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This Researcher Is Betting on Las Vegas

Vegas native Bo Bernhard’s research on the city’s top industry, hospitality and gaming, informs billion-dollar business decisions around the world and closer to home.

Research  |  May 10, 2018  |  By Nicole Schultz
Portrait Bo Bernhard

Bo Bernhard, UNLV International Gaming Institute Executive Director, will give the annual lecture for the Faiss Series. This is also an opportunity to celebrate Dr. Bernhard is the first, and only, professor to have a chair at UNLV and UNR. 
(Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

A few years ago, the idea of bringing any sports team, let alone an NFL franchise, to a city built on gaming was a long shot. A couple match-fixing scandals had already given many professional leagues cause for concern. Combine that with legalized gambling in Las Vegas and the subsequent possibility for players to profit from their own play, and it seemed impossible that a pro sports team would ever make its way to the city.

But some influential NFL leaders’ opinions shifted in late 2015 when a team of researchers penned a report analyzing the risks and benefits professional sports teams would bring to Las Vegas. It was enough to convince the NFL not just to reconsider, but to go all in.

“For years, the NFL rejected Las Vegas even as a host for any games because of gambling, because sports wagering was thought to be so problematic,” said Bo Bernhard, executive director of UNLV’s International Gaming Institute (IGI) and lead author of the report. “Las Vegas is often perceived as the problem when, in fact, the city has proven effective at providing solutions.”

“We conclude (as do many other analysts) that due to the rigor of Nevada’s regulatory practices, in many ways the state’s approach would actually provide sports leagues with their best opportunity to protect themselves when it comes to the all-important issue of integrity,” the report titled “Professional Sports Teams in Las Vegas: What the Research Says” indicated. “Given current estimates that 80 percent of global sports wagers take place in illegal, unregulated, or under-regulated markets, professional sports leagues would benefit from a shift that moves more of these wagers into legal, regulated, and more frequently checked settings.”

And so, after Bernhard and his colleagues completed the work, local leaders at Las Vegas Sands led the business charge to make the Oakland Raiders the Las Vegas Raiders in 2020.

That study is just the latest among Bernhard’s research contributions, making him the ideal recipient of UNLV’s 2017 Harry Reid Silver State Research Award — the university’s most prestigious research award. It recognizes faculty who significantly advance their field, address real-world needs and concerns, and contribute to Nevada’s economic growth and development.

Bernhard's research illustrates how UNLV and the Las Vegas community mutually inform one another, fostering growth and development in both.

“Bo has developed a pioneering, global, and research-driven agenda that enhances the social and economic well-being of Nevada every day,” said Mary Croughan, UNLV’s vice president for research and economic development.

And, she noted, his work does much more than raise the profile of the city and the reputation of the university. “Bo is in constant demand all over the world, lecturing to audiences in more than 30 countries, working with governments and industry in literally hundreds of instances at crucial moments in these locales’ (and Nevada’s) socioeconomic development.”

From Boston and Baseball to Baccarat and Behavioral Studies

Bernhard’s ties to the city and his connection to gambling began well before his professorship at UNLV. Bernhard’s great-great-grandfather, Joe “Kid” Jordan, came to Las Vegas in the early 1900s to pursue his career as a casino dealer — one of the few places he could do so without the threat of prosecution.

Despite this, Bernhard never considered studying gambling or becoming an academic when he headed to Harvard University as an undergraduate and two-sport athlete (baseball and soccer). Pursuing research was first suggested to him on a ballfield, of all places. The announcer broadcast his name and hometown during the starting lineup, and after one particular game, Richard Herrnstein, a psychology professor who’d been sitting in the stands, approached Bernhard.

"So, you’re from Vegas? You should do research on the psychology of gambling for my class,” Herrnstein said.

Bernhard found he enjoyed the research. He moved back to Las Vegas for his graduate studies, earning a Ph.D. in sociology from UNLV in 2002. Here, he explored the sociology and psychology of gambling with a focus on so-called “deviant” behaviors in society.

Bernhard has spent many years studying the biological, psychological, and sociological foundations of problem gambling. Working alongside medical school professors at Harvard, Yale, and UCLA, he has suggested adding sociology to the tool chest in a way that recognizes the disorder’s broad foundations.

“The health sciences have now started to catch up with Bo's research perspectives, moving away from their prior reliance solely on pharmacological approaches to problems to now combine sociological and psychological perspectives in best-practice treatments,” said Robert Futrell, UNLV sociology professor and department chair.

Expanding UNLV's Global Reach

In addition to his problem gambling research, Bernhard has spent many years informing governments, like those of Singapore, Japan, and Brazil, on how to best bring gaming to these new jurisdictions based on what he’s seen in Las Vegas and beyond. Bernhard’s appointment in 2012 to IGI executive director enabled him to extend his research to explore the impacts of casinos on communities with the help of the IGI research team.

Bernhard has helped create what the institute’s founders intended IGI to be: an answer center for the global gaming industry that bridges the gap between academic research and government and industry practices.

In the past decade, Bernhard has provided those answers through more than 30 academic publications and 200 international presentations and keynote addresses. He also secured 22 funding sources, totaling almost $10 million, to fund programs to address industry issues.

Much like his research, Bernhard envisions Las Vegas becoming increasingly multidisciplinary in 15 years. Resorts will be more and more integrated, offering new types of entertainment for tourists. He anticipates that countries like Japan, Greece, and Brazil will emerge full force into the global hospitality and tourism industry, and he’s positioned IGI to continue leading those conversations.

“The future of the hospitality industry at large is being built at UNLV,” Bernhard said.

Building Bridges, Paving Pathways

From the undergraduate through executive level, Bernhard’s teaching and research are inextricably intertwined.

“The best teaching is grounded in research because research is simply the expansion of knowledge,” Bernhard said. “If you’re expanding knowledge while also teaching that knowledge, you’re going to be an awesome teacher.”

Bernhard has chaired several thesis and dissertation committees and has mentored and funded dozens of undergraduate and graduate researchers, some of whom now work with him as full-time faculty members.

“Bo has filled many roles in my academic life, from graduate advisor to colleague to friend, and he is the very best academic with whom I have ever had the fortune to work,” said Brett Abarbanel, IGI’s director of research. “So much of what I know and how I share that knowledge is rooted in what I have learned from Bo.”

Bernhard believes that one of the many reasons IGI, UNLV, and Las Vegas experience success is because of their readiness to collaborate. When considering whether or not to build a bridge to form a new partnership, Bernhard said, the answer is almost always yes. Take his recent appointment as Philip G. Satre Chair in Gaming Studies; it’s the first-ever chair shared between UNLV and the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR).

The International Conference on Gambling & Risk Taking — which Bernhard inherited from the late UNR gaming professor, economist, and personal mentor Bill Eadington in 2013continues to build bridges between gambling academics and gaming industry executives from around the world and remains the largest and oldest gambling conference of its kind.

And alongside former Nevada state Sen. Mark Lipparelli, Bernhard has co-moderated the Executive Development Program (EDP), a partnership program between UNLV and the UNR, every November for the past five years. The gaming-industry bootcamp is in its 28th year and has more than 1,400 alumni from 48 countries.

“I am so thankful to Bo for upholding the standards and rigor that make EDP the special program that it is,” said Tricia Smylie, a 2017 EDP graduate. “He and the EDP team have helped me realize my potential and develop as a burgeoning gaming executive.”

Applying EDP’s model to a diverse group of under-resourced high schoolers in Las Vegas, Bernhard and IGI special project coordinator Shekinah Hoffman recently developed the Young Executive Scholars (YES) program, which shows students the opportunities that await them in their own backyard. Although 2017 was its inaugural year, YES secured $120,000 in college scholarships for 20 students.

“Growing up, I could see the big buildings on the Strip, obviously, but I didn’t realize that education was the way to get there,” Bernhard said. “I’m so happy to teach for a program like YES, which allows deserving kids to make that connection and see their potential.”

In Diversity There Is Strength

Bernhard recalls a particularly impactful moment from his undergraduate years when one of his instructors said, “In all systems, in all ways, in diversity there is strength.” Bernhard continues to carry this mantra with him.

Bernhard believes that IGI is the perfect place to pave the way for female leadership opportunities in gaming — positions at this time held primarily by men. It started with building a diverse team at IGI itself. He and IGI Associate Director Katherine Jackson have grown the institute from two to 20 employees, 14 of whom are women.

IGI-funded researchers Toni Repetti and Shekinah Hoffman were the first to use data from the gaming and hospitality industry to understand the wage gap and factors that make it difficult for women to progress in the industry. Bernhard hopes that the implications of their findings extend beyond the industry and create lasting change in the world in which his daughters, Ava and Audrey, will grow up.

He believes he will see more women like Repetti, Hoffman, Abarbanel entering the gaming research fold. And in July 2020, when the results of his team’s pro sports research take tangible form in his hometown, Bernhard hopes to walk onto the field of the newly built Raiders Stadium with his daughters and say, “Your dad played a small role in all of this, and now it’s your turn.”