Washington Tribes Fight To Keep All of the Sports Betting Pie

When Washington state lawmakers approved sports betting for the state's gaming tribes, it excluded commercial operators like card rooms and racetracks. A new bill co-sponsored by state Senator Marko Liias (l.) would remedy that, but the tribes are mounting an opposition, claiming the bill would hinder their recovery from the pandemic. The story concludes with Part 2.

Washington Tribes Fight To Keep All of the Sports Betting Pie

In Part 1 of this article, card rooms and racetracks in Washington state are behind a new bill co-sponsored by Senator Curtis King and majority floor leader Senator Marko Liias that would allow online sports gambling inside existing card rooms and racetracks in the state. The legislature has already approved a bill permitting state tribes to open sports books, but the regulations have not yet been completed.

Exclusion Has A Cost

Washington card clubs haven’t yet felt the pinch of their exclusion from sports betting, because amendments to the existing tribal compacts are still being negotiated.

“Once sports betting is offered by the tribes, it’s not unreasonable to think that a 20 percent loss could occur” in the card rooms, said Maverick Gaming CEO Eric Persson. “Ninety percent of our card room business comes from within five miles. We’re the local ‘Cheers.’ Offering sports betting attracts people to our business. It’s not just about us getting money from sports betting, but to protect the business we do have.”

Persson’s position is supported by Teamsters Local 117, which has a collective bargaining agreement covering all Maverick-owned card rooms.

Brenda Wiest, vice-president and legislative director of the local, told GGB News the agreement “provides excellent wages and benefits to all workers. Card room expansion will immediately generate 200 new jobs in our facilities, and our expectation is that the number may be even larger over time. Since the Washington State legislature has chosen to legalize sports wagers in the state, it’s only fair that cardrooms and racetracks should also be allowed to do so.”

Bill sponsor Liias agrees.

“I think the fact that we allowed the tribes to move forward last year, now people are looking at it from a fairness perspective,” the senator said. “I have two card clubs in my district. I thought it was good to let the tribes go first and let the regulations get established, then look at a safe way to allow others to participate.”

Wiest noted that Washington and New Mexico are the only states where sports betting is limited to tribal casinos.

“We’ve heard that our card rooms will siphon important revenue away from tribes that are reliant on gambling to fund tribal programs. I haven’t seen any data from cardroom opponents that supports this claim. Our facilities are relatively small, and limited to 15 tables. Private market research shows that 90 percent of cardroom customers come from within three miles of the location.”

Liias said the mobile-app portion of his bill gives him the “most heartburn.”

“The bill last year allows mobile sportsbook only in the tribal casinos. The bill Senator Curtis King sponsored—that I joined him on does allow mobile sportsbooks, and that’s where I want to make sure we get the details right. Some geographic bounds will make it so folks don’t get themselves into trouble.”

Liias said he’s spoken with many tribal representatives and members. “They have deep concerns, and that’s something we’ll have to be responsible about. I don’t predict this will be quickly resolved, but I’m committed that we listen and consult government to government in a respectful way.”

The bill’s sponsors include two Democrats and one Republican. “Last year when we approved the expansion it was bipartisan, and the conversation around next steps is bipartisan. But many lawmakers are hesitant. It’s going to take some time to land on an answer. I think Democrats and Republicans support having that conversation and moving it forward.”

The Senate Labor, Commerce and Tribal Affairs Committee, will hear the bill soon, he said. “We’ll hear from proponents and opponents. We’re playing it step by step. I don’t have a sense we have enough votes in the Senate to move it forward this year.” To amend a gaming law would require a supermajority of the legislature or of the voters. The legislative session ends April 25. No similar bill has been filed in the House.

“My message to folks out there, pro and con, is we’re moving in a thoughtful and deliberate way,” Liias said. “This is not a rush. If people are worried about it happening tomorrow, it’s not going to happen tomorrow, and if people want to be playing tomorrow, it’s not going to happen tomorrow. That recognizes that voters are cautious about gambling in this state, and we want to respect that.”

‘Worst Possible Time’ for Commercial Expansion

Rebecca George, executive director of the Washington Indian Gaming Association, said Covid-19 “has disproportionately impacted tribal communities,” making this “the worst possible time for a massive expansion for commercial casinos.

“The state has always approached gambling very carefully,” said George. “It takes a calculated and measured approach, and it spoke to this proposal last year.”

George called sports betting an “amenity” and said the $50 million revenue figure cited by Persson is unrealistic, even in a mature market.

“The numbers and the data show it’s not a big moneymaker for the industry,” she said. “There’s not enough money in sports betting. The claims by proponents that this will lead to major revenue increases for the state are wildly exaggerated. For $50 million we would need a handle similar to states like Nevada or New Jersey. It would mean billions of dollars of betting would have to be placed. Their estimates are either wildly inflated or based on a huge increase on gambling in our state, something our public does not want.

“With tribal gaming,” she added, “the revenues stays here in the state and doesn’t profit an out-of-state corporation.”

All of Washington’s 29 tribes benefit from the government dollars generated by gaming, said George, who doesn’t predict when the ongoing compact negotiations will end.

“I would say both sides are eager to have this wrapped up, but we understand the importance of being thoughtful,” she says. “We have a mutual interest to keep this amenity safe and honest, and to keep gaming in Washington State safe and honest.”

Articles by Author: David Ross

David D. Ross edits the Escondido Times-Advocate and Valley Roadrunner newspapers. A freelance journalist for over 40 years, Ross is knowledgeable about San Diego's backcountry and has written on tourism in Julian, Palomar Mountain, San Diego Safari Park—and the area’s casinos. He has a master’s degree in military history from Norwich University.