It was clear in the aftermath of the 2022 election that a path to legal sports wagering in California isn’t possible without the support of the state’s casino-owning Native American tribes.
With two failed sports betting ballot initiatives in the rear-view mirror, fast forward to July 2023.
Once again, there is hope that sports betting in California could come sooner rather than later — sooner being within a decade. This rose-colored-yet-cautious outlook stems from a recent victory handed to the Seminole Tribe of Florida in the DC Circuit of Appeals. That court overturned a 2021 decision that halted sports betting in the Sunshine State.
Background on the Seminole Tribe case
For one month in 2021, Floridians enjoyed sports wagering because of a new 30-year compact between the state and the Seminoles. However, two non-tribal operators, the owners of the Magic City Casino in Miami and the Bonita Springs Poker Room, successfully sued to block the compact. Sports betting in Florida ended abruptly.
The two plaintiffs argued the compact violated the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) because it allowed sports betting to take place outside of tribal lands. The Seminoles argued that this was not accurate since the computer servers hosting the sports betting technology for the tribe’s Hard Rock Sportsbook app and its casinos around the state resided on tribal land.
Last month’s court decision overruled the 2021 verdict, determining that it was invalid and made in error. And in an interesting twist, Magic City changed ownership. Its new owners are the Alabama-based Poarch Band of Creek Indians.
So, what does the Seminole Tribe decision mean for California?
Path to tribal-owned legal sports betting in California?
The California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA) and other federally recognized tribes played a minor role in helping overturn the ban on sports betting in Florida.
The groups filed Amicus “friend-of-the-court” briefs in support of the Seminole appeal to the 2021 ruling. They argued the ban threatened to exclude tribes from the sports betting market and the “ability to achieve the goals of tribal self-sufficiency and self-governance” intended by the IGRA.
“I think this was a really impactful decision for both the Seminoles and Indian Country,” Jacob Mejia, vice president of public and external affairs for the Pechanga Development Corp, said to PlayUSA of the new ruling. “It affirms the rights of tribes and the state to enter into IGRA-centric compacts that not only address IGRA issues but also issues of online gaming.”
While the tribe-backed retail sports betting proposition on last November’s ballot failed, it garnered more support than the online sports betting measure sponsored by out-of-state operators including DraftKings, FanDuel and BetMGM. DraftKings CEO Jason Robbins admitted after the election that tribal opposition was insurmountable. Some tribe representatives have made it clear they believe sports betting will only become legal in the state if the tribes are in control.
The Seminole Tribe’s hub-and-spoke model as a template
Looking at the Seminole Tribe’s approach to sports betting, California tribes could try to model that “hub-and-spoke” model.
Tribal-owned sportsbooks would serve as the central hub for distributed sports betting offerings at retail locations and online. However, getting another proposition on the ballot for 2024 is unlikely unless tribes dish out big bucks to finance a massive signature-gathering effort.
The deadline to file a petition for an initiative is next month. The state attorney general must approve the language for the initiative and clear it for signature gathering. The tribes would need to gather 874,641 signatures within 180 days.
An initiative for 2026 is a more realistic approach. Furthermore, the blanketing of negative ads on TV and in print mailers for the failed 2022 initiatives left a poor impression on voters and may still linger in their minds.
“One thing about last year is it really seemed to sour the appetite for sports wagering in California,” Dan Little, chief intergovernmental affairs officer for San Manuel Band of Missions Indians, told PlayUSA.
Even with the positive outcome for the Seminoles in Florida, he is not expecting a 2024 effort.
“Our polling continues to show there’s just not support for online sports wagering or any sports wagering in California right now,” Little said. “So, I don’t think it changes anything for ’24.”