California Sports Betting Battle Top Of Mind At Tribal Gaming Convention

April 21, 2022
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November’s election in California, which could feature as many as three different proposals to legalize sports betting in the state, is looming large over this year’s Indian Gaming Tradeshow and Convention.

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November’s election in California, which could feature as many as three different proposals to legalize sports betting in the state, is looming large over this year’s Indian Gaming Tradeshow and Convention.

One initiative, which would permit land-based wagering at tribal casinos and racetracks, has already qualified for the ballot.

Another plan, which would allow mobile betting through partnerships with the tribes, is backed by a coalition of national sportsbook brands that includes FanDuel, DraftKings,Z and BetMGM. That bid remains in the process of gathering signatures.

A third proposal by a coalition of tribes that includes the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians to allow sports betting online as well as at casinos is also collecting signatures.

James Siva, chairman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA), said that the commercial operator-backed initiative has a “very high likelihood” of qualifying for the ballot, based on information from sources in the state.

Tribes have pledged to spend more than $100m to defeat the commercial operators’ initiative, arguing that this is a fight to protect tribal gaming exclusivity in the state.

“We worked hard to build an industry in this state and any growth of gaming has to be approached very carefully, in the tribes’ point of view,” said Cody Martinez, chairman of the Sycuan Band of Kumeyaay Nation.

Martinez called for a cautious, incremental approach, potentially revisiting mobile as early as 2024.

Siva pointed out that when the initiative was introduced by the tribes in 2019, even without mobile gaming it was fairly progressive, even if it appears more conservative now, in contrast to the mobile proposals.

Martinez also expressed frustration that the tribes, who were in alignment when the qualified initiative was introduced, have since splintered into supporting different proposals, even if all of them oppose the commercial operators' plan.

“It's this issue on mobile that has driven us into different camps,” he said. “And I think any time we fight amongst each other, it confuses the voter and for the long haul, the more we continue to look and act like corporate entities instead of tribal government.

Many, including Siva, have speculated that if two or three initiatives qualify for the same ballot in November, voter confusion will lead to all of the options failing.

“If there’s a lot of confusion on the ballot, that’s typically what we’ve seen.”

CNIGA has supported both the qualified initiative and the tribal-backed mobile initiative, and Siva said that what the division between camps has highlighted is that a deep dive is needed as to what the future of tribal gaming in California looks like.

“For over 30 years we’ve operated here, and a large portion of that time was about securing the right to do it and then protecting that right,” Siva said. “Now, we’re moving into an age where technology… is not going away.

“We need to have those conversations about what our industry is going to look like, how are we going to change, how are we going to continue to both protect our exclusivity by enacting our sovereignty,” he continued. “This is going to be bigger than sports betting, this is going to be about the future of our industry.”

Although representatives from the commercial operators did not speak on the panel, their presence is evident at the tradeshow, as DraftKings is a high level sponsor, as is the political action committee (PAC) backed by FanDuel, DraftKings and BetMGM - Californians for Solutions to Homelessness and Mental Health Support.

The commercial operators have argued that their proposal is complementary to the qualified initiative and have continued to negotiate market access partnerships with tribes around the country, but opponents argue that if commercial operators come into the market, it should be controlled by the tribes and on the tribes’ timeline.

“I think the goal is to continue to protect tribal exclusivity,” Siva said. “If they find a way into this market, it should be at the tribes’ decision of how they enter this market, and what that kind of potential partnership looks like.”

Martinez said that few of the more than 60 gaming tribes in the state have the resources to own and operate their own mobile platform, necessitating partnerships with outside operators, and that once those operators are in the door the gaming landscape in the state will have fundamentally changed.

“These companies, why would they not want the whole piece for themselves?” he asked. “We should be very cautious because once they're in, they’re never going to leave.

“The golden goose is California, why should they leave?” Martinez continued. “Why would you want a narrow approach when they can expand, expand, expand for more revenue for their shareholders?”

“The commercial entities are coming for online sports betting now, but what they're really coming after is full iGaming in the future, and that is really the threat,” Siva added.

“That's why the incremental step that was first proposed I think, had that foresight in thinking about that and thinking if you open the door for a commercial entity to come into the state and have one form of online gaming, they're eventually going to come back to want all forms of online gaming,” he said.

The commercial gaming initiative has a deadline of May 3 to collect the 997,139 required signatures to put the initiative on the ballot, while the tribal mobile betting initiative has a July 11 deadline.

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