The National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) convention will return to California next week for the first time since 2019, at a momentous juncture as tribes and other gambling interests fight for a piece of the sports-betting pie in the state.
As such, sports betting, along with igaming, will be a major focus of the Indian Gaming Tradeshow & Convention that kicks off April 19 and runs through April 22 at the Anaheim Convention Center.
The fight over legalizing sports betting will go before California voters in November when they’ll decide whether to allow retail sports betting only at tribal casinos and four horserace tracks. That’s the only initiative that so far has enough signatures to be on the ballot, but others may be coming.
A second prominent measure that’s yet to qualify is being pushed by DraftKings, BetMGM, FanDuel, and other sportsbook giants that would allow mobile wagering tied into a tribal property.
A third initiative would allow retail sports betting at tribal casinos and racetracks, but include card clubs and mobile gaming as well. Card clubs are opposing measures backed by tribes.
In a fourth measure, a coalition led by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and others is seeking signatures for a measure that gives tribes exclusive rights to retail and mobile sports betting.
In a state where only tribes can operate casinos, sports betting in California will be so lucrative that as much as $200 million could be spent by election day for control of this vertical.
California would join Washington, Arizona, South Dakota, New Mexico, Wyoming, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Connecticut, and New York where tribes offer sports betting, said Brendan Bussmann, managing partner of B Global.
“Given that the conference is in California and the referendum is on the state ballot, it’s obvious what we had to do,” said Victor Rocha, the NIGA conference chairman. “California gaming is the big enchilada. The tribes feel it’s not really about sports betting, but it’s about online gaming, because they want to keep exclusivity for the next generation of gamblers.”
On April 19, the conference’s educational sessions will focus only on igaming and sports betting. Joe Asher, the president of sports betting with IGT, will be interviewed by Rocha.
On April 20, the conference dives into the headline topic with “Election 2022: California Sports Betting.” The 50-minute discussion will focus on the four separate ballot initiatives, how tribes are responding, threats and opportunities for tribal sports betting, and what to expect in and after the November election.
“As you look at the fifth largest economy (in the world), there are a lot of sports betting opportunities,” Bussmann said. “It can be the largest in the United States, depending on how it’s configured. We’ll see if the ballot helps decide that.”
It’s one of six sessions on sports betting that second day, including whether the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act is obsolete, which Rocha said has hindered the expansion of tribal sports betting.
“I leaned heavily into sports betting. DraftKings, FanDuel, Caesars, BetMGM, Playtech — everyone is involved (at the conference),” Rocha said. “Sports betting expansion has accelerated this discussion in Indian country. A lot of the tribes are hindered by IGRA. There’s been a lot of apprehension and some tribes just didn’t want to hear it. But it’s here and knocking on the door so we’re talking about it.”
The conference, however, isn’t all about sports betting and igaming. Sessions also address the future of casinos, tribal purchases of commercial casinos, labor uncertainty, regulating casino-gaming technology, transforming the guest experience, slot trends, esports, women in tribal gaming, the risk of cyberattacks, the future of table games, and cashless gaming. There’s even a discussion on the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on gaming.
Julia Carcamo, president and chief brand strategist of J Carcamo & Associates, will host a discussion on social influencers, the most powerful casino marketers. It features Justin Shank of Shank Marketing, the Slot Cats, and Kelly Koffler and Brian Green, vice president and assistant general manager of Graton Resort & Casino.
Carcamo said the role of casino influencers is only expanding, while Shank said there’s social influencer opportunities for slots and tables, because they “are commanding armies of loyal followers” to visit gaming floors around the world.
“Marketers are looking at everything that’s new on how they can communicate,” Carcamo said. “A lot of properties are starting to see new faces in the doors.”
Also Wednesday, Carcamo is leading a discussion on branding that features tribal casino operators on the ever-increasing competition for the entertainment dollar.
NIGA boasted record-breaking attendance of 7,000 at the convention in Las Vegas in July after the April 2020 show in San Diego was canceled at the beginning of the pandemic. Attendance is expected to fall short of the record Las Vegas show, but will still be one of the largest crowds ever, with estimates in excess of 5,000.
“I think the buzz around NIGA now is back to the norm of before the world went crazy on us,” Carcamo said. “I’m really excited, because I think NIGA’s trade show floor is going to be a lot fuller than last year. From what I understand, a lot of the manufacturers showing will be showing off new products and that wasn’t a big part of the show last year.”
Rocha said that when they held the conference in Las Vegas, the show was more of a relief for people, “because it was the first place that was open” after vaccines became available and the virus had waned at the time.
“Here, I think people feel a little freer from the pandemic and are trying to get back to normal,” Rocha said. “This is as close to normal as we’ve ever been.”