HIGHLAND, Calif. — A month after a ballot proposition that would have brought California sports betting to tribal casinos in the state was trounced by voters, a sports bar that looks very much like a sportsbook minus some kiosks and ticket windows was sprinkled with afternoon patrons eating fries and drinking sodas as East Coast pro games were about to commence.
Slot machines flashed and whirred a few feet away here at Yaamava Resort & Casino east of Los Angeles. The bar staff, clad, almost nostalgically, in Raiders jerseys, politely informed the newcomers that the property didn’t serve alcohol until 5 p.m. Pizza and tacos seemed to hold them over at 4:47 p.m.
The massive television screen inside The 909 Sports Bar was a beacon for attention, but the commerce, as in most casinos, was out on the gaming floor of this recently expanded facility.
The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, like all gambling stakeholders, likes it that way.
That’s where the profit is, even with the attention in the sportsbook, er, sports bar. That’s why the tribe largely ignored Prop 26, which would have legalized sports betting at properties like this and four California horse racing tracks. And that’s why it poured in excess of $100 million into an eventual $180 million-plus tribe-backed campaign to crush Prop 27, which would have legalized sports betting online and through mobile state-wide.
In the process, it would have licensed hosts of national sports betting companies to erode the 110 federally recognized state tribes’ gambling monopoly in California.
In the aftermath of sports betting legislation being drubbed in California, California Casinos spoke with San Manuel’s gaming division’s chief operating officer Frank Sizemore and chief intergovernmental affairs officer David Little, whose employer wrote the checks that helped defeat Prop 27 and, the tribe hopes, refortified their bulwark.
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Was the $180 Million Spent Defeating Prop 27 Worth It?
FRANK SIZEMORE: This is not just San Manuel’s stance. It’s the stance of the majority of tribes in California. And so you had the tribes collectively spend $180 million in totality. Tribes came together. We had more than 60 tribes that came out opposed to Prop 27. I think it showed that tribes are generally united against any commercial interest coming here and trying to expand gaming, which has been run by tribes.
Tribes have been good operators, very responsible, well-regulated. Some of the most regulated gaming in the entire country happens here in California with the tribes. And they’ve been responsible stewards. Voters gave them the right to operate gaming more than two decades ago. And it’s been very beneficial for not only the tribes, but also California. Tribes generate $25 billion of economic activity in the state, employ almost 200,000 Californians. Tribes give back to the community. They’re invested here. So I think that that goes a long way as well.
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How Much Do California Tribes Want or Need Sports Betting?
SIZEMORE: I think it’s perfectly acceptable for the tribes not to have sports wagering. We haven’t had it for 20-plus years at tribal casinos here in California. And it’s not a clean overlap either, between the folks who come to our casinos and the folks who bet on sports. The people who are coming to our casino aren’t generally sports wagerers. So I definitely could see a scenario where tribes don’t really care. We’d say, early on when we were building our campaign team, sports wagering is No. 752 on people’s agenda. No one really cares. It’s just not that big of a deal to most people.
What Is the Power of the Tribes in California?
DAN LITTLE: These tribes make a huge benefit, a huge impact. They employ a lot of people. (Residents) know somebody that works at a tribal casino. They know a tribal community.
I think Californians will continue to stand with the tribes and if there is eventually a pathway, it’s going to have to be through the tribes. It’s yet to be known if these (outside gambling) companies can understand that. They’ve handled themselves with a lot of arrogance over the last couple years. Maybe a little humility might serve them well, and they may find a path that’s going to be beneficial to them. But as far as right now goes, there’s no reason for the tribes to change course and move forward with legalizing something when voters just spoke probably clearer than they’ve ever spoken in the last 25, 30 years.
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Given That Relationship, Why Didn’t Prop 26 Do Better?
SIZEMORE: I’m not 100% sure. It did get, what is it, twice as many votes? Passing an initiative in California is not easy. And so (tribes) didn’t spend a ton of money behind it either. And the card rooms put together a small campaign against Prop 26.
The San Manuels’ view on 26 was we sat on the sidelines on 26. We felt like we were best served to focus on defeating 27. That was our primary objective. That was our only objective. And so we focused all of our resources and energies on that. So we did all the research there. (Prop) 26 was kind of out there. I think it provided some confusion on the ballot.
LITTLE: Keep in mind that Prop 26 was originally intended to be on the ballot in 2020, but because of COVID, when the shutdowns went into effect, they had to stop collecting signatures. So the state then extended the time, which actually pushed it back into 2022. And when that ballot initiative was written, it was different views in different times. It included that pocket provision that card rooms objected to and included some of the horse tracks. You’ve had some animal rights groups come out in opposition. There’s a lot of various reasons why Prop 26 didn’t pass.
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Were Tribes the Only Winner in the Prop 26 and Prop 27 Campaigns?
LITTLE: Tribes don’t take anything for granted. You know the long history of outsiders trying to take what tribes have had. Tribes are used to this. Tribes think the long, long term, the long game, and hopefully, these companies, the takeaway from this election, is that any kind of future gaming’s going to have to go through the tribes. But I wouldn’t even know if I would classify these companies as stakeholders. I mean, they’re technology providers. They’ve tried their hand in business, and they’ve made a lot of mistakes. Tribes have been doing this for 30 years and they are the experts. Tribes are the experts in providing well-run, well-regulated, very beneficial gaming operations.
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