Some Indian casinos cautious about sports wagering

Some Indian casinos cautious about sports wagering

  • Nick Sortal
January 31, 2018 2:01 AM

Like other gambling industry members, Indian tribes are pondering their next move as the possibility of legal U.S. sports betting inches toward becoming a reality.

In December, the U.S. Supreme Court heard an appeal against the constitutionality of PASPA, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. Experts such as Daniel Wallach are expecting a ruling in favor of the plaintiff, New Jersey. The Supreme Court might rule that PASPA is completely unconstitutional, or it might issue a narrower ruling favoring New Jersey.

The court’s decision could open the door for sports gambling nationwide. The American Gaming Association, which has members from both the commercial and the Native American casino industry, has been making the case long and hard for casinos to take over what the AGA says are mostly illegal operations. Wallach says that up to fourteen other states could quickly begin offering legal sports betting if the court ruling allows that.

Earlier this month, Jonodev Chaudhuri, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, was very coy during a talk at a meeting of the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States in Miami. After all, state legislators would be the ones determining sports betting regulations if PASPA is overturned. “We have a standard line and it’s by no means a cop-out,” Chaudhuri said. “We stay in our lane. We’re not legislators, we’re regulators.”

But the fact is, for many tribes, adding another gambling enterprise – one that doesn’t make that much money, really – could be difficult. Chaudhuri notes that most of tribal facilities are small and barely make payroll, but still provide essential revenue for the well-being of tribes. “They’re basically jobs programs, located in rural communities,” he said.

Some experts expect that a dedicated sports book would be created in fewer than 100 of the approximately 480 tribal gambling operations in 28 states. That’s because so many tribal casinos are just too small. Of the more than $30 billion in revenue produced by Indian gaming, just a couple dozen casinos are responsible for about three-fourths of the haul.

Those numbers are why the National Indian Gaming Association leaders say that as they gather input from its members, potential support so far is sharply divided. “We need to find out if Indian country is ready to move ahead if there is a full or partial repeal [of PASPA],” Debbie Thundercloud, NIGA chief of staff, told Dave Palermo in an article for Legal Sports Report. “So far the reaction has been mixed.”

Palermo noted that opposition to sports betting had been voiced by tribes in California, Minnesota, and Washington. He forecasts support from the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the larger Oklahoma tribes, the two Connecticut tribes, and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama.

Some of the tribes also are questioning what part sports betting would play in a larger package of possibilities, such as Internet gaming. There also are questions of tribal-state compacts, many of which have clauses that guarantee exclusivity.

Others challenge the profitability of sports betting. A sports book, run right, makes about 5 percent on the dollar. A bank of slot machines in the same space makes 8 to 10 percent, and the overhead is lower. But those favoring sports betting argue that having live games and people with a vested interest will attract more patrons overall – and that would grow the bottom line.

If all this sounds like the debates regarding other forms of gambling, such as skill-based games, you’re right. And, as is the case in both the commercial and Native American casino gaming worlds, each situation has a unique set of individual circumstances.

In other words, there’s still a heck of a lot to figure out.