Arizona Tribal Casino Operators Taking Measured Approach To Sports Betting

Posted By Derek Helling on July 22, 2021

Perhaps the most unpredictable part of Arizona sports betting right now is what Arizona tribal casinos will do with the opportunity. Because of compact holders’ ambiguity about offering wagering and the state’s pending regulations, it’s hard to read.

A little more insight lent our way this week thanks to a conference centered on tribal gaming. However, the message from the speakers seems to be that while sports betting has some value, it’s something many of them are still feeling out.

Arizona tribal casinos could compete in another way soon

Earlier this week, officials for two Indigenous peoples groups that hold gaming compacts with AZ spoke on a panel at the Indian Gaming Tradeshow & Convention in Las Vegas. Among other topics, they addressed sports betting.

Bernadine Burnette, president of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, expressed optimism that the regulations for sports betting will become final in the next 30 to 60 days. Currently, the draft rules are pending a vote by the AZ Dept. of Gaming.

Burnette also stated she thinks tribal casinos’ petitions for licenses will be “highly competitive.” Under the terms of the latest gambling expansion in AZ, 10 licenses are reserved for bodies like the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation.

However, there are a total of 23 such governments that have an existing gaming compact with AZ. In theory, all 23 of them could be eligible for a license. If 11 or more of them choose to apply, that means some will get nothing but disappointment.

Burnette’s comments allude to that being the case. Last week, the Dept. of Gaming proposed protocols for allocating licenses in that event. While that gives applicants some insight, it doesn’t seem to have made them overly exuberant.

A “good nervous” feeling

Robert Miguel, chairman of the Ak-Chin Indian Community, expressed that his colleagues and he are “a little nervous…but it’s a good nervous.” The panel discussion was about experience with sports betting. Panelists acknowledged they aren’t long on that quality.

That matters in terms of getting a license. The first two criteria in the draft rules explicitly mention such factors. That’s where the Ak-Chin and others might have a leg up, though. Caesars runs the Ak-Chin Casino under the Harrah’s brand.

While Caesars Sportsbook already has a pending market access deal into AZ with the Arizona Diamondbacks, the connection to Caesars could still work in the Ak-Chin’s favor should they seek licensure. Two other AZ tribal groups have made moves to catch up.

The San Carlos Apache Tribe inked a deal with WynnBet Sportsbook. Last week, the Yavapai-Apache Nation announced a collaboration with PointsBet Sportsbook. That’s no guarantee of licensure. It could help, though. If the process is as competitive as Burnette suggests, it could make all the difference.

So far, the other compact holders have been mum about their intentions publicly. All the unknown factors likely contribute to the nervousness. There are other reasons to temper the excitement, though.

Sports competitors and sportsbooks as amenities

Panelists stated that while they’re overall glad sports betting is soon to be available, it might not be a game-changer for them. For one thing, sports properties in the state are also presenting competition. In fact, those potential licensees have partnered with some of the biggest names in sports betting.

For example, the Phoenix Suns are in league with FanDuel Sportsbook while TPC Scottsdale signed on with DraftKings Sportsbook. Combine that with the fact that sports fans are naturally headed to those venues, and it’s easy to see why tribal casino operators might not be expecting huge windfalls.

They’re realistic about sports betting even without the competitive element, though. Panelists said they see it as a low-margin offering and question how many guests it will push through their doors. For them, the bigger wins in their new compacts are the increased slots volume and new table game offerings.

The bottom line is that tribal casinos see AZ sports betting as a net positive. They just aren’t yet sure how big that net will be.

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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is a freelance journalist who resides in Chicago. He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Iowa and covers the intersections of sports with business and the law.

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