Among the myriad details addressed in the past year to bring sports gambling to Washington tribal casinos by the start of the 2021 NFL season in September, none has been more delicate and controversial than mobile wagering.
Online gambling is a Class C felony in this state, but its proliferation nationwide in the sports betting realm has raised demand for some form of mobile wagering here.
And so last week’s first tribal compact deal arising from the March 2020 state law authorizing limited sports betting in Washington does indeed address that mobile demand. It also strictly limits what critics contend is a gateway to addictive gambling, especially for minors.
The tentative deal between the Tulalip Tribes and the Washington State Gambling Commission allows mobile sports wagering only on tribal land, but also potentially extending beyond casino confines into neighboring buildings. For Tulalip, which operates two casinos — one next to a tribe-run hotel and events center — that broader mobile definition could generate significantly more revenue.
The agreement must attain further commission, legislative and federal approval, but fine-tuning the mobile aspect — and addressing addiction concerns expressed by lawmakers — was key to bringing Washington’s version of sports gambling closer to reality.
“This is the first time where we’ve really ever talked about any form of online gambling,” said Brian Considine, the state gambling commission’s legal and legislative manager. “And so there’s a lot that can go into that. What is it going to look like? Is the mobile piece just going to be on site, or can it be on the premises property and how is that going to be defined?”
The U.S. Supreme Court in May 2018 struck down a federal law banning sports betting in all but a few states. Two dozen states have now legalized or passed legislation authorizing sports gambling.
More than 80% of legal sports betting nationwide happens online, according to the American Gaming Association. In New Jersey, the country’s biggest sports betting market, 92% of wagering last year was by smartphone or computer.
Tulalip now must submit a map of where it proposes geofenced mobile online gambling at both its Tulalip Resort Casino and Quil Ceda Creek Casino venues. Geofencing — setting a virtual perimeter — enables mobile apps to be activated only within specific boundaries.
“So in theory, if that’s what gets submitted and gets approved, then you wouldn’t need to just be on the gaming floor to use a mobile app,” Considine said. “You could be at the hotel. You could be at an event. You could be in the parking lot, theoretically, if that’s what gets chosen.”
Though Washington’s tribes-only mobile sports betting would be vastly less than New Jersey’s statewide model, some with experience in gambling regulation here feel this is only the beginning.
“I have no doubt that eventually mobile and internet gaming will extend across the state,” said Auburn city council member Chris Stearns, a former state gambling commission member.
Stearns doesn’t foresee broader Washington mobile betting overnight. But he’s confident that tribal casinos will show it can be done safely and open the door to “platforms across the state,” provided no major scandals unfold.
“The public’s view of gambling has changed a lot in the past 48 years,” Stearns said of the time since Washington’s gambling commission was formed in 1973. “And there will likely be more and more demand for easier access to sports betting by the citizens of Washington.”
What happens with the Tulalip deal and others being negotiated with the Muckleshoot, Snoqualmie, Kalispel and Suquamish tribes is being monitored by casino interests statewide. At least 14 of 22 federally recognized state tribes operating casinos have registered official expressions of interest in adding sports betting.
Though each compact amendment must be negotiated separately, a majority of tribes will likely expedite the process by signing on to the Tulalip deal or any other soon approved. The gambling commission wants those remaining deals reached within two weeks so interested casinos can sign on to whichever they prefer and get greenlighted by football season.
If they attain legislative approval next month, those deals would go through gambling commission hearings in June. Gov. Jay Inslee and tribal leaders then must sign off and give the U.S. Interior Department up to 45 days to consider the agreements.
The deals would allow sports betting on top professional leagues, college athletics — except for those involving in-state schools — the Olympic Games, other international competitions and competitive video gaming. Tribal casinos are the only ones legally allowed to offer sports gambling after a failed January legislative bill that would have authorized it in state card rooms and racetracks.
The card room operators say shutting them out denied the state an opportunity to generate tax money off sports gambling — something tribal casinos are exempt from paying. But tribes argue the jobs and money generated by their casinos extends into the broader Washington economy.
“The revenue sports wagering provides — like all tribal gaming revenue — stays in Washington, creating jobs and increasing charitable contributions that benefit communities throughout the state,” Tulalip Tribes chairwoman Teri Gobin said in a release after last week’s deal was reached.
Tribes view the NFL season as a chance to maximize sports gambling revenue in casinos impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. They rely heavily on casino money to fund self-governance programs in health, education and housing.
Considine said the commission also wants to hit the NFL target so tribes can “begin to compete against the black market during the biggest gambling season in the U.S. sports gambling industry.” It’s the commission’s mandate, he added, to ensure that Washingtonians have “a safer product” than black market sports gambling, with greater consumer, responsible gaming and sport integrity protections.
The Tulalip deal mandates that sports betting can be done only on pre-authorized teams and leagues monitored by regulators to “prevent and detect competition manipulation.” State and tribal agencies and casinos will keep lists of all team personnel prohibited from betting on a sport due to their position and ability to provide inside information.
Mobile wagering must done through prearranged accounts and only within the geofenced area. Accounts can be managed outside those areas as long as no bets are placed but must first be set up in person at casinos, with government-issued identification and social security numbers provided.
Khalil Philander, an assistant professor at Washington State University’s school of hospitality business management, said on-site account registration will likely help assuage concerns about minors gambling online.
“The risk to manage would then be a kid getting a hold of their parents’ phone,” said Philander, a research specialist on the socio-economic impacts of gambling. “But those are the risks that sort of already exist today with the (black) market. It’s easier to access illegal sports wagering through those operators than it would be through this model.”
Philander said it’s also important to differentiate between mobile betting on sports vs. other gambling. Sports events, he said, take place over longer periods with less opportunity for rapid-fire gambling and addictive responses.
“You kind of only bet on a single event that happens rather infrequently,” he said. “Whereas, on a slot machine, you can place a wager every four to six seconds.”
Philander is preparing a state-sponsored analysis of Washington’s sports betting market. No one knows how big that market will be, with much of it depending on how many casinos are authorized and can use mobile technology.
For now, Considine and the state’s gambling commission are focused on completing remaining tribal deals beyond Tulalip’s. The idea is to get as many as possible in lawmakers’ hands by mid-May so they can stay on target for federal authorization by September.
“We’d prefer not to have several individual hearings,” Considine said. “If we can get all of them into one hearing, that makes life easier for the legislators and my commissioners.”