Could California Tribes File Own Online Sports Betting Initiative?

Written By Matthew Kredell on July 30, 2021

California Native American tribes already have one sports betting measure headed to the ballot in the November 2022 general election. Could they have another?

Speaking at the National Indian Gaming Association convention in Las Vegas last week, tribal representatives and attorneys spoke of the possibility.

If cardrooms and/or sports betting companies try to put an online sports wagering option on the ballot, California tribes could try to exercise some element of control by filing a second initiative dealing with mobile.

Their measure already qualified for the ballot limits sports bets to in person at tribal casinos and horse racetracks.

“Anybody else who wants sports wagering in California is going to be coming up in 2022, so tribes should expect the sports wagering online platforms and cardrooms to pursue their own avenue as well,” said Steve Bodmer, general counsel for Pechanga. “… How will tribes respond or will tribes be looking at possibly a mobile tribal-backed initiative? All of that’s got to be in the realm of discussion, and we’ll know more by this fall.”

Tribes say CA voters still don’t support mobile wagering

When tribal leaders filed the initiative in November of 2019, they explained that they limited it to brick-and-mortar facilities because their polling showed that Californians didn’t want mobile wagering.

But a lot has changed in that time. During the pandemic, many more people became more reliant on using their phones for nearly everything. Also, additional states across the country have gone live with mobile sports betting.

Still, tribal leaders insist that Californians aren’t ready for mobile wagering.

“From what we surveyed, there’s a distinction between sports betting and mobile sports betting from your chair in your living room in the middle of the NBA finals,” Pechanga tribal chair Mark Macarro said. “That is a bridge too far for California voters.”

Jacob Mejia, spokesman for the initiative campaign, told PlayCA that recent tribal polling conducted during the pandemic still shows that Californians oppose mobile sports wagering.

“So many aspects of our lives have shifted online,” Mejia said. “Yet, when it comes to the question of online betting, we continue to see tremendous apprehension on the part of voters.”

In response to the possibility of filing a tribal mobile sports betting initiative, Mejia simply said “we have options.”

Another possible option is taking out any competing sports betting app measure in a ballot campaign. Even if it means the tribal brick-and-mortar initiative falls as well.

Would California really choose against mobile bets?

Those surveys could be put to the test a year from November if a competing initiative makes the ballot.

While those tribal representatives downplayed the appetite for online sports betting in California, a tribal lawyer wasn’t so sure.

Attorney Scott Crowell participated in the panel with Bodmer. He expressed concern that voters would pick a statewide mobile ballot measure over the retail-only option presented by tribes.

“I think the tribes are going to have to take a serious look at how things develop over the next few months. Because if in November of 2022 there’s a tribal brick-and-mortar proposal versus a cardroom or sports industry statewide mobile proposal, I’m fearful of our prospects.”

Crowell added that the qualified tribal measure can’t be changed. So if the tribes did decide they want a mobile option, it would take filing a second initiative.

“So could there be a tribal mobile and a tribal brick-and-mortar (initiative)?” Crowell asked. “Yes, absolutely. But that would require us to go out and pay the same signature gathers and sign slightly different petitions.”

Florida doesn’t provide avenue to betting apps for CA tribes

The Seminole recently worked out a compact in Florida that could have a far-reaching impact on Indian tribes.

The compact contends that statewide mobile wagering takes place on tribal lands as long as that’s where servers are located.

If this assertion gets federal approval and survives court challenges under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, it’s a game-changer. Any tribe located in a state where sports betting is legal could begin taking mobile wagers.

However, the California tribal initiative specifically requires that patrons be physically present in a facility to place sports wagers.

“My legal view of this is let’s say there is no mobile measure and only the tribal measure passes, then the constitution is limited to retail only and it would take a subsequent constitutional amendment to allow both,” Bodmer told PlayCA. “So Florida doesn’t really have a lot of impact.”

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Matthew Kredell

Matthew has covered efforts to legalize and regulate online gambling since 2007. His reporting on the legalization of sports betting began in 2010 with an article for Playboy Magazine on how the NFL was pushing US money overseas by fighting the expansion of regulated sports betting. A USC journalism alum, Matt started his career as a sportswriter at the Los Angeles Daily News and has written on a variety of topics for Playboy, Men’s Journal, Los Angeles magazine, LA Weekly and ESPN.com.

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