UNITED STATES—The legal landscape of sports betting in the United States has been quickly evolving following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Professional and Amateur Sports Act of 1992 (PASPA). Lawmakers across the country have made bids to cement bills and adjust legislature to get a piece of the industry pie as it continues to grow exponentially with more than 20 states legalizing sports betting by the end of 2020.
California is anticipated to join the roster as early as 2023, but voters have learned to expect the unexpected. Tensions between lawmakers, card room operators, and tribal casino owners caused delays when the bill to introduce sports betting was first brought forward last year. While all parties involved are enthusiastic about bringing sports betting to the state, disagreements about how exactly to do that may be enough to keep single-game wagering away for years.
West Coast Rivalry
The original bill, SCA 6, was scheduled to go to a hearing in June of last year but was pulled by co-author Senator Bill Dodd just a day prior. Instead of appearing on the November 2020 ballot, the soonest Californians could possibly vote on a similar bill is 2022. This puts sports betting on the timeline to start in opportunity-rich places like San Francisco as soon as 2023. But that’s the best-case scenario.
California’s gambling industry, as it stands, is plagued by a rivalry between tribal casinos that have sovereign rights to operate in the state and card rooms that casino owners say are skirting the lines of legality. The situation is unique and strained to say the least, and lawmakers are pushing to find a compromise.
What’s at Stake
Opposition from tribal leaders was largely blamed for the suspension of the bill, but they aren’t opposed to sports betting. In fact, they support introducing legislation legalizing sports betting in the state. Anthony Roberts, Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation chairman, says that they just want to keep sports betting “to brick-and-mortar facilities”.
SCA 6 would allow for online and mobile wagering, giving card rooms access to bookmaking rights. Casino owners already feel card rooms are overstepping their legal bounds by using loopholes to run banked card games. Giving card rooms a foot in the door on sports betting would put an end to any current or future lawsuits tribal casinos have against them and give them legal permission to hold the games they already offer.
Too Much to Lose
While lawmakers have discussed slowly introducing online and mobile access over a series of years to try and compromise with the tribes, it’s unlikely they’ll want to agree to an offline approach. Sports betting in other states has been powered by apps and sites like FanDuel and DraftKings and online wagering makes up nearly 80% of bets in states with established markets. The decision to avoid mobile options could mean millions of dollars in lost revenue.
It could also mean missed opportunities for the Bay Area, where there’s a foundation for technology industries and a need for new companies to fill economic gaps. Several land-based casinos could offer sportsbooks in San Francisco like the ones found here, but many casinos are rural or not easily accessible. Indigenous leaders hope that in-person wagering would drive traffic, but lawmakers worry that the lost potential would be too great in the wake of state revenue losses during coronavirus shutdowns.
A Way Forward
In response to SCA 6, tribal leaders started a petition to put their own sports betting proposal on the 2022 ballot. Even among the pandemic shutdowns, they gathered as many signatures as they could and were able to make the submission deadline this past December. Once the signatures are certified, the referendum for Native American casinos to offer sports betting goes on the ballot. Lawmakers may organize another sports betting bill to try and legislate sports betting before then, but this is the best chance California has at getting single-game wagering for now.
Playing the Odds
Card rooms will have to rely entirely on a constitutional amendment to give them the rights to sports betting operations, so it may still be a while before Californians can place their bets at their local card room. Despite recent court wins against casinos concerning the legality of banked games, if the petition passes certification card rooms could be left out of the sports betting industry for good. Tribal casinos have said, however, that if their proposal is voted through they may be interested in eventually introducing mobile wagering as an option in the future.