SPECIAL REPORT: Age-old Tropes of “Cowboys and Indians” Dominate California Online Sports Betting Gold Rush

Sometimes it’s difficult to believe we’re living in 2024; perhaps 1824 or even 1924 would be more apposite, given the nature of recent attempts to bring legal, regulated, online sports betting–and wider 360 iGaming–to the Golden State of California, the last great prize in US online betting, writes André Dubronski in this special report.

While digital sports wagering surges 3,000-miles away, across this vast nation, in the rival East Coast Empire State, here in California the key gambling vertical remains hidebound to age-old tropes of “Cowboys and Indians” and beset by cryptic competing bids; some which have claimed to represent the interests of Native Americans but at closer inspection have been exposed as Johnny-Ringo-come-lately hustles.

We’re speaking, for example, of last October when two new gambling bill proposals put before the state legislature would, purportedly, have extended the monopoly on in-person and online sports betting to California’s registered gambling tribes.

The first proposed bill, tentatively called The Tribal Gaming Protection Act, was a weird mash-up that would have allowed the state governor to directly hand out online sports betting licences to the federally-recognised tribes.

A second initiative, dubbed The Sports Wagering Regulation and Tribal Gaming Protection Act, would have specifically prohibited non-tribal entities from entering the sports gambling space — unless in partnership with Native American stakeholders.

Trouble was, the sponsors of said legislative bills forgot to ask the tribes what they thought about the proposals.


Both bills were crushed before they even hit the ballot box.

And now it appears that it will be at least 2026 before online sports betting is greenlit in America’s richest state.

At stake is a potential handle well in excess of US$20 billion (£16bn) a year.

Indeed, if digital sports gambling–and wider iGaming–is ever to come to California and its super-wealthy addressable market of around 30 million people then there’s definitely a need to change it up.

Or, as our French cousins may ask: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

Thankfully, in recent months, it appears that quite a lot has changed; which bodes well for the long-awaited advent of progressive sports betting in a state that is home to some of the nation’s greatest sporting teams and sporting events, embracing both college and professional leagues.

Back in October, James Siva (pictured, right), Chair of CNIGA, the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, which represents 52 of the 100-plus federally-recognised Tribal governments in the state, charged: “The entire effort surrounding these initiatives was handled abhorrently by the initiative sponsors.

“[They] failed to consult with Tribal Nations before publication.

“This is another example of outside influences trying to divide and conquer Indian Tribes. We will not let history repeat itself.

“California Tribes have been successfully engaged in the gaming market for more than four decades.

“This didn’t happen by mistake, nor without careful consideration to the potential effects to our members and our surrounding communities.

“We Tribal leaders are the experts. And we will decide what is best for our people.”

Another Indian Gaming Association leader, Victor Rocha (pictured, left), was even more damning in his condemnation of the semi-clandestine forces behind the proposed bills.

“This thing is so dead. [These people] are morons. You heard it here first,” he tweeted.

The adamantine opposition of Indian leaders to any bid to legalise online sports betting in California that doesn’t put the state’s Indian Nations front-and-centre has finally hit the consciousness of the big three US sportsbooks: FanDuel, DraftKings and BetMGM, who have been circling the riches on offer like carpetbaggers ever since they launched following the repeal of PASPA, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, by the Supreme Court in 2018.

Mea Culpas

Last month BetMGM CEO Adam Greenblatt conceded that Californian Tribes must be partners in any bid to bring legal online sports betting to the Golden State.

“Unfortunately California has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory too many times,” Greenblatt told a posse of gambling industry leaders gathered in New York.

“Sharing is hard in California. There are too many incumbents and very strong, influential groupings.

“[But] as everybody probably knows, the ‘unlock’ for California is the Tribes.

“The [only] passage of sports wagering in California is a deal which includes the Tribes as partners.”

And UK and Irish-origin Flutter Entertainment, which owns FanDuel, arguably America’s most successful sportsbook, has also rolled out the ‘mea culpas’.

FanDuel, along with DraftKings and other top flight operators, have reputedly spent at least US$450 million (£361.5m) over the last three-years campaigning to legalise online sports betting in California.

Last month, referring to a failed 2022 state ballot, FanDuel President Christian Genetski admitted: “It was what I would describe as a well-intentioned but uninformed and misguided attempt.

“[From our perspective], it was definitely a spectacular failure. But that’s OK. It wasn’t the time, and it wasn’t the right way, and we understand that.”

And earlier this month FanDuel CEO Amy Howe told delegates at the Indian Gaming Association Tradeshow and Convention: “It wasn’t the right plan or the right time.

“It was uninformed and misguided,” conceding that in the future operators must defer to the wishes of the gaming Indian Tribes.

Across America, Indian Tribal gaming rights are enshrined in the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), which gives the Nations widespread legal authority and sanction–tempered and subject to gambling compacts with state governments–to set up and run casinos on Tribal reservations.

According to the National Indian Gaming Commission’s most recent Annual Report, revenues–from 525 gaming operations run by 244 federally-recognised tribes in 29 states–rose by nearly five percent in 2022 to US$40.9 billion (£32.86bn).


Tribal gaming revenue is a critical source of income on reservation land and is used to drive economic growth and fund education, health, and other development projects.

Research has recorded that in locations where a tribal casino has been open for at least four-years the positive economic and social impacts include young adults moving back to reservations; employment increases by 26 percent, the number of working poor declines by 14 percent and mortality rates fall.

Hitherto, the strictures and limitations of traditional land-based gambling operations on reservations, as ultimately overseen and defined by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, were clear enough.

But the advent of digital gaming, and the corresponding potential vast wealth on offer, complicated the many, varied, tribal gaming compacts between the Indian Nations and corresponding state authorities.

Which explains the ongoing California factionalism – and recent legal storm in Florida over the rights, or otherwise, of the gaming Seminole Tribe and their hold on online sports betting, now resolved in their favour.

And in a further boost for Native American gambling fortunes, the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs has now updated federal regulations that will effectively sanction Tribal-state compacts to allow internet gaming; crucially; outside of reservation land.

A healthy dose of clarity and reality has finally been administered to both online sports betting and tribal gaming, believe many iGaming industry watchers.

“We’ve had off-track betting compacts with tribes in dozens of states since the earliest years of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act,” one leading gambling industry leader told iGamingFuture. “And the major aspect of that gaming–indeed the very event that determines the outcome of the game–occurs off Indian land!

“This [new directive] is going to be critical as Tribes in each state look at what their opportunities might be with mobile wagering.”

Jon Peters (pictured, left), a member of Oklahoma’s Kiowa Nation, an iGaming trouble-shooter and businessman, is future positivity personified.

“I fully support the reevaluation of Tribal gaming compacts,” he told me.

“This process is overdue, as Indian gaming has come a long way in its development of sovereign immunity, and prosperity of its communities and surrounding neighbours.

“Secretary Deb Haaland and Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland have done a great job. Both share the responsibility in working with the federal government to improve the welfare of Tribal citizens.

“An example of this journey is the nearly US$13 billion [£10.44bn] invested in Tribes throughout the United States under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

“I am optimistic and hopeful that these changes will benefit those involved and share in an equitable outcome.”


Focussing on the golden promise of California sports betting and iGaming, Tribal leaders feel in no rush to get online sportsbooks legalised in the state.

Big hitters–such as FanDuel, DraftKings, BetMGM, Caesars Sportsbook and ESPN BET–“won’t be operators in the state,” asserted CNIGA Chair James Siva.

“If they want to be partners, like the slot companies we work with, then we can do that. I think they are starting to come around.

“We won’t be hurried. We are going to make sure we stay united in purpose.

“We need to do it. But we need to do it right,” he affirmed.

Because of a legislative backlog, it would appear that the earliest date that online sports betting can come to California is early 2026.

Until then the age-old movie trope of “Cowboys and Indians” will persist, as fast-draw operators and Native American gaming interests continue to circle each other, seeking the riches of the Great New California iGaming Gold Rush.

Additional Reporting By Lauren Harrison

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