IGA Tradeshow: Leaders fear corporate infringement on tribal sovereignty via sports betting California

IGA Tradeshow: Leaders fear corporate infringement on tribal sovereignty via sports betting California

  • Buck Wargo, CDC Gaming Reports
April 20, 2022 10:03 PM
  • Buck Wargo, CDC Gaming Reports
  • Other

The corporate interests pushing mobile sports wagering in California are a long-term threat to tribal exclusivity over casino gambling and likely scuttle an initiative in November that allows land-based betting only at Native American casinos and horse tracks, California tribal leaders said Wednesday.

The session on the future of California sports betting drew a large crowd at the Indian Gaming Trade Show & Conference.

Only one of four potential ballot measures has qualified for the November ballot, the tribal initiative started in 2019 allowing retail sports betting only at tribal casinos and the four horserace tracks in the state.

But James Siva, vice chairman of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and chairman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA), said he expects the corporate-backed measure may qualify; it’s pushed by DraftKings, BetMGM, FanDuel, and others and would allow mobile wagering tied into a tribal property. That measure would go into effect even if the tribal initiative passed.

“The tribes have every right to want to control and narrow the field for expanded gaming, because sports betting is mobile gaming, and that foot is in the door,” said Cody Martinez, chairman of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation. “Once they’re in, they’re never going to leave. The golden goose is California. Why would they want a narrow approach when they just can expand, expand, expand for more revenue for their shareholders? Meanwhile, we’re fighting to provide programs and services for our people. To me, it’s not a blurry line and what we’re trying to protect and fight for is Indian gaming in this state. The long-term fight is going to be challenging.”

The corporate entities are expected to spend tens of millions of dollars for the November election. Conference Chairman Victor Rocha said tribes will fight to keep their exclusivity, because revenue in the future is in igaming much more than sports betting.

“The commercial entities are coming for online sports betting now,” Siva said. “What they’re really coming after is full igaming in the future, and that’s the threat and what we need to be cautious about. If you open the door for commercial entities to come into the state and have one form of online gaming, they’ll eventually going to come back and want all forms of online gaming.”

Siva said that historically, if there’s confusion over ballot measures, voters oppose them all. The retail-only component has the strongest backing, while voters are more reluctant to support a mobile option as reflected in polling, tribal leaders said.

“But a whole group of voters weren’t alive when Prop 5 (passed in 1998, allowing tribal casinos) and don’t know the history of what tribes have gone through to exercise their sovereign rights to have gaming in California,” Siva said. “It will be interesting to see how that group reacts to their first tribal issue on the ballot.”

If the measures fail, tribal leaders said the issue isn’t going away. It will likely return on the November 2024 ballot during the presidential election.

“There’s a small possibility that all three pass, but it’s more likely all three fail due to voter confusion,” Siva said.

Rocha said if nothing passes, the tribes win, because the status quo remains.

A coalition led by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and a few others is seeking signatures for a measure that gives tribes exclusive rights to retail and mobile sports betting, an initiative backed by CNIGA, but opposed by many tribes that want to see incremental expansion, starting with retail only. If the retail-only initiative pushed by tribes garners more votes, this second measure would not go into effect, even if it passes.

One initiative pushed by card clubs to include them in offering sports betting and mobile isn’t expected to qualify for the November ballot, tribal leaders said. Instead, they took aim at the corporate initiative, saying once companies get a foothold in sports betting, they’ll want igaming. That’s a threat to California tribes, because their biggest economic engine remains gaming.

“We fought hard to build up our business and so have the other California tribes,” Martinez said. “We’ve built something with our blood, sweat, and tears and we should take our time to get this right. Incremental is how we approach this technology. The qualified measure we have is very narrow to protect Indian gaming.”

Martinez noted that tribes have split on the issue with their own separate mobile measure. He said that’s not healthy and hurts electoral chances now and in the future.

“All of the tribes were united at one time, but this issue on mobile has driven us into different camps,” Martinez said. “Anytime we fight amongst ourselves, it confuses the voter. And over the long-term horizon, the more we continue to look and act like corporate entities instead of tribal governments, it’s a detriment to us and our gaming that we built with so much hard work. We can draw a fine line between a FanDuel and Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation. That’s our name on that building. That’s our reputation and our government that we provide elder programs, infrastructure, and education with. We’re not a corporate entity and the tribes should be very careful. The more you can’t differentiate between a tribal government and corporate entity, that’s a scary road to go down.”

Martinez said he doesn’t envy Chairman Siva and how he’s trying to manage the tribe’s competing interests.