Sports are back in action all around the world and throughout the United States of America. With the return of sport, the debate about legalized sports betting has also returned to the agenda.
Thus far, California has been conspicuous by its absence among the growing number of US states that have formally legalized betting activity on sports, and of the states yet to open its doors to the practice, it’s the one that stands to make the most money.
Some predictions even suggest that the annual revenue raised by sports betting could exceed one and a half billion dollars if enough Californians jumped aboard the bandwagon.
Despite that enticing amount of money being on the table, the state’s legislators and officials have struggled to find a way forward. There are those who would very much love to see California become yet another American sports betting mecca, but there are also those who are dead against it.
A little over a month ago, the prospect of seeing sports betting legalized in California at any point in the near future seemed to disappear completely when Senator Bill Dodd pulled a proposed constitutional amendment just one day before a hearing on the matter was scheduled. With little time left in the political year to get another bill on the table, that was widely thought to be the end of the matter until at least 2021, and possibly even beyond that.
Dodd’s decision to pull his bill wasn’t down to a lack of enthusiasm on his part. It was a practical step in light of the fact that all 62 American Indian tribes who own and operate casinos in the state are understood to be against Dodd’s terms. Without their support, there was no realistic prospect of the amendment passing.
Without that, it couldn’t be put to a ballot in November, and the whole exercise would have been a waste of time. The situation is even more complicated than that, though. The Native American tribes weren’t opposed to Dodd’s amendment because they’re against the idea of sports betting. They’re opposed to it because they have their own opinion about what a possible Californian sports betting industry should look like, and it’s very different from Dodd’s.
This debate is part and parcel of a much broader issue regarding the complexity of California’s gambling laws, which mostly come from a time before the internet, and are in urgent need of revision.
So outdated are the current laws that they don’t take a position on online slots websites and casinos. With no clear statement on legality, it’s assumed that it’s illegal to own and operate an online slots website in California, and so nobody has ever tried. In practice, though, nothing has ever been done to prevent Californian citizens from accessing online slots categories on servers in other states or other countries.
Californians are still playing online casino games – it’s just that any tax revenue generated as a result of that activity goes outside California. It’s apparent that work has to be done to make the laws relevant to the age that we live in – it’s just that nobody can agree on precisely what changes ought to be made.
Dodd’s amendment was always likely to cause controversy because it was vague. While it called for the legalization of sports betting, no detail was provided as to who would offer betting facilities, and how those bets would be taxed. It’s thought that Dodd, working with Assemblyman Adam Gray, hoped that they could strike a separate deal with the Native American tribes after the amendment had passed.
The Native American tribes wanted better guarantees and protections than that, and so it’s probably unsurprising that they shut the door in his face. In addition to the lack of protections, they feared that wide-scale legalization of online gambling – which was also called for in Dodd’s amendment – would eat into the profits of the casinos they operate and, in some cases, but the viability of those facilities at risk.
It seems that while the tribes would love to benefit from sports betting, they want people to come and place those bets in person rather than doing it all through a computer screen.
While the Dodd’s ambitions might have been thwarted, for now, the tribes have had better news when it comes to their own proposals. They recently applied for – and received – a further ninety days from the Supreme Court to gather the necessary number of signatures for their own proposal to feature on the ballot that’s due in 2022.
Just under 1,100,000 signatures are required to spark a referendum, and before receiving the extension, the tribes had collected a little over 971,000. They’re confident that they can reach the necessary milestone within the time of the extension, and if they’re right, the matter would re-appear in the November 2020 ballot and allow for a state-wide referendum on the issue of sports betting. The matter would then be in the hands of California’s voters – and from there, anything could happen.
The key differences between the proposal the tribes have made and the proposal Dodds have made are about methods and availability. No facility for online betting appears in the tribal plan.
Bets on sports would only be made within their casinos, and card rooms and race tracks would be cut out of the deal. That would put all of that enormous amount of potential revenue in their hands, and allow them to expand and improve their facilities immeasurably.
The amount of taxable income that California would receive – estimated to be two hundred million dollars per year based on the $1.5bn figure – would be unchanged. California would benefit financially no matter which proposal was approved, but the tribes would profit far more from their own vision.
Whether or not Californians would actively back the proposal at a referendum remains to be seen. The fact that the tribes have been able to gather almost one million supportive signatures thus far implies strong support, but conservative and religious groups are likely to campaign against any further expansion of betting or gambling for moral and ethical reasons.
This whole issue could yet be derailed by the public if the proposals don’t meet with their approval, but even with that hurdle to come in the future, it appears there may still be a future for sports betting in California. That wasn’t the case a month ago, and so this news has to be seen as progress.