California gaming tribes give thumbs down to proposed new sports betting initiative

A man checks the odds on a sports betting terminal at the Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City, N.J. on Feb. 6. On Feb. 7 the gambling industrys national trade group, the American Gaming Association, predicted that over 50 million American adults would bet a total of $16 billion on this years Super Bowl, including legal bets with sports books, illegal ones with bookies, and casual bets among friends or relatives. (Wayne Parry, AP)

After meeting with proponents of a new sports betting initiative for the 2024 ballot, California’s casino gaming tribes Thursday gave it a thumbs down and asked that they withdraw the plan.

The California Nations Indian Gaming Association, representing 52 tribes, said in an announcement Thursday afternoon that after meeting online with Kasey Thompson and Reeve Collins, the men pushing the idea, its members voted to oppose two proposed sports wagering initiatives filed with the California Attorney General’s Office in in October.

“Our opposition could not be more clear and is irrevocable,” CNIGA Chairman James Siva said in a statement. “The entire effort surrounding these initiatives was handled abhorrently by the initiative sponsors. It is hard not to be offended when listening to these individuals speak. This is another example of outside influences trying to divide and conquer Indian tribes. We will not let history repeat itself.”

Thompson, one of the main initiative proponents, said later that while he will not move forward without majority tribal support, he’s not convinced CNIGA’s statement reflects most tribes’ interest in his proposal. CNIGA represents almost half of California’s 110 recognized tribes.

“CNIGA already came out against it the day we filed and my understanding is that only 18 of the 52 tribes voted with the remaining tribes choosing to abstain till further info is presented,” Thompson said.

CNIGA Executive Director Susan Jensen said that the group’s executive committee opened the discussion and vote to all of its members. But many were in New Orleans attending the National Congress of American Indians, where Mark Macarro, chairman of California’s Pechanga Band of Indians, was elected president.

Of the 25 CNIGA tribal representatives that participated in the discussion of the proposed initiatives, Jensen said 18 voted against and five others abstained. That result, she said, shouldn’t be taken as a sign of disagreement among tribal representatives.

“No tribe voted in support of them,” Jensen said, adding that those voting represented both large and small tribes. “That’s about as strong as it gets. Silence should not be taken as support.”

Thompson, a poker expert, and Collins, a founder of blockchain and cryptocurrency companies including Tether, had teamed up before with another California tribe, the Pala Band of Mission Indians, which isn’t part of CNIGA, in developing a successful online gaming platform, Pala Interactive. Nevada casino giant Boyd Gaming Corp. bought Pala Interactive a year ago for $172 million.

Boyd Gaming and the Pala tribe said they are not involved with the current sports betting initiative effort.

Thompson and Collins had hoped to gain united support from the state’s tribes to help persuade voters — who soundly rejected a pair of competing sports betting measures in 2022 — to back the proposed new initiative.

In 2022, sports betting advocates offered two competing initiatives, Proposition 26, which would have allowed sports books at tribal casinos and authorized horse race tracks, and Proposition 27, which would have allowed online sports betting through tribal agreements.

Tribes were split over the measures, and though advocates and opponents raised nearly half a billion dollars — a record amount — voters were confused, put off and defeated them overwhelmingly at the ballot box.

Industry experts say California would be the largest U.S. market for legalized sports wagering if it were approved, but that tribal support is key to success.

Victor Rocha, a Pechanga member and industry strategist, wrote on X earlier this month that California tribal leaders are closely watching similar developments in other states like Florida, and that “the tribes will take an incremental approach” towards sports betting.

Initiative efforts have been expected for California’s 2026 ballot.

Thompson said he and his partners are looking to end losses to offshore online sports betting operations that are siphoning money away from California tribes and state coffers. They said their plan would provide an avenue to bring those operations under tribal control and state regulation, similar to how PokerStars was legalized.

The plan also would allow major sports betting operations like FanDuel and Draft Kings a path to partner with California tribes, ensuring they wouldn’t oppose the measure. And Thompson said he has lined up financial backing to qualify and campaign for a ballot measure at no cost to the state’s tribes. Though he and his partners didn’t develop their initiative plan with CNIGA, he said they’ve discussed it with other tribal officials.

CNIGA said the recent initiative filings with the state took them by surprise. CNIGA that day put out a statement saying tribal leaders were “deeply disappointed that the sponsors of the two recently filed initiatives did not first reach out to the State’s largest tribal gaming association for consultation and input.”

“California tribes have been successfully engaged in the gaming market for more than four decades,” Siva’s statement Thursday said. “Tribal Leaders are the experts, and we will decide what is best for our people.”


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