brands despite the recession that has forced casinos to cut costs and halt investment in new games.
Unlike older machines coveted by regular gamblers, these bigger, brighter and louder machines attract a broader audience of casual gamblers and younger players.
At the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas in November, many companies showcased their fanciest products to date — the result of research and development budgets that have increased or remained consistent despite the recession.
Most of these technological leaps, experts say, are happening in Nevada.