The trade group and lobby for tribal government casinos has begun forming a work group to explore how the $31.2 billion industry can leverage itself to take advantage of legalized sports betting and other new forms of federal and state-sanctioned gambling.
The Indian Sports Betting Working Group (ISBWG) will explore how tribal governments operating under a variety of federal and state legal and regulatory structures can adapt to sports betting, internet gambling, daily fantasy sports and other new forms of gambling.
“The working group will be the pulse of Indian country,” said Ernie Stevens, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA), the trade association and lobby for about 184 of 248 tribes operating 484 casinos nationwide.
ISBWG will be a topic of discussion for the tribal gambling committee of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) meeting Oct. 15 in Milwaukee, Wis. Stevens said he hopes to have the group formalized by December “so we can hit the ground running early next year.”
The work group is the first organized effort by NIGA to help lead tribal members on the sports betting issue.
NIGA in July joined a coalition formed by the American Gaming Association (AGA) seeking repeal of the Professional and Amateur Sports Betting Act (PASPA). But Stevens stressed NIGA is monitoring the coalition and not advocating repeal of PASPA.
A number of tribes fear sports betting and other new and expanded federal- and state-sanctioned gambling could negatively impact tribes operating tribal government casinos that generate revenue to provide services for indigenous Americans.
“We will be the voice of Indian country,” Stevens said of the NIGA work group.
Tribes face legal, regulatory obstacles
Unlike commercial casinos, tribes operate under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) and are subject to state constitutional law and tribal-state compacts that limit the scope and regulation of permissible gambling on Indian lands.
Compact language varies greatly among the 28 states with Indian gambling. Some agreements give tribes regional or statewide exclusivity that could be impacted with sports betting and other expanded gambling by commercial casinos, racetracks, cardrooms and lotteries.
“We need to monitor what is a very serious, building issue,” Stevens said.
AGA is committed to “flush out” those issues facing tribes and other stakeholders “so that a nationwide legislative strategy can be in place,” said NIGA Chief of Staff Debbie Thundercloud, who will chair the working group.
But Thundercloud said it will be up to tribes and the NIGA working group to explore the impact of sports betting on Indian country.
“It will be the responsibility of the working group to continue to gather information, to do research and provide analysis,” Thundercloud said. “The working group will listen to tribal concerns and issues. The working group will provide pros and cons for sports consideration.
“Tribes need to get busy and do their research, their analysis, feasibility studies… determining what impacts there are to their compacts.
‘They need to begin developing potential business models” she said, to determine the feasibility of adding sports betting to their casino offerings.
Attorney Stephen Hart, who said he will be a member of the group, said it will take up “whatever the issues are that arise from sports betting,” including online and account wagering.
“We’re going to review the issue fully and in depth,” he said.
Oklahoma Osage Wilson Pipestem, who has had a long career in indigenous advocacy, is also expected to be a member of the group.
“I don’t think there is going to be any national legislation” if PASPA is repealed,” said J.R. Matthews, president of Red Feather Productions and a tribal consultant. “I think it [sports wagering] is going to be a states’ issue.
“Every state is going to be different. There are liberal states and you have very conservative states. But there are a lot of states with financial difficulties.
“If a state decides to legalize sports wagering, the main concern is that the tribes are at the table. We need to be able to negotiate, so that we’re not left out.”
While AGA is focus on industry issues, NIGA is concerned with matters of sovereignty and tribal governance. Reaching a consensus among the tribes is not easy.
“With NIGA and AGA you’ve got organizations with two different interest groups,” says James Klas of KlasRobinson, a hospitality consulting firm doing business with Indian country. “I know both groups run casinos and the AGA is pushing sports betting. But there are much bigger political and broader-reaching issues associated with tribal governments. Tribes are just naturally cautious.
“AGA has the ability to reach a decision – if they have a consensus – very quickly, whereas with tribes there are a lot different areas of concern. It’s harder to reach a clean position.
“To NIGA’s credit, they’ve been very aggressive over the last several years on having internet forums, meetings, seminars on the topic.”
NIGA embraces AGA partnership
Although tribes have stopped short of seeking PASPA’s repeal, Stevens welcomes a partnership with the commercial casino industry’s lobby and trade group.
At least nine of the nation’s casino tribes are members of AGA. They include the more lucrative tribal gambling enterprises, many with commercial casinos and racetracks.
But while the AGA tribal members do not represent the bulk of the 248 largely rural and marginal indigenous communities with casinos, they wield a great deal of political clout.
Stevens is satisfied that AGA last month heavily edited a sports betting website to delete advocating states’ rights and instead calling for deterring the legalization and regulation of sports betting to both states and sovereign tribal governments.
“We want to be on par with the states” and not be subservient to state jurisdiction said Robert McGhee, vice chairman of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama.
“Working with NIGA and the tribal community is a top priority for AGA as we seek an end to the federal ban that’s driving a $150 billion illegal sports betting market,” said Sara Slane, AGA senior vice president of public affairs.
Push and pull between different gaming tribes
Stevens is also confident AGA President and CEO Geoff Freeman is aware of his political error in telling Legal Sports Report and others that AGA tribal members represented a third of tribal gambling revenues nationwide. Tribes are sensitive of the false perception most indigenous Americans are wealthy from casino gambling.
And Stevens is satisfied AGA will in the future avoid issuing press releases erroneously stating Stevens and other tribal leaders are working to repeal PASPA.
The rural, marginal Indian casinos on often impoverished reservations that represent the bulk of the tribal gambling industry are not likely to engage in sports betting and could be impacted from additional competition, according to industry experts.
Tribes in several states also could encounter difficulties negotiating new and amended compacts allowing them to offer sports gambling.
“Although NIGA and AGA don’t necessarily agree on everything, I appreciate the fact Geoff Freeman is reaching out to the tribes,” Stevens said.
“Geoff has responded to our concerns. He’s been fair. I think if we are patient and work together, NIGA and AGA can accomplish a lot of good things for both industries, on sports betting and other issues.”