Tribal Members Express Grim Outlook For California Sports Betting

Written By Steven Schult on October 12, 2022 - Last Updated on November 2, 2022
CA Tribes Sports Betting

The polling data for this year’s ballot initiative in California paints a grim picture of sports betting.

According to the latest numbers, neither California sports betting initiative is likely to pass. As a result, it will probably be at least a few years before legal sports betting comes to the Golden State.

However, leaders of California’s tribal nations believe that’s probably an optimistic timeline.

During a Tuesday panel at G2E titled “California Sports Betting: Tribal Campaign Update,” prominent tribal members said that voters didn’t care about California sports betting. They all struggled to articulate a scenario that ends with betting in their state.

Both proposals are struggling to gain support

There are two ballot initiatives on the 2022 ballot that could legalize sports betting in California. Proposition 26 would allow in-person wagering at participating tribal casinos and four horse tracks, while Proposition 27 would allow major online sportsbooks to operate in the state.

Unsurprisingly, nearly all tribes support Prop 26, while the well-funded online operators are behind Prop 27.

But according to numbers from the Public Policy Institute of California, neither is likely to pass. Only 34% of registered voters will say “yes” to Prop 27. The numbers are only slightly better for Prop 26.

The lack of support for the competing initiatives could be coming from money spent on attack ads. To date, supporters and opponents of the initiatives have spent nearly $450 million, and much of that has come on media campaigns denigrating the other proposal.

Tribes don’t see a “path forward” for sports betting

Victor Rocha, the conference chairman of the Indian Gaming Association, said the public just isn’t interested in the issue.

“In California, sports betting is soft. And mobile is even softer. So, the tribes said, ‘You know what? Here’s the path. We are going to take the cautious path forward.’ Now, there is no path.”

Rocha’s statement elaborated on comments made by Jacob Mejia, the director of Public Affairs for the Pechanga Tribe.

Mejia described Prop 26 as the first step in a mature California sports betting market. While echoing the sentiment that the public doesn’t care, he said tribal leaders believed retail sportsbooks should launch first.

“We have not spent one dime on ‘Yes on 26.’ Not one dime. And it’s not trailing nearly as badly as ‘Yes on 27.’ Why is that? Because the right way forward was an incremental methodical, responsible, careful way forward. That was the intention… Californians don’t support online gaming.”

During the question-and-answer portion of the panel, one listener asked if the cardroom provision caused Prop 26’s demise.

Mejia said the reason Prop 26 was failing was because of the toxic environment created by the online operators. The negative media campaign around the initiatives has caused the public to view the issue negatively.

In other words, he believes if it weren’t for DraftKings and FanDuel, sports betting would be in California next year.

Are Californians just wired differently than the rest of the country?

Rocha doubled down on the notion that there is no path forward by bringing polling data into the fray.

“Based on the numbers in California, they just aren’t that crazy about sports betting. There wasn’t a football team in California for 20 years. And nobody cared. It’s a different cultural thing in California.”

Mejia added more concrete numbers to support Rocha’s premise.

“When you ask, ‘If this were legalized, how likely would you be to participate?’ Less than 20% say that they would participate in this whole thing.”

He also noted one other major difference between California and other legalized markets.

In most other states, support for sports betting was nearly unanimous. However, as Mejia points out, most states legalized it through the legislature, not from ballot initiatives.

“California is the first state where there has been a contested election over online sports betting. Most of the other states have been approved by the legislature. I’m aware of only two other states that did it through elections: Maryland and Colorado. But they are not contested like they are in California.”

Most major California newspapers wrote op-eds against both sports betting ballot initiatives. One of the most common arguments against either proposal is that this should be done in the legislature.

But Mejia quickly axed the idea of this getting done by elected officials. It’s especially unlikely in the wake of failed ballot initiatives and a recent redistricting process that will result in about 430 new legislators.

The path forward ends in online casino gaming

The four-person panel was rounded out by James Siva, the vice chair of the Morongo Tribe, and Sara Dutschke, the Chairwoman of the Ione Band of Miwok Indians.

None of the four articulated a clear path forward for sports betting. But based on comments made by Rocha near the end of the talk, it appears they believe sports betting will come at some point.

“They are fighting to steal our access to online gaming, and that’s where the revenue is. This isn’t about sports betting. This is about online gaming. The revenue isn’t that big in online sports betting, but it’s big in online gaming because you don’t have to split it. It doesn’t go to sports betting companies. There are no integrity fees. That’s where the money is.”

Photo by Shutterstock.com
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Steven Schult

Steve serves as managing editor for PlayCA and a handful of other sites across Catena Media. The New York native is a veteran of the gambling world. He started covering high-stakes tournaments in 2009 for some of poker's most prominent media outlets before adding the broader US gaming market to his beat in 2018.

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