California tribal leaders dismiss 2024 sports-betting ballot measure

November 8, 2023 8:55 PM
Photo: California Nations Indian Gaming Association
  • Buck Wargo, CDC Gaming Reports
November 8, 2023 8:55 PM
  • Buck Wargo, CDC Gaming Reports

The chairman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association dismissed attempts by an outside group to put a sports-betting measure on the November 2024 ballot, saying voters aren’t ready to take up the issue again.

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The future of California sports betting was addressed Wednesday in a webinar hosted by the Indian Gaming Association. Paperwork filed in late October with the state proposes a ballot measure that would give the governor authority to negotiate agreements with tribes for online and in-person sports wagering. It would require nearly 900,000 signatures to be placed on the November ballot.

In November 2022, California voters, after hundreds of millions of dollars was spent on advertising, soundly rejected competing measures to bring sports wagering to California. One was backed by tribes involving in-person wagering at tribal casinos and horse tracks, the second was pushed by commercial out-of-state operators enabling online wagering.

The newest proposal was submitted by Kasey Thompson and Reeve Collins, co-founders of Pala Interactive, which has since been sold to Boyd Gaming. Tribal leaders are upset, because it was done without reaching out to CNIGA first.

James Siva, chairman of the CNIGA, wasn’t enthused about going back to voters. He said anything the tribes want to do with sports betting is going to be based on information and data.

“All of the data shows the California voter is just not ready for sports betting at this moment in time regardless of whether it’s tribally or commercially led,” Siva said. “We’re trying to base our decisions and path forward on information and not just how we feel. Tribes decided to wait an election cycle and let sports betting move out of the media and out of the voter’s mind, then work our way back into it in future cycles. This throws it right back into the voter’s face, and a lot of voters are just tired of the conversation. It was the most expensive proposition fight in the history of California. There was media nonstop – commercials and billboards. The average Californian was overwhelmed. They didn’t know which one did what and which one to vote for. Such confusion remains with the average voter. Now is not the time to get this done.”

Siva said any new form of Class III gaming that comes into the state starts and ends with tribes having exclusive rights, other than the carve out for race tracks offering sports betting. He said any pursuit of a ballot measure has to be led by tribes, rather than anyone else.

“It goes back to the approach,” Siva said. “It goes back to holding tribes’ feet to the fire, as you are either going to get on board with this or we’re going to do it for you. That’s never going to work for us.”

Victor Rocha, conference chairman of the Indian Gaming Association, agreed that voters aren’t ready for a new ballot proposal. He noted that Thompson and Collins’s offer to pay for the ballot measures and help rid the state of illegal gaming was interesting and “not such a bad thing,” but the problem was the approach of not reaching out to tribes.

“This creates a runway for 2026,” Rocha said. “I don’t think anyone in their right mind thinks that 2024 is going to happen. The fatigue and coming back for online gaming would make us look like morons. The one thing we’ve been fortunate with voters is our honesty and being authentic.”

Siva said that while it raises a framework for 2026, it also “starts to muddy the water” of who is going to push the issue, the tribes or a non-tribal entity.

“It’s going to send a shot across the bow for the commercial industry – the DraftKings and FanDuels of the world – that if they don’t put something together, they might get cut out of the market altogether. It puts everyone on high alert,” Siva said.

Rocha said the only way sports betting will get done in California is in an incremental way: retail first, then online.

“This is a completely different strategy than we were talking about,” Rocha said. “For me, it’s dead in the water no matter who pays for it. You’re going to make it worse for sports betting down the road when it comes to California voters.”

In an article published Wednesday in PlayUSA, the backers of the amendment said some tribes have expressed interest, but are withholding any support until they see the amended language of a ballot measure by the Dec. 1 deadline.

James Giles, executive director of the Indian Gaming Association, said commercial operators are likely looking at what’s going on with the latest attempt and worry they’re going to get cut out of California.

Siva said some of the commercial operators reached out to tribes after the failed ballot measure and said they didn’t understand the California gaming market and how tribes developed it. Now, many understand they have to work with the tribes instead of trying to dictate. “If you want to come into gaming in California, there’s going to be a relationship with tribes.”