Sports betting at California casinos? Tribal-backed initiative qualifies for 2022 ballot

·3 min read

Legalized sports betting may be finally coming to California.

A sports-betting voter initiative — promoted by California’s Native American tribes and limited mainly to their tribal casinos — has qualified for the November 2022 ballot, according to the California Secretary of State’s office.

If it passes, it would represent a significant victory for the gaming tribes, which succeeded in squelching a bill in the Legislature last year that would have allowed online and mobile sports betting. The legislation had the backing of the NBA, Major League Baseball, the PGA golf tour and five of California’s professional teams — the Giants, A’s, Warriors, Dodgers and Angels — all of which said online wagering should be included.

Sports betting in some respect represents the last frontier in the gambling industry in California; it’s been legalized in more than two dozen states in the past three years.

“It’s very popular; it’s on fire across the United States,” said Victor Rocha, a consultant to tribal casinos in California and elsewhere.

The tribes’ initiative is being led by a consortium that includes the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, which owns Cache Creek Casino Resort in Yolo County, and several gaming tribes in Southern California.

Ken Adams, a casino industry consultant in Reno, is convinced Californians will vote for the initiative.

“It hasn’t failed in any state so far,” Adams said. “It’s the most openly embraced expansion of gambling in my lifetime .... It’s as popular as anything in the country.”

The initiative would allow sports betting at four privately-owned racetracks: Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley and three Southern California tracks: Santa Anita, Los Alamitos and Del Mar.

Robyn Black, a lobbyist for the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, said it makes sense to include the racetracks, which already take bets on their races. “We do sports betting every day,” she said.

Initiative doesn’t include California cardrooms

But Kyle Kirkland, head of the California Gaming Association, which represents the state’s cardroom industry, said his group will fight it, saying it represents an unfair expansion of the tribes’ control over gambling.

The cardrooms are left out of the initiative and are frequently battling in the Legislature with the more powerful tribes, which oversee a $9 billion-a-year business, over the boundaries of gambling in California.

“It’s not really the sports betting initiative; it’s the tribal gaming monopoly initiative,” he said.

Kirkland, who owns the Club One cardroom in Fresno, said it’s ridiculous to allow sports betting while confining it to tribal properties. Gaming experts say online and mobile wagering represents about 70% to 80% of sports-betting revenues in other states.

But tribal officials say they’re simply trying to prevent sports betting from spiraling out of control.

“The addiction issues have gone through the roof wherever there’s mobile,” Rocha said. “That’s what the tribes are reacting to.”

The Yocha Dehe Tribal Council said Native Americans should be the ones to oversee sports betting.

“It takes expertise to successfully implement legalized sports wagering. In California, that expertise resides with the tribal gaming enterprises,” the council said in a prepared statement. “We are grateful to the many California citizens who put their faith in us to competently implement this new form of entertainment and whose signatures helped to get this initiative on the ballot.”

Clark, the advocate for the racetracks, said the initiative will offer much-needed consumer protections.

“Right now, you’re betting in the shadows,” she said. “If you put a bet on an offshore site and it closes down, you have no recourse.”

The tribes began circulating their ballot petitions in early 2020 but had fallen short of gathering enough signatures when the COVID-19 pandemic struck last spring. However, they convinced a Sacramento Superior Court judge to extend the deadline for securing the necessary signatures.

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