California Tribal Leaders Don’t Rule Out 2024 Wagering Initiative

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California tribal leaders Tuesday afternoon wouldn’t directly commit to the idea of a sports betting initiative for the 2024 ballot, but they didn’t shut down the idea, either.

“There isn’t a specific plan yet, but the polls are showing that with brick-and-mortar, that voters trust us,” Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris said at the annual Indian Gaming Association Convention in San Diego. “My feeling is that we should consider that.”

Pechanga Band of Luisieno Indians Chairman Mark Macarro had a little more cynical view: “There are no solid plans for an initiative, but if [tribes] can’t agree on a plan, we should have a defensive initiative ready in case we need it. It’s an expensive defense, but it works.”

“Expensive defense” might be the understatement of the year, as California’s tribes collectively spent about $150 million in 2022 to kill Proposition 27, a mobile wagering initiative put forth by a group of seven commercial operators led by BetMGM, DraftKings, and FanDuel. The tribes were successful in killing the initiative in the most expensive such referendum campaign in U.S. history. Those for and against the measure collected upward of $450 million for a result that ultimately kept the status quo in the nation’s biggest state.

It feels like 2024 would be an aggressive timeline for either the tribes or commercial operators to come back with a sports betting proposal so soon after months of negative advertising on both sides. The tribes are still feeling the sting, as Macarro referred to Proposition 27 ads as “divisive and disgusting.” It also seems clear that California’s 100-plus tribes are still not all on the same page about what they want legal sports betting, and eventually iCasino, to look like.

Tribes need to educate other tribes

Speakers on the convention’s “What’s Next for Sports Betting in California?” panel were united that tribes should drive the process and that in-person wagering with no digital component should be the first step. They said that the bigger, more successful gaming tribes must educate the smaller tribes and find consensus before moving forward.

“Our job is to educate the smaller tribes,” Sarris said. “It’s our job to get them to trust us.”

Sarris’ Graton Rancheria owns the Graton Resort and Casino in northern California near Santa Rosa. That tribe along with Pechanga, the Rincon Band of Luiseno Indians, and the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians are among the wealthiest and most powerful gaming tribes in the state.

Pechanga Vice President of Public and External Affairs Jacob Mejia said polling shows support for tribal gaming but not for digital sports betting. He told convention attendees that the operators had done “a big disservice” to California, and that the tribes had a “methodical way to do this” that commercial operators disrupted.

In California, any expansion of gaming must go to the voters. Given the rift within the tribes — three stood with the commercial operators on Proposition 27, while another group of three put forth and later withdrew their own mobile initiative — stakeholders might not act quickly, even for retail-only wagering.

“It’s going to take some time,” Macarro said, “but I think we’ll get it done.”


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