California residents could be voting to legalize sports betting in November after state AG Xavier Becerra approved the language of a ballot measure that would authorize tribal casinos and racetracks to operate sports books.
The initiative is being spearheaded by a coalition of tribes. They now have around three months to gather almost one million valid signatures to get the proposed amendment on the ballot – that’s eight percent of the votes cast for the governor in the most recent election.
This sounds like a tall order. But it may well be achievable for such a wealthy and powerful industry, which will be pouring money into the effort.
Along with sports betting, the amendment would permit tribal casinos to offer roulette and craps, two games currently off-limits for operators.
But controversially, it would freeze California’s card clubs out of the equation, and it makes no effort to legalize mobile gaming. Those two factors would likely prevent the state from realizing its full market potential.
The tribes have long been at loggerheads with the card clubs, arguing that the so-called “California games” the clubs offer infringe on Native American exclusivity on house-banked games.
Meanwhile, it’s likely mobile was left out of the initiative because the tribes would probably not be able to offer it legally to players outside their reservations.
When, in 2014, the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel attempted to offer online bingo on the grounds that all bets were being processed by servers located on their territory, they were sued by the State of California and the federal government. The court ruled that a bet must be legal both where it is initiated and where it is received.
Which means the tribes would have to push for legal online sports betting throughout the state to participate in a mobile market, potentially opening the door to commercial competitors.
Meanwhile, State Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced) and State Senator Bill Dodd (D-Napa) have introduced bills that would put a competing measure on the ballot, one that aims to be more inclusive than the tribes’s effort.
But first it must clear a legislature whose appetite for sports betting is untested. The tribes’s campaign might inject some urgency into the legislative process, but gaining the two-thirds majority needed to get a bill on the ballot may prove even trickier than gathering a million signatures.
That’s because the tribes will undoubtedly oppose the legislation. The tribes are big political players in California, and any gambling expansion legislation needs them and the lawmakers who represent them on board.
Which means, as far as the sports betting goes, it’s the tribes, not the card clubs, who hold all the cards.