Legal sports betting not coming to California, Sonoma County anytime soon

After a recent Supreme Court decision struck down the federal ban on sports betting, several states are racing to be among the first to allow wagers.|

Hold onto your wallet. Legal sports betting likely is still years off in Sonoma County.

Almost immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal ban on sports betting last month, big green dollar signs began floating through the dreams of gamblers, some sports franchise owners, government agencies and new potential sports bookies.

Delaware and New Jersey were the first to get in on the action, becoming the first states other than Nevada to take single-game sports bets.

Four other states that already had sports betting legislation in place - Mississippi, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York - are working out rules to get sports gambling operations up and running as early as July, in time for college football in August or the NFL season in September.

Sports betting legislation has been introduced in 15 other states, with the goal of operating within two years, according to Casino Connection AC, a gaming news website.

In California, it may take longer.

State Assemblyman Adam Gray, a Democrat from Merced, introduced a bill last month that would amend the California Constitution to allow legal bets on baseball, football, basketball and other sporting events.

But for decades, state and federal laws have given Indian tribes the exclusive right to operate slot machines, blackjack and other casino-style games on federally protected land. Tribes have argued that sports betting rights are included in their compacts with the state.

It initially appeared Gray’s bill would move through the Legislature this summer in time to put a proposal before voters on the November ballot. That now appears unlikely, said state Sen. Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat who chairs the Senate Governmental Organization committee, which oversees gambling issues.

The bill remains in committee and would have several hurdles to clear before coming to the Legislature for a hearing. Then, both houses of the Legislature would have to pass the bill with a two-thirds majority, the governor would have to sign it and voters would have to approve it in a statewide vote.

The June 2020 ballot is a more likely landing spot for any referendum, Dodd said. Such legislation could capture a slice of the $150 billion bet illegally in the United States on sporting events and generate funds for state programs, he said.

“It’s happening. Bringing it out of the shadows could be way to reduce corruption, address problem gambling and provide a revenue stream,” said Dodd, who would like state revenue to go toward early childhood education programs.

Role of tribe-owned casinos

With dozens of Indian-owned casinos in California generating gambling revenues of nearly ?$8 billion annually, tribes are major players in what may become a long, drawn-out negotiation into who can accept sports wagers and who gets a share of the profits.

Sonoma County has four legal options for gambling: two tribal casinos, River Rock and Graton; the Parkwest cardroom in Petaluma; and horse racing at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. Those outlets could be the first to offer sports bets because they already have the infrastructure for wagering in place.

The American Gaming Association estimates the illegal betting industry at $150 billion per year through bets with bookies and offshore accounts, as well as through informal office pools like those for the men’s NCAA basketball tournament.

With so much on the table, those who want a piece of the market are busy jockeying and working on strategic plans.

“As soon as the court decision came down, my phone was ringing off the hook with people trying to schedule appointments with me from all the different interests, even the lobbyists from the county fairs,” Dodd said.

Nationally, 238 tribes in ?28 states offer some form of gaming, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission. Those operations generated more than $31 billion in revenue in 2016.

Steve Stallings, chairman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, asserted that casinos have the sole right to offer sports wagers as well as slot machines.

“California voters have, on numerous occasions, confirmed the exclusive right of California tribal governments to operate casino-style games,” Stallings said in a statement. “Legalization of sports betting should not become a backdoor way to infringe upon exclusivity.”

Greg Sarris, tribal chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, owners of the Graton Resort and Casino in Rohnert Park, declined to be interviewed about the casino’s position.

“It would be premature to comment on any potential opportunities within the state of California, as neither the tribe’s government nor the state has adopted or promulgated any legislation relating to sports betting,” he said in a statement.

Representatives from River Rock and Parkwest didn’t return messages seeking comment on their plans. The California Gaming Association, which represents cardrooms, said the court decision provided “an exciting opportunity for California sports fans.”

Obstacles for states

Online gambling operations also may get in the game, with fantasy sports sites FanDuel and DraftKings looking toward taking pro football bets this fall.

“This ruling gives us the ability to further diversify our product offerings,” DraftKings CEO Jason Robbins said in a statement. He said the company has been working on its sports-betting platform since July, with hopes of being ready for the NFL season.

One huge obstacle for states in crafting a regulatory framework will be - surprise - who gets a piece of the profits of any newly legalized gambling operations.

The four major professional sports leagues - the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA - all sided with the U.S. government in opposing new sports wagering outside of Vegas. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled against them, the NBA and MLB, at least, are seeking part of the profits through so-called “integrity fees.”

Last month, New Jersey’s state Senate president called on all 50 states to reject integrity fees as part of any new sports betting legislation, saying the leagues are more interested in getting a piece of the action than protecting the integrity of their games.

The NBA defended its position, arguing that its games are the underpinning of wagers.

“As the intellectual property creators for this content, our games serve as the foundation for legalized sports betting, providing casinos the ability to earn revenue off our games, while we bear all of the risk that accompanies sports betting and will incur additional expenses to expand our existing compliance and enforcement programs,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass said.

“As a result, we believe it is reasonable for casinos to compensate the NBA with a small percentage of the total amount bet on our games.”

‘Meaningful partnerships’

Major League Baseball said in a statement it will focus on “developing meaningful partnerships” with state governments and betting operators: “We will use our expertise, rights and footprint to help the states that have smart and modern sports betting laws develop the country’s most successful betting markets within a regulatory framework that protects the integrity of our games, which is most paramount.”

Representatives of the NHL and the NFL did not respond to Associated Press requests for comment. The NFL asked Congress to pass federal legislation regulating sports betting, which could include a determination on whether the leagues should get such payments.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470. or On Twitter @loriacarter.

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