Tribal-Commercial Partnerships Are Best Bet For CA Sports Betting

Written By Adam Hensley on March 27, 2024
A picture of a handshake for a story about how partnerships could change the outlook for California sports betting prospects.

California sports bettors miss out on another March Madness after another ballot initiative failed this year.

It’s the second time in as many election cycles that California sports betting failed to even get on the ballot. But this year’s failure could give hope to bettors in the Golden State, who are watching yet another March Madness without a legal betting option.

This year’s failed attempt brought tribes and commercial operators together

Kasey Thompson was one of the driving forces behind this year’s initiative. His plan gave full control of the industry to California’s tribes. Even so, the state’s tribes weren’t on board.

In fact, California Nations Indian Gaming Association Chairman James Siva called the attempt “cynical.”

“Let this failure also be a warning to others that seek to dubiously enter the California gaming market. Using tribes for your own gain will get you nowhere.”

Since Thompson and his partners didn’t have the full support of California’s tribal nations, they pulled the plug on the signature-gathering process in mid-January.

However, it wasn’t just the tribes that were ready to fight against the proposals. The nation’s largest commercial operators also wanted nothing to ensure this initiative failed.

DraftKings, FanDuel, BetMGM and Fanatics made up the Sports Betting Alliance. Thompson’s group approached the SBA seeking financial support, but the SBA turned them down.

The commercial operators had no incentive to hand over what would be the largest sports betting market in the country to the tribes. It’s what they specifically fought against in 20222.

But in doing so, they teamed up with the California tribes to fight against Thompson’s push. The former adversaries had a common enemy to fight against. The short-lived common goal could bring the two entities closer together, making it easy to reach a compromise with a sports betting ballot initiative in 2026.

Several commercial operators have relationships with tribes in California

The idea of the two entities compromising on sports betting isn’t so far-fetched when you realize tribal-commercial partnerships exist in the California casino industry. Unlike sports betting, California law gives tribes exclusivity over Las Vegas-style casino properties.

For instance, the entertainment industry titan MGM Resorts partners with the North Folk Tribe. Thunder Valley Casino Resort is listed as one of MGM’s “preferred partners” on its website.

Earlier this year, Station Casinos entered into an agreement with the North Folk Rancheria of Mono Indians. With Station’s assistance, the tribe will operate a new gaming facility off of Highway 99 near Madera. The 10,000-square-foot casino will have more than 2,000 slot machines and video poker options and 40 table games.

North Folk Rancheria chairperson Fred Beihn welcomed the partnership.

“Our tribe is grateful to have a partner so committed to the principles of tribal sovereignty and to bringing the full benefits of tribal gaming to our tribe and community.”

Caesars, another major name in the entertainment business, has a significant presence in Southern California. The company partnered with the Rincon Tribe at Harrah’s Southern California, a casino located in San Diego county.

Quite the change from the 2022 ballot initiative

Back in 2022, FanDuel and DraftKings went head-to-head against California’s tribes in an attempt to corner the market themselves.

The two helped to fund Proposition 27, an initiative that would have given commercial operators access to the California sports betting market. It was a stark contrast to the tribes’ Proposition 26, one that called for allowing only in-person sports betting at the state’s tribal casinos and horse tracks.

Neither proposal reached the finish line, as voters rejected both measures.

Now in 2024, it seems major operators and the tribes might be on the same page.

Could this open the door to California sports betting?

Let’s be clear: If legal sports betting is going to work in California, it will go through the tribes. From the start, this recent effort was viewed by almost all tribes – but not by all – as outsiders pushing their own interests.

What the operators in SBA realize, as evident by their stance against the recent push, is that for them to be able to get a slice of the sports betting pie, it will come from the hands of the tribes.

And that’s the case with other states, not just California.

In Connecticut, there are two entities in the legal gambling market: the Connecticut Lottery and the state’s tribal casinos. As evident by its name, the lottery takes care of draw games, scratch-offs and keno. The tribes, meanwhile, control casino gambling.

Two tribes, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the Mohegan Tribe, operate two casinos. Each tribe has a partnership with an operator, and in turn, when online sports betting launched, those two operators were the only ones working within state lines.

DraftKings runs the sportsbook at Foxwoods Resort Casino, a Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation property. Meanwhile, FanDuel operates the sportsbook at Mohegan Sun, run by the Mohegan Tribe.

Last year, Siva spoke at the Indian Gaming Association Mid-Year Conference, which ironically was held at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut. He said operators such as FanDuel or DraftKings seem more willing now to partner with tribes on sports betting.

“Very much so. I think (operators) realize that California is a lot different than they had anticipated being on the outside. I think they have a platform and a gameplan for them that has worked in other states. And I think they thought it would work here in California.”

Photo by PlayCA
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Adam Hensley

Adam Hensley is a journalist with experience covering online sports betting and gambling across Catena Media. His byline has appeared in the Associated Press, Sports Illustrated and sites within the USA Today Network.

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