California Tribes Politely Wary Of Online Operator-Backed Sports Betting Initiative

September 2, 2021
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California gaming tribes are greeting a new ballot initiative by a coalition of commercial sports betting operators with quiet dubiousness.

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California gaming tribes are greeting a new ballot initiative by a coalition of commercial sports betting operators with quiet dubiousness.

“As the number of initiatives around sports wagering increases, the more confusion it causes for the voter and when voters are confused, voters tend to vote no,” James Siva, chair of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, said Wednesday during a webinar hosted by the National Indian Gaming Association.

Still, Siva’s reaction was far more restrained than the Seminole Tribe’s instant opposition to a similar online sports-betting initiative unveiled two months ago in Florida.

“I think everyone’s just being really careful right now. I don’t think anyone wanted to react right away, and I think that’s the right move,” Siva said.

“I think tribes are going to sit back and see…if somebody breaks ranks. If somebody breaks ranks among the tribal community and announces something with these operators, that would really change things.”

The next 18 months are “going to be a really critical time” for California tribes, said Siva, who also serves as vice chair of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians in Cabazon, California.

“If we can come together, we can control the destiny of online gaming here; we can control sports wagering. We can accept it; we can fight it — whatever we decide — we can make happen,” Siva said.

The sports-betting proposal filed on Tuesday by a coalition of major operators including DraftKings, FanDuel and BetMGM is being offered as “a complementary bill” to an initiative by a coalition of California gambling tribes which is already on the November 2022 ballot after qualifying in May, according to Siva.

The tribal initiative would legalize retail-only wagering at tribal casinos and racetracks and establish new restrictions on commercial cardroom operations.

Siva, again being discreet, described the addition of online betting in this week’s proposal by seven commercial operators as “a bit of a reach.”

A third initiative to legalize both online and retail wagers supported by the state's cardroom industry was filed earlier this month by a consortium of California city officials.

Unlike this week’s proposal, California tribes have not held back on the cardroom initiative.

“They’re pinched on both sides — from the tribal side as well as the sports-betting operators — and they’re kind of left out in the cold. I don’t have any sympathy for them,” Siva said.

Already there are rumors of a second sports-betting initiative from the cardrooms, according to Brendan Bussmann, director of government affairs for Global Market Advisors.

Richard Schuetz, a former member of the California Gambling Control Commission, said the commercial sports betting initiative is really about internet gambling, not sports wagering.

“All of this energy and all of this activity isn’t going so they can acquire the right to book sports bets in the state of California,” Schuetz said.

“What this is…is an effort on these firms, I believe, to enter into the iGaming space…This is a stepping stone into that.”

For those who might think the commercial sports-betting companies care about the tribes, Schuetz said, “you’re out of your mind; this is business.”

But Schuetz said sports-betting operators should not underestimate the political prowess of gaming tribes in California.

For example, in a rare showing of unity in 1998, California tribes prevailed against Nevada’s commercial casino interests and won 62.4 percent of the vote to pass Proposition 5 which allowed slot machines and banked card games in Indian casinos.

Victor Rocha, the moderator of Wednesday’s webinar, gave short shrift to Siva’s comment that some tribes might be impressed by the sports-betting operators’ pitch that their ballot initiative could help deal with California’s mental health and homeless issues.

“Maybe I’m just cynical, but I was like — homelessness — are you kidding me?” said Rocha, who is an enrolled member of California’ Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians.

“They should have went with free range chickens.”

Another provision in this week’s sports-betting initiative calling for a new Division of Online Sports Betting Control also drew derisive remarks.

“We’ve already seen the different regulatory bodies in California essentially fail to do their job on a variety of different levels,” Siva said.

“They don’t really have any model to look to for an efficient way to regulate a form of gaming.”

With three sports-wagering ballot initiatives already introduced in California and more likely to follow, the chances increase that none will be passed in 2022.

“And when it goes to status quo, tribes win,” Rocha said.

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