Late last week, the future of Connecticut legal sports betting started to look a little bleak.
“I can’t describe what a setback and insult Tuesday was,” Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Chairman Rodney Butler told the Hartford Courant late last week. “It almost killed the deal.”
The key word there is “almost.”
As of Monday, there still was no deal between the state and both of its federally recognized tribes, despite a soft March 7 deadline suggested by lawmakers. But on local television station last week, Butler promised there is “going to be betting this fall on the NFL.” Now is the time to pick up the pieces.
To recap, Gov. Ned Lamont last week announced that the state had a deal with the Mohegan Tribe, which operates the Mohegan Sun Casino, to allow for legal sports wagering. Lamont revealed key details of the deal, including the tax rate on sports wagering revenue, and that the tribe had agreed to allow the Connecticut Lottery to have 15 retail sports betting locations and a digital platform.
Pequots vocal critics of Lamont’s actions
But lost in the announcement was this: The Mashantucket Pequot have not agreed to the deal.
“You’ve got two tribes that probably have two different views about what they need, and that caused one of them to walk away,” said Brendan Bussmann, a partner at Global Market Advisors. “This is the first time in four years of Connecticut hearings that we’ve actually made progress, and I think that’s because we finally have consensus, and that’s because we started debating this before PASPA fell.”
Bur the Lamont-Mohegan announcement incensed Butler, and he’s been vocal all over Connecticut ever since.
“It significantly set us back, it almost killed the deal entirely,” Butler told News12 late last week. “And there are different reasons than just economics. I am trying to avoid a Shakespearean tragedy. What they did to essentially blindside the Pequot felt eerily familiar to things in our history that we don’t want to repeat. I think it’s recoverable, I hope it’s recoverable.”
And on the local NBC station’s Face the Facts, he said, “There is no deal without all three parties agreeing, so there was no deal to announce. It was probably some kind of pressure tactic to get everybody to the table and get this concluded. But it had the reverse effect.
“We didn’t agree with the approach that the governor took and the Mohegans took, but we certainly understand that this deal is much more important to both tribes than to sit and dwell on poor choices on anyone’s part.”
Said Bussmann: “First and foremost, obviously, the governor by announcing the deal ended up driving a wedge between the tribes and may have slowed the process in doing so.”
Lamont’s office walked back a bit on its comments last week, acknowledging that the Pequots must be “part of any agreement” and “urging” the tribe to continue negotiations. The Mohegans released a statement saying they agreed to a deal so as not to miss another opportunity to do so and saying that they “value, respect, and appreciate the role of our fellow sovereign tribal nation the Mashantucket Pequots.”
The Mashantucket Pequot own and operate the Foxwoods Casino, the oldest Las Vegas-style gaming location in New England. Foxwoods already has a partnership in place with DraftKings to operate sports betting when a deal is struck.
Wampum, fur, moneylines
Conceptually, the idea that the Mohegans stood with the state in announcing the deal was unusual. Tribal nations in most states negotiate as a united front with a state government, and while there are certainly rivalries and disagreements among those nations, they are usually solved behind closed doors.
“While in theory, separate agreements are possible in Connecticut [or elsewhere], it would seem to be a lot more likely that a deal gets done if everyone gets the same deal,” said John Holden, an assistant professor in the Spears School of Business at Oklahoma State who follows tribal gaming.
It’s not the first time in the two tribes’ history that they have been on opposing sides. Butler pointed to the Pequot War in 1636-37 as another time the Mohegans (and Narragansetts) sided against his tribe.
“It opened up wounds between our tribal nations that go back centuries,” he told the Courant.
The Pequot War was fought over rights to wampum and fur, and by the time it occurred, the Pequot were the dominant tribe in what is now the state of Connecticut. At the time, the Dutch and the Pequots controlled trade, and the Pequots controlled other tribes in the area. When the English came, they sought to get in on the trade game, and many of the tribes that the Pequot had under their thumb — the Mohegans among them — sided with the British.
The turning point in the war, which the Pequots initially dominated, was the Mystic Massacre, during which the British and their Native American allies burned the Pequot village at Mystic. The Mohegans were among the those in the second line of defense, who shot any Pequot that had escaped the village and made it through English defenses. After that skirmish, Pequot leaders and warriors were tracked and killed while women and children were taken as slaves. The battle was a turning in the Pequot War, which in the end devastated the tribe, and left the English and their allies in power.
OK tribes broke off and were shunned
No wonder Butler doesn’t want to revisit the past. And while the pillaging of villages and killing of other humans is a wholly different experience than haggling over the details of legal sports betting, tribal communities keep their history alive through oral stories that can make a battle or betrayal that is nearly 400 years old seem a part of the present.
Connecticut isn’t the only state in which tribes have broken their alliances over sports betting. Last year, a pair of tribes in Oklahoma negotiated pacts with Gov. Kevin Stitt to allow sports wagering. The net result was that the case landed in the state Supreme Court, and the Comanche Nation and Otoe-Missouria were suspended from the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association.
❗️NEW: Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter pushes back on today's compacts, saying that while Gov. Stitt is authorized to negotiate compacts, sports betting cannot be included in a compact because it's not in the State-Tribal Gaming Act. pic.twitter.com/MgZ1LF7RNZ
— Dillon Richards (@KOCODillon) April 21, 2020
The federal government, acting under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, signed off on the pacts, but Oklahoma’s Supreme Court in July ruled the pacts invalid, saying that Stitt overstepped his power in negotiating them. The Supreme Court in the fall then denied Stitt’s September request for a second hearing.
CT tribes have long wanted iGaming
In Michigan, the only state where tribes have agreed to be regulated and taxed by the state, those in Indian Country chose not to compact, according to a source, in order to make sports betting legal off reservation. After a shotgun launch for all operators in late January, nine of the state’s 12 federally recognized tribes and three commercial sportsbooks now offer digital sports betting throughout the state.
Mobile betting goes live in 30 minutes! I wrote a guide on what to know and what to expect as legal online sports betting arrives in Michigan.https://t.co/s5GXvJwbZ0
— Phil Friend (@Phil_Friend) January 22, 2021
Connecticut has only two tribes compared with Oklahoma’s 39 or Michigan’s 12, which on some level likely makes what Butler sees as a betrayal by the Mohegans even more stinging.
But putting the Pequot War and the latest rift between the tribes aside, Butler has continuously said that making a deal with the state is in the best interests of his tribe — it will not only allow the Pequots to continue to honor the past but to plan for the future. To that end, both tribes made critical concessions, including allowing the lottery to get in on sports betting and agreeing to a relatively high tax rate. But both were things that Butler, at least, felt were needed to get what the tribes have wanted all along — digital platforms for both sports betting and iGaming.
“The reality is that this is the deal we have been pushing for years,” Butler told News12.