How Covid-19 Stopped the Global Spread of Slot Machines

The numbers alone tell a story. The number of slot machines operating around the world more than doubled from 2018 to 2019. But then, the industry saw a relatively miniscule increase of 2.5% from 2019 to 2020.

In any other year, one could speculate that facilities had reached capacity or players diverted their attention to other games. This stunted growth in 2020, however, is explainable almost uniformly by a singular factor, which was Covid-19.

Slot Machine Data

Gambling has been popular since people first walked the earth. People generally enjoy risks and challenges, not to mention incentives like various forms of currency. It is a part of human nature.

In the past century, the proliferation of gambling took people from bookies to sportsbooks, from barroom poker games to cardrooms, and from three-card monte to slot machines. Many forms of gambling mix. Walk in any major commercial casino to find a sportsbook and a poker room, both off the main casino floor that is filled with slot machines.

Analysts measure gambling’s popularity by a wide range of data, but one that tends to be the most relatable is the availability of slot machines. And in the age of a global pandemic, slot machines provide a look into how the spread of germs in a pandemic stunted the growth of land-based gambling.

Statista put together some slot machine data from 2018 to 2020 with information garnered from the Global Gaming Almanac. And it tells a very interesting story, one with an exciting cliffhanger.

Massive Growth: 2018 to 2019

The numbers alone show the dramatic growth of slot machines in various properties around the world from 2018 to 2019, before anyone considered the possibility of a pandemic.

  • Gaming machine outlets: up 333% (from 428K in 2018 to 1.8M in 2019)
  • Casinos: up 108.8% (from 959K to 1.06M)
  • Racinos: up 83.3% (from 54K to 98K)
  • Bingo halls: up 100% (from zero to 71K)
  • Ships with casinos: up 1.5% (from 24,788 to 25,168)
  • Jai-alai frontons: up 41.3% (from 1,940 to 2,742)
  • OTB facilities: up 100% (from zero to 2K)
  • Card rooms: up 100% (from zero to 53)

(For reference, OTB stands for off-track betting, frontons are courts, and racinos are casinos at racetracks. Gamine machine outlets include any facilities that offer only gaming machines, places like slot halls, pubs, and grocery stores.)

The increase in slots in every venue indicates their continuing popularity, but more interesting is the placement of slot machines in new locations. Places like bingo halls, card rooms, and off-track betting facilities used to pride themselves on offering a singular form of gambling. However, juggling for additional revenue led many of them to welcome a few slot machines. The focus remained on their bingo or poker but also provided something a little different on the side.

Notice that the only type of venue with very little growth was the cruise ship casino. The reason for limited growth there is simple, as cruise ships have a finite amount of space in which to grow.

Stunted Growth: 2019 to 2020

That same growth could have happened in 2020. There was no reason to think otherwise, as gambling enjoys continued popularity around the world, with new generations finding the machines all the time.

But the increases or lack thereof from 2019 to 2020 told a different story.

  • Gaming machine outlets: 0% (still at 1.8M in 2020)
  • Casinos: up 7.3% (from 1.06M to 1.14M)
  • Racinos: up 0.5% (from 97,886 to 98,354)
  • Bingo halls: up 0% (still at 71K)
  • Ships with casinos: up 1.2% (from 25,168 to 25,468)
  • Jai-alai frontons: up 0% (still at 2,742)
  • OTB facilities: up 0% (still at 1,939)
  • Card rooms: up 0% (still at 53)

Any growth above likely happened prior to the pandemic. There may have been even more increases, but most gambling establishments put holds on slot machine orders for the remainder of 2020 or sent machines back.

Narrowed View: Nevada Slots

The Nevada Gaming Control Board publishes information each year for all of the casinos in the state. The overwhelming majority of table games, poker tables, and slot machines are in Clark County – home to Las Vegas – but there are numerous areas with high volume.

The fiscal year for the NGCB is July 1 through June 30, so the numbers in this example do not match the global numbers from Statista. However, they do show that the pandemic immediately affected the number of licensed slot machines in Nevada.

  • Fiscal year 2018-2019: 163,612 licensed slot machines in Nevada
  • Fiscal year 2019-2020: 128,091 licensed slot machines in Nevada

The drop of 27.7% is very likely due to the pandemic. As casinos tried to reopen by spacing their slot machines to meet health official and governmental guidelines, they inevitably had to return some machines. There was simply not enough room on the casino floors – or even in storage – to hold previous numbers.

Data regarding table games and poker tables show the same trend from 2019 to 2020 but in even starker terms. Tables for games such as roulette, craps, baccarat, and even video poker dropped 36.6% in 2020 (down to 3,971 from 5,423).

The reduction of poker tables was even more startling, down more than 179% from 719 to just 257.

Social Distancing Now and in the Future

Every gambling establishment around the world discovered quickly during the early months of the pandemic that one of the keys to preventing the spread of the coronavirus was social distancing. Casinos in places like the United States and Canada were able to open – albeit briefly, in most cases – on a restricted basis by putting spaces between the gaming machines and the tables. Some even put Plexiglas barriers between the machines.

The Covid-19 crisis lasted much longer than anyone initially expected. And it continues to keep many casinos closed throughout the world more than one year later. Those that have opened are doing so mostly at reduced capacities and with game spacing still in effect.

While the Covid-19 vaccines are in the process of distribution, it could take many more months to see a form of herd immunity that will eventually snuff out the disease.

Further, though, there are many people who have decided that social distancing and increased forms of sanitization and cleanliness prevent germs in general, and they may want to see that continued into the future. The days of cramming as many gaming machines into a casino, racino, or slot hall as possible may be over, at least for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, more people than ever before discovered and/or explored the world of online casinos and online poker sites. The convenience, variety of games, and many other benefits may keep many customers as online gambling patrons. Some may return to land-based gambling, but some may not.

The fallout from the pandemic will continue its presence in many forms in the gambling world, especially in the next few years as the world figures out what the new normal looks like after a pandemic.


Resource: Global Gaming Almanac via “Total Number of Slot Gaming Machines Worldwide from 2018 to 2020, by Property Type” Statista, Statista Inc., 3 Jul 2020


Jennifer Newell

Jennifer Newell

Jennifer Newell has been writing about poker and gambling since 2004. From her days in the WPT offices to covering summers of WSOP tournament action, she also followed gambling legislation to Washington D.C. and women-only poker to the Bahamas. Meanwhile, she lived in Los Angeles and Las Vegas for many years before moving back to her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. Now, Jen travels less, writing about poker and online gambling from her home with her two dogs watching her every move. In her spare time, she follows politics, works on her never-finished novels, and learns Italian in the hopes of retiring to Italy someday.

If you want to know more, you can follow Jen on Twitter @WriterJen


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