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Indy Gaming: Women, minorities finding more success gambling on casinos

American Gaming Association study shows the industry has made significant progress diversifying its workforce, though the CEO says there’s “more to do.”
Howard Stutz
Howard Stutz

Mary Cheeks was one of the first individuals I thought about while reading a book on diversity and inclusion that my cousin co-authored. 

A lack of diversity in the gaming industry’s leadership is a topic I’ve followed over time, but Cheeks stands out. She could easily run a Strip resort but enjoys helping the small Jamul Indian Village achieve its dreams in San Diego. 

This week’s newsletter tackles a few gaming diversity matters. And yes, I’m quoting a reference in my cousin’s book.

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Mary Cheeks credited her parents for teaching her that an obstacle was an opportunity.  

“I didn't have a mentor. My parents always said, ‘Never let anything get in your way,’” said Cheeks, the president of the Jamul Casino in California’s San Diego County.

She was brought in by the Jamul Indian Village in 2018 to help navigate the property through a rebranding and is now overseeing the Jamul tribe’s long-planned expansion that will transform the small casino into a resort by adding a 200-room hotel and additional amenities. 

The banks and credit institutions cited Cheeks’ leadership when the $515 million in funding for the project was announced last year. 

Cheeks, who previously held executive finance roles at large corporate-run casinos in Atlantic City, Philadelphia and upstate New York, is one of several women running casinos for California Indian tribes who have a camaraderie that “I never experienced on the East Coast or Vegas.”

Cheeks is African American and her position at the Jamul casino reflects the growth in the gaming industry’s racially diverse workforce during the past decade.

In 2023, the American Gaming Association released its Diversity in Gaming report, which found that 62 percent of the industry’s workforce identified as members of a racial minority, up 9 percent from 2011 when the last study was done. Gaming’s workforce was more diverse than the hospitality industry, where 51.8 percent identify as minorities.

AGA CEO Bill Miller said in a statement that customers, lawmakers and investors want businesses to contribute to society beyond the bottom line.

“Our industry has made impactful strides toward becoming more diverse, but there is more work to do,” Miller said. 

An AGA spokesman said a follow-up report will be done but didn’t provide a target date.

On the Strip, women oversee four of MGM Resort International’s 10 properties. Ann Hoff is president of Bellagio and Park MGM while Ayesha Molino is president of Aria and Vdara and is also the company’s chief public affairs officer. 

Six years ago, when sexual harassment allegations led to the departure of Steve Wynn from the gaming industry, no women were either president, CEO or board chairman of 21 major gaming companies. On average, only 14 percent of casino company board members were women. In the last few years, public stock exchanges have instituted rules that corporate boards must have a diverse makeup.

Customers play roulette at the Palms Casino Resort on Sept. 5, 2023. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The AGA study found that women of color have a larger representation in leadership and managerial positions in commercial casinos than in the overall U.S. workforce. Among executive and senior-level positions, 9 percent were women of color, compared with 6 percent among the national workforce. The study found that 70 percent of executive-level management positions were held by men. 

Casinos also stand out for their diversity at the mid-managerial levels, where women of color account for 22 percent of the workforce, compared with 16 percent in the hospitality sector. 

The AGA said these employees help form the talent pool for future executive and senior-level officials and managers. 

Palms Casino Resort Vice President of Human Resources Cynthia Moehring said many organizations use blind resume reviews where the name of the job candidate is blocked out in the initial screening process.

“You don't know if it's a gentrified name or not, and you just look at the talent and the experience that is described on a resume,” Moehring said.

She also touted the efforts of Global Gaming Women, a 13-year-old organization created to support emerging female leaders in the gaming industry. She credited the group with providing the confidence and training for women to advance in the industry.

“The conversations the organization provides were not available as I was coming up through the ranks of gaming,” Moehring said. “It's all about building your internal mentorship and sponsor structure, whether it's with men or women.”

Seattle-based colleagues Eddie Pate and Jonathan Stutz led inclusion and diversity for businesses operated by Amazon and Microsoft. They co-wrote Daily Practices of Inclusive Leaders as a guide for simple inclusion practices that all businesses, including the gaming industry, could use. The co-authors wrote that businesses that create a diversity framework create higher levels of worker retention, engagement and a stronger sense of belonging.

They term the practice “ID&E” because it prioritizes inclusion. 

“In those early days of Microsoft, there was a training [on] the business case for diversity,” Stutz said during a YouTube discussion between the co-authors ahead of the book’s release in March. “We had to spend time talking to people about why this was important. It was a business issue, and we had to help people understand that.” 

The AGA, in its 2023 reports, said the gaming industry has “invested in efforts to foster an inclusive and diverse workforce.”

Cheeks said she enjoys the Southern California market and mentoring younger employees, “regardless of gender if I see high potential.” Several former Jamul employees now work at rival tribal casinos.

“Three direct competitors have benefited from my mentoring, but it is what it is,” Cheeks said.

A bartender pours a beer at The George in Durango Casino Resort, which is operated by Red Rock Resorts, on Jan. 19, 2024. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Red Rock board re-elected despite criticism over gender, racial makeup

Despite opposition from two California pension funds over a lack of diversity, Red Rock Resorts shareholders overwhelmingly re-elected the casino company’s five-person, all-male board of directors.

California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS) and Los Angeles County Employee Retirement Association (LACERA), which own an undisclosed number of shares, filed notices with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in May that they would “withhold” votes on the nominees.

Chairman and CEO Frank Fertitta III, Vice Chairman Lorenzo Fertitta, and members James Nave, Robert Cashell Jr. and Robert Lewis were unopposed and easily re-elected at the company’s May 30 annual meeting. They have been on the board since Red Rock went public in 2015. The Fertitta family controls 90 percent of the company’s votes.

The pension funds said in SEC filings that Red Rock violated the 2021 SEC-approved rule change initiated by Nasdaq that companies have at least one director who self-identifies as female and at least one director who self-identifies as “an underrepresented minority or as LGBTQ+.” The Nasdaq, which lists Red Rock’s shares, requires companies to publicly disclose why they don’t have at least two diverse directors. 

Culinary Union Workers Local 226, which has a long-standing labor dispute with Red Rock subsidiary Station Casinos, complained to the SEC in 2022 about the board’s composition.

In a 2022 statement, a Red Rock spokesman acknowledged the “lack of gender diversity” on the board but said the company considers “many aspects of diversity relevant to our market, industry, and company strategy, including diversity of other personal characteristics, skills, and experiences” in evaluating board appointments.

Palms Casino Resort General Manager Cynthia Kiser Murphey, poses in one of the off-Strip resort's Sky Villas on Sept. 5, 2023. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Palms general manager leaving after two years

Palms Casino Resort General Manager Cynthia Kiser Murphey will step down at the end of June after leading the off-Strip casino’s reopening in April 2022 under its ownership by the business arm of Southern California’s San Manuel Indian Tribe.

The property had been closed for two years during the pandemic when the tribe bought the 400-room off-Strip casino from Red Rock Resorts for $650 million.

Latisha Prieto, chairwoman of the San Manuel Gaming & Hospitality Authority, said the company will take its time to name a replacement.

Murphey, who spent more than a decade as the president of New York-New York for MGM Resorts International and held other leadership roles with the company, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal she was leaving to spend time with her family out of state.

What I'm reading

Commentary: Amid its own gambling scandal, MLB tries to put on game face  — John L. Smith in CDC Gaming Reports

If headlines count, MLB’s move is portrayed as a victory for responsibility shortly after a betting scandal landed surprisingly close to the league’s most famous player.

👀 Getting death threats from aggrieved gamblers, MLB players starting to fear for their safety — Bob Nightengale, USA Today

Players discuss the menacing threats that have been inflicted upon their lives by idiotic losing gamblers.

🎰 New Treasure Chest Casino opens in Kenner with more restaurants, gaming and space — Blake Paterson,

Boyd Gaming spent $100 million to move its New Orleans-area casino off Lake Pontchartrain to a new land-based facility. 

Performers dressed as showgirls wave at passengers on Virgin Atlantic Airways arriving at Harry Reid International Airport on Nov. 8, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

News, notes and quotes

Virgin Atlantic begins service between Las Vegas and Manchester, England

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Virgin Atlantic, the airline’s founder Richard Branson and top executives came to Las Vegas to announce a new three-times-a-week service between Harry Reid International Airport and Manchester, England. The flights mark Virgin’s 15th route between the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Virgin operates daily service between Las Vegas and London’s Heathrow Airport.


Boyd’s Northern California Casino to add hotel and resort amenities

The Wilton Rancheria Tribe and Boyd Gaming Corp. announced a two-phased expansion plan for Sky River, a Sacramento-area casino that will include a 300-room hotel, a 1,600-space parking garage, a multiuse space and a casino expansion that will add another 400 slot machines. The development is expected to be completed in 2027. Sky River opened in August 2022 as a casino-only property with 2,000 slot machines, 80 table games and multiple food and beverage options.


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