Washington State Needs Signatures, Votes For Commercial Sports Betting
As other areas of the country pivot toward a back-to-normal-ish lifestyle where COVID is all but an afterthought, Washington state remains a place where people get passive-aggressively shamed for not wearing a mask — outdoors.
Hence, this may not be the ideal environment within which to launch a campaign requiring hundreds of thousands of wet signatures to get on a ballot, in spite of the Seattle Mariners’ recent announcement that they’d allow up to 9,000 fans to attend their home games — which, to many a fan of that woebegone ballclub, should feel quite normal.
But Eric Persson remains undaunted. He’s the CEO of Maverick Gaming, which operates 19 of Washington state’s 44 non-tribal card rooms. Having failed twice to pass legislation that would loosen Native Americans’ grip on sports gambling in the Evergreen State, Persson and his comrades are “looking at all our options” — including a ballot initiative — and have over $2 million in PAC money to make a run at a referendum, if they so choose.
“Signatures aren’t a challenge at all,” Persson says. “Signatures are a matter of paying $9 a signature. It’d probably cost about $2.7 million.”
Due to COVID, the Maverick team will have to hustle harder for those signatures than would be the case if there were a glut of music festivals and sporting events to descend upon. But Persson seems to banking on money being incentive enough to get the job done.
But even if Persson gets sports betting on the ballot, it’ll be rough sledding, as gambling-expansion initiatives in Washington state require a 60% vote to gain passage into law. You could put a free personal allotment of strawberry ice cream to the voters and crossing such a formidable threshold wouldn’t necessarily be automatic.
Playing catchup with the tribes
When it comes to gambling, Washington’s tribes have a pretty sweet deal: Unlike non-tribal betting venues, they don’t pay any gaming taxes to the state, and their clout in Washington’s capital, Olympia, is considerable. This goes a long way toward explaining why Maverick hasn’t been able to gain approval for mobile sports wagering off tribal gaming premises, which is where it’s currently — and exclusively — allowed.
“It’s a combination of raw clout and the moral high ground — the payback for the colonization of their traditional lands, and they take the money to feed, house, care for, and educate their people,” says Paul Queary, a longtime capital correspondent who runs an online news outlet called The Washington Observer.
The tribes got legislative approval for a geo-fenced sports gambling app setup in 2020, while Maverick’s bills have not made it out of committee. But in spite of the challenging environment, Persson’s confidence is not entirely unwarranted, as Maverick helped get sports gambling legalized in Colorado — where the company owns a handful of casinos — by way of referendum in 2019.
“Commercial sports betting is coming to Washington — that’s just a fact,” says Persson. “The state is taking a measured approach, but it’s not impossible to see mobile wagering as well. Sports betting is in its infancy in Washington state.”
For all of Persson’s confidence, getting the signatures he needs isn’t a foregone conclusion. As Queary wrote last week, it would probably take about 400,000 signatures — not the 300,000 baked into Persson’s math — to get the initiative on the ballot. The number of signatures required is based on how many votes were cast in the last gubernatorial election in the state, and with voter turnout up in 2020, nearly 325,000 signatures will be needed, up from about 260,000 for recent ballot initiatives. And because many signatures will inevitably be declared invalid, Queary estimates Persson will need to shoot for at least 400,000.
But Queary thinks Maverick could get there, thanks in part to their operating those 19 gambling venues. “If you have customer-facing businesses with people who want to sign, it makes it easier. I just don’t know how many poker or blackjack players there are and if it would be enough,” Queary says. “Costco ran a signature drive to privatize alcohol and set up a table at every Costco and said, ‘Hey, do you want to buy booze here?’ They’ve sold a whole lot of handles of whiskey since then.
“Maverick could get the signatures. It would just be really expensive.”
Washington weirdness: When is a slot not a slot?
There are 29 tribes in Washington state, 22 of which operate a total of 29 casinos. Walk around their properties and you will see what appear to be slot machines — even though slots are outlawed in Washington. But the tribes and the state figured out a creative workaround that classifies these so-called slots as de facto digital lottery tickets.
“It’s government gaming, similar to lottery,” says Brian Considine, legal and legislative manager for the Washington State Gambling Commission. “Their slot machines are Tribal Lottery Systems (TLS) — digital lottery tickets. In Vegas, each machine is randomized and is a machine unto itself. With the tribal lottery, there’s a game set — it’s finite. It’s based on a server. Everybody playing ‘Wheel of Fortune’ at a dollar wager is playing against each other off the same server. You can’t play against a machine; it has to be a bank of machines.”
“Tribal gaming is government gaming. The lottery is government gaming. It’s the same,” seconds Rebecca George, executive director of the Washington Indian Gaming Association. “The state offers a scratch ticket; we offer an electronic scratch ticket. The money goes back to the people. Allowing major expansion of gambling into neighborhood card rooms would seriously harm tribal communities. We rely on revenue from tribal gaming to provide services. These are government revenues that go to help some of the poorest communities in the state.”
But Persson thinks there’s plenty of honey for everyone’s money — and that it’s high time the tribes shared the pot.
“The card rooms lost money last year, while the tribes made $2.8 billion,” Persson asserts. “If you take a look at the geographic overlay, card rooms don’t overlap with tribes, for the most part. This is a profit grab, at the end of the day. That’s why, ultimately, there will be commercial sports betting. We provide a lot of great jobs. The story of ‘there’s not enough room for everyone’ is wearing thin.”
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