Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, owners of the Foxwoods Casino, says the separate deal Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont struck with the Mohegan tribe over sports betting and online gaming reopened wounds dating back to the 1600s and almost ended hopes of a deal with his tribe.
Butler told the Hartford Courant “I can’t describe what a setback and insult Tuesday was. It almost killed the deal.”
He referenced the Pequot War of the 1630s, when English settlers waged war against the Pequots, assisted by their allies the Mohegans. It was one of the bloodiest wars, in terms of percentages of the population killed on both sides, of any Indian war in American history. “It opened up wounds between our tribal nations that go back centuries,” said Butler.
Mohegan Tribal Chairman James Gessner Jr. said a mere business deal could not damage the relationship between the tribes. He told the Courant in an email: “The roots of that generational relationship run far deeper than the nuances of any business decisions we each make relating to our commercial enterprises.”
He defended the deal he reached with Lamont as “fair agreement, one that would keep Connecticut and its gaming industry competitive.”
Just two days before the separate deal was announced, Butler had referred to the Mohegans as “cousins” and said they were united in their goals. After the announcement he said that it gave the impression that “a deal was done.” He added that the announcement had been “extremely disrespectful in terms of process and substance.”
Lamont said he released details of the deal in answer to questions from reporters after being asked what were the terms of the agreement. He said he and both tribes are continuing negotiations.
The terms of the separate agreement include a 20 percent tax on online gaming such as poker and a 13.75 percent tax on sports wagers. It would authorize sportsbook venues at multiple locations, including larger ones in Hartford and Bridgeport, the state’s two largest cities.
Any tribal state gaming agreement would require the assent of the legislature.
Although he was annoyed at the “bad faith negotiations,” Butler said “I immediately re-engaged. I let off some steam.”
He wouldn’t share why his tribe didn’t agree to the same terms as the Mohegans. “It’s not my style of negotiating. I’m not going to negotiate in the press.”
He had earlier said that the tribe and state disagree on the percentage the tribes will pay the state. Calling it a “rounding error” as it relates to the state, he added, “For us, we’re a small tribe who have our have our challenges and focus on sustainability of our nation in the long run. And a half a million, a million dollars makes a huge difference in our ability to service our population with the critical programs and services that support the health of our elders, the education of our youth, our public safety department. And I can go on and on and on.”
Meanwhile, 17 lawmakers who represent the region of the state where the two tribes are located said they wouldn’t accept a separate deal that didn’t include the Pequots.
The legislators declared, “We remain committed to the future and to the modernization of gaming in Connecticut.”
They added, “However, we cannot accept this agreement as it is incomplete. It is necessary that the agreement include both the Mohegan Tribe and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. Unless an agreement includes both tribes, the eastern Connecticut delegation simply cannot support it.”
The governor’s office in a statement said it agreed that the Mashantucket Pequots needed to be party to any agreement but added, “Governor Lamont is urging the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation to join this agreement immediately, and Eastern Connecticut legislators should do the same.”
Gessner, in another statement said the Mohegans came to a separate agreement, because “we felt that if we didn’t find compromise now, Connecticut would risk missing out once again on making these changes, to the detriment of both the state and local municipal budgets, and also to the Mohegan Tribe and its tribal members.”
Somewhat lost in the big noise of the governor’s apparent snubbing of the Pequot tribe is Lamont’s even bigger elbow in the eye of OTB operator, Sportech, whose President Ted Taylor has not admitted defeat, declaring “We’re not done.”
On March 5 Taylor, who has operated OTB in Connecticut for 11 years said, “We’ve got to fight. Ultimately we believe we have certain rights and we deserve a seat at the table. We have employees, investments and standing. We want to survive and thrive.”
The pandemic hasn’t been good to Sportech. It used to have 16 locations before Covid but now has 11. But the decline of OTB began well before the pandemic.
Nevertheless it continues to be a big business, with its most successful operations including Bobby V’s sports bars in Stamford and Winners at Sports Haven Bar & Grill in New Haven, where bettors wager on horse and dog races—all out of state. In 2019 OTB wagers totaled $141.4 million, paying $3 million to the state. However, that’s a pittance compared to the $250 million and more that tribal gaming paid.
The possibility exists that the CT Lottery could operate some of its locations in partnership with Sportech, but nothing has been announced yet and Taylor worries about that.
He said, “Will the lottery have brick-and-mortar locations? We’re kind of gathering our horses right now and working out our next steps. We’ve never deviated from what we’ve said from the start. Fortunately there are conversations happening now. We have very close relationships with many legislators. We also know some legislators don’t share the same interests as us.”
Sportech is well suited to operate online and mobile sports betting in Connecticut if it is allowed to. It supplies parimutuel technology to operators in 38 countries.
To protect its interests, Taylor says he’s ready to go to court.
However, the tribes have always said they too are ready to battle in court to protect what they feel their compacts guarantee them, and Lamont’s office appears to side with them.
But Paul Mounds, the governor’s chief of staff, indicated that there may be a way forward for Sportech. He told reporters last week, “There is a role in which Sportech can be able to play with the CT Lottery Corp. So it’s not a matter of keeping them out of negotiations. Here’s the thing; a lot of people would like to be a part of those discussions, but you have to start discussions with the very parties that we need to allow us to have those discussions, and those were the tribal nations.”