California tribal leaders are not anticipating a further referendum on sports betting in 2024 after last November’s crushing defeat of a sportsbook-backed ballot initiative and amid a lack of full alignment among tribes on mobile wagering.
Speaking at last week’s ICE gambling convention in London, two senior tribal officials said they expected major online betting operators to have heeded the lessons of the dismal referendum campaign last year that saw a coalition of seven companies spend almost $200m but attract less than 18 percent of Californian voters’ support.
In turn, California tribes have not yet discussed the possibility of reviving their own failed ballot measure that would have authorized sports betting strictly on an in-person basis at tribal casinos and at licensed racetracks, said Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Band of Indians.
“I don’t think in ’24 anyone really has the appetite to repeat what happened in ’22,” Macarro said at an ICE seminar on tribal gaming.
A caveat to that is tribes would be willing to quickly put a competing initiative on the ballot were commercial online sportsbook operators to try again with their proposal, according to the Pechanga tribal chair.
Last year’s dueling referendums proved that confused voters would react negatively to having two distinct ballot measures on the same subject, “so both go down in flames.”
“If that fight happens, we will be ready,” Macarro warned.
Macarro said the lopsided defeat of the FanDuel and DraftKings-backed Proposition 27 underlined not only the campaigning might of California Indian tribes, but also the fact that online gambling is simply not popular with the state’s voters.
There will be no “magic button” to pass online betting in California until those voter attitudes change, although Macarro added that there was still a “demographic proclivity” toward online wagering becoming inevitable at some point, citing how Californians’ attitudes to legal marijuana have evolved over time.
California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA) chair James Siva told ICE delegates he believed there was still a way forward for legal sports betting in California.
However, a further obstacle is a “bit of disunity” among California tribes over the best approach to legalization.
In addition to the two failed measures that qualified for last year’s ballot, another California tribal coalition led by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and Rincon Band of Luiseno Indians proposed a third initiative that would have authorized not only retail sports wagering at tribal casinos, but also limited mobile betting operated exclusively by tribes and subject to in-person registration, among other restrictions.
As tribal campaigning shifted to defeating the online betting measure supported by commercial operators, that third initiative fizzled out when supporters failed to gather enough signatures to qualify for either the November 2022 or 2024 ballots.
The initiative also was proposed against the backdrop of wider legal uncertainty as to the regulatory models available for tribes to participate in state-wide mobile sports wagering, with federal courts still reviewing the landmark 2021 tribal gaming compact inked by the state of Florida and the Seminole Tribe.
Although fully aligned on defeating the commercial operators’ measure, Macarro acknowledged that California tribes never did resolve the differences between the retail-only Proposition 26 and the San Manuel initiative.
“Certainly, we weren’t aligned and we would need to be aligned to have something put before voters and to have it be successful,” he said.
Although there are more than 20 months until California’s next general election in November 2024, that is still a narrow window as any initiative would typically have to be announced sometime this summer to give enough time for the million-plus voter signatures to be gathered to qualify for the ballot.
Siva and Macarro said tribes have not yet had any outreach from the online betting companies that saw their ballot measure defeated last year, and the CNIGA chair said that tribes have no intention of extending an olive branch themselves.
There is still a pathway for tribes and commercial gaming companies to work together on bringing legal sports wagering to California, said Siva, who is also the vice chairman of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians.
“But it’s going to be a path and a relationship that’s determined by the tribes,” Siva said.
“It will not be as equal operators; it will be [commercial operators serving] as service providers,” similar to how commercial companies supply slot machines as vendors to tribal casinos.