Washington State cardroom group sues over tribal sports-betting exclusivity

Haley Hintze Author Photo
Haley Hintze
Posted on: January 22, 2022 17:10 PST

The largest independent operator of cardrooms in the State of Washington has filed suit against state and federal officials over its awarding of exclusive sports-betting rights in the state to tribal entities. Maverick Gaming LLC, which operates 19 of Washington's 44 licensed cardrooms, seeks to have the state's altered compacts with 16 of the state's tribal nations declared invalid.

Washington's state legislators approved tribal exclusivity in March 2020 on a case-by-case basis, and the first sports betting in the state went live in 2021 at Snoqualmie Casino. Two other tribal casinos have since joined the market.

Maverick Gaming's lawsuit names several defendants, including U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, current and former members of the Washington State Gambling Commission, and other individuals and agencies. The lawsuit alleges that the named officials are “irrationally and impermissibly discriminating on the basis of race and ancestry,” and that the awarding of the rights exclusively to the tribes is a violation of the United States' Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), because sports betting was never included among the forms of "Class III" gaming granted to the tribes when IGRA was enacted.

According to the lawsuit, "Washington’s tribal monopoly is inconsistent with IGRA and federal criminal statutes, which prohibit class III gaming activity by tribal casinos on Indian lands unless a State permits the same activity by non-tribal entities." Maverick Gaming asserts that the 2020 decision by the state to grant the sports-betting rights violates the equal-protection clause of the U.S. constitution, and thus unfairly impacts Maverick's own business interests.

Maverick Gaming operates casino venues in Colorado and northern Nevada in addition to its lineup of Washington cardrooms. Two of those rooms, the Caribbean Cardroom in Kirkland and Red Dragon Casino in Mountlake Terrace, offer live poker.

Lawsuit parallels sports-betting battle in Florida

Maverick Gaming's Washington-based lawsuit roughly parallels the battle over sports-betting rights in Florida, where that state's exclusive deal with the Seminole Tribe to offer sports wagering throughout the state has also run aground amid legal challenges. In Florida, many of the state's poker rooms are run in conjunction with state-licensed pari-mutuel outlets such as race tracks, and one of those facility's owners, West Flagler Associates, filed suit over the tribal exclusivity, magnified in that state because the statewide deal also included off-reservation wagering, another asserted IGRA violation.

Like Maverick Gaming in Washington, West Flagler Associates operates a poker venue, the Bonita Springs Poker Room, along with its Magic City Casino. In both cases, the long-term impact of the tribal exclusive serves as a potential negative business impact for the cardrooms, whose owners would also like to offer sports-betting services.

West Flagler's initial action against Florida was later dismissed, but other potentially impacted stakeholders filed similar lawsuits. Those continue working through the U.S.'s federal legal system, and they've forced sports-betting in Florida, which went live in November, to be pulled back from the market several weeks later.

More lawsuits may follow, and the end result may turn out to be a reconstruction of IGRA itself. When the law was enacted in 1988, serving as the legal guidebook to tribal gaming across the U.S., it opened the door to the more than 500 tribal casinos -- many of them being huge venues -- that now operate across the U.S. Yet IGRA itself has shown its limitations and its likely replacement or revision in the years ahead seems a certainty. For now, though, it stands as an increasingly bad law -- fine for its original purpose, but unable to deal with more modern issues and market realities.

Featured image source: Maverick Gaming