California has largely ignored the modern-day sports betting gold rush sparked in May of 2018, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a 26-year old ban on sportsbook operation outside of Nevada.
While major markets like New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois have been busy legalizing and launching statewide sports betting industries, all is quiet on the western front.
A bill introduced last year languished in the state Legislature without ever escaping the committee debate phase. Earlier this year, a privately funded petition campaign required to add sports betting legalization to the 2020 ballot failed to secure even a single signature.
And while lawmakers had a new bill under consideration during the last legislative session, it also failed to garner any significant traction amidst intense opposition from California’s powerful Native American tribal gambling lobby.
Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians Back Sports Betting Bill
But that gridlock may have ended last week, when a coalition of 18 tribes led by the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians filed paperwork with the state’s Attorney General’s office seeking to add their own referendum to next year’s ballot.
When approved, the tribes can begin circulating petitions for an amendment to the state Constitution officially titled the California Sports Wagering Regulation and Unlawful Gambling Enforcement Act.
From there, a signature campaign would need to garner 997,139 endorsements from registered voters – a figure based on eight percent of the last gubernatorial vote tally – to add a sports betting regulation referendum to the 2020 ballot.
Voters recently used a similar bill-to-ballot process to make Colorado the 18th state to legalize sports betting since the federal ban ended last year.
Stakeholders Speak Out on Controversial Sports Betting Proposal
Mark Macarro, who serves as chairman of the Pechanga tribe, issued the following statement to announce the ballot initiative submission:
“Californians should have the choice to participate in sports wagering at highly regulated, safe and experienced gaming locations.
We are very proud to see tribes from across California come together for this effort, which represents an incremental but important step toward giving Californians the freedom to participate in this new activity in a responsible manner.”
California Nations Indian Gaming Association Supports Sports Betting
California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA) chairman Steve Stallings added his own statement in support of the proposal:
“The tribally sponsored initiative filed today to amend California’s Constitution so as to authorize and regulate sports wagering is the best example of well-written and responsible sports betting policy presented to date.
A strong, well-regulated gaming industry is of utmost importance to California’s tribal governments and the public.
This initiative allows sports wagering in a responsible manner and provides for transparency and strict regulation.”
Under the proposal, sports betting in California would be exclusively operated by tribal gaming entities. The Golden State is home to 69 tribally run casinos and card rooms, and the industry generates $7 billion in annual revenue.
Until recently, all casino-style gambling in the state was controlled by dozens of tribes, but commercial card clubs have increasingly exploited loopholes in the law to offer “player-banked” versions of blackjack, baccarat, and other table games.
California Gaming Association president Kyle Kirkland, who represents the commercial card club lobby, told the Los Angeles Times that any bill limiting sports betting to tribal casinos wouldn’t be in the state’s best interest:
“We would be disappointed at any initiative that allowed sports betting but that didn’t include card clubs.”
Hurdles Remain as Tribes Remain Hesitant on iGaming
Another factor working against California’s snail-paced embrace of legal sports betting stems from the tribes’ adamant opposition to all forms of online gambling.
Tribal coalitions have consistently blocked any effort to regulate online poker and casino games in the state, but most states that have set up successful sports betting industries to date rely heavily on online / mobile wagering. Predictably, under the tribes’ proposal, sportsbooks would be forced to limit their operations to brick and mortar bet shops only.
Speaking as part of a recent panel discussion on tribal gaming’s future, Mark Maccaro confirmed that any move to make online / mobile sports betting legal might open the floodgates to full-fledged iGaming:
“If that were to happen, we think, in California, it could potentially be a disaster.
So, we have a lot of tribal leaders in California who are worried about that.”
Tribal gaming advisor and Pechanga.net editor Victor Rocha moderated the panel, and according to him, California tribes won’t be bullied by the industry at large into any gambling expansion efforts that could put their existing interests at risk:
“Everyone seems to want sports betting, and it’s being led by the industry, by the sports leagues and by the media companies.
The industry is saying ‘Go, go, go!’ and we’re saying ‘slow, slow, slow.’”