National Indian Gaming Association Conference Chairman Victor Rocha gently prodded. Representatives from the two biggest sports betting companies in the U.S. deftly deflected. The parrying went on for nearly an hour Monday at the NIGA Mid-Year Conference in Temecula, Calif., and the end result was that, to be cliche, actions do speak louder than words.
DraftKings SVP of Business Development Jeremy Elbaum and FanDuel SVP of Business Development Jonathan Edson chose their words carefully, but the words almost didn’t matter. Conceptually, the idea that the pair were sitting on a dais at the Pechanga Casino Hotel talking about their California mobile sports betting initiative to a room full of tribal leaders said it all.
As of Monday, three different groups had filed petitions to run mobile sports betting proposals on the November 2022 ballot in the nation’s biggest state. In September, the commercial proposal known as the “California Solutions to Homelessness and Mental Health Support Act” was filed. Weeks earlier, a group of California cities with card rooms filed a statewide mobile proposal that would allow for wagering through card rooms, racetracks, tribal casinos, and professional sports venues. The tribes almost immediately voiced their displeasure, citing the card rooms’ ongoing flaunting of tribal gaming exclusivity.
The commercial proposal is backed by a coalition of seven companies, headed by DraftKings and FanDuel. When it was filed, sources said the companies believed they had the backing of at least some of California’s tribes, and later maintained that they would not have moved forward without that support.
But weeks later, a group of 43 tribes circulated a letter saying they did not support either proposal. That letter was followed with the filing of a third digital initiative proposal, backed by the powerful San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. That tribe and the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians are among those that signed the opposition letter.
Proposals have some things in common
There are similarities between the commercial and tribal proposals. Both would allow for statewide mobile wagering and would require platforms to be tethered to tribal casinos or horse racetracks. Both also earmark revenue to help solve California’s massive homeless problem.
The question now is this: Will one or both of these initiatives land on the ballot? It’s complicated, and entirely possible that what appear to be opposing sides will come together with one initiative. Given that the tribes would never consider partnering with the card rooms, a partnership between commercial operators and tribes makes sense. They could pool their funds — and the operators have already committed $100 million — to pass a compromise and shut out the card rooms.
California tribes support retail sports betting, skittish over mobile; Tribal officials dismiss cardroom-backed sports-betting initiative as nothing more than “trying to expand Nevada style gaming to their urban cardrooms.” @GamblingComp .@IndianGaming85 https://t.co/QS09TfxiTp pic.twitter.com/781zcFY578
— Chris Sieroty (@sierotyfeatures) November 16, 2021
The operators keep offering up the opportunity to continue discussions.
“The tribes have built something amazing here,” Edson said at the Temecula conference. “No matter where you are in the country , you have to respect that. So, anything you do, you want to make sure that the tribes are central to it.”
DraftKings and FanDuel — as well as Bally’s, BetMGM, Fanatics, Penn National/Barstool Sportsbook, and WynnBET — clearly are still interested in finding a middle ground with the tribes rather than working against them. And the very idea that Edson and Elbaum were in the room made it clear that at least some tribes are willing to continue talking.
“The path isn’t closed yet,” Rocha said at one point.
Are tribes united?
At issue, then, is the possibility the tribes aren’t as united as they might want to be. California has more than 100 tribes operating nearly 70 casinos. They’ve had success in getting gaming initiatives passed in previous years and have created a formidable lobby. But there doesn’t appear to be consensus on whether sports betting should be retail only or if mobile is palatable to the majority.
Tribes across the nation have a different agenda than commercial operators. While making money is a goal, the real end game is keeping their people employed, funding programs to better the lives of those who live on the reservation, and having a legacy to pass down to the next generation.
Sports gambling, Native Americans, Vegas and wine country casinos: Billions of dollars are in play in California as the state sorts out how much legal betting it wants. https://t.co/4pOzxiepLL
— Tim O'Brien (@TimOBrien) November 14, 2021
In the past, when California’s tribes have banded together for changes to gaming regulations, the support has been strong, often with more than half of the tribes signing on to petitions. But in 2019, when the first tribal initiative proposal was filed, it was backed by 18 tribes. That initiative, which would allow for statewide retail wagering at tribal casinos and horse racetracks, has already qualified for the ballot. The second tribal proposal, which includes both retail and statewide mobile, currently has only four proponents: the San Manuel Tribe, the Rincon Band of Luiseno Indians, the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria, and the Wilton Rancheria Tribe.
Interestingly, the Pechanga Tribe — among the most powerful in the state — was a leading driver behind the retail initiative, but has not yet signed on to the tribal mobile proposal. Conversely, the San Manuel Tribe’s endorsement does not appear in the packet submitted to the secretary of state for the retail initiative, but it’s the biggest tribe backing the digital initiative.
California the ‘Holy Grail’ of sports betting
The proposal put forth by the DraftKings and FanDuel consortium received a title and summary from the secretary of state last month. That means its political committee can begin to collect the 997,139 signatures needed to get on the ballot. It also means that the summary for the initiative — which was massaged and updated in October to better reflect what the operators believe are the desires of some tribes — is set in stone. The tribal digital initiative, however, can be amended up to 35 days after its Nov. 5 filing date.
While Indian Country puts up a united front, there appear to still be negotiations going on behind the scenes — among the tribes themselves and between operators and at least some of the tribes. The country’s biggest operators have called California “the Holy Grail” of sports betting, and Elbaum on Monday earnestly said, “That’s why we’re here and why we have our consortium.”
Those words and their presence spoke plenty. While scrambling to get their respective initiatives approved for the ballot, both sides will also practice patience. And so the prodding and parrying will continue and maybe, just maybe, an agreement will be reached.