You can't have missed the fact that sports betting has almost completely taken over the United States of America's gambling scene. Since the US Supreme Court legalized it in 2018, it's been adopted as policy one state at a time, and it's been raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in much-needed revenue by some of the larger states who jumped aboard the bandwagon at the earliest opportunity. More recently, we've seen some other smaller or traditionally more conservative states, encouraged by the results they've seen elsewhere, decide that the time is right for them to open their arms to sports betting. Louisiana, Maryland, and South Dakota all approved sports betting on election day in November. Oklahoma did not - and the state's tribes are getting the blame. 

Oklahoma is a state that's in financial trouble and needs some light at the end of the tunnel as quickly as possible. At the end of the last financial year, the state's budget deficit stood at more than five hundred million dollars. By next year, that figure is expected to reach more than one billion. Those are scary numbers, and at present, there doesn't appear to be any way to fill the hole. Oklahoma's state budget tanked at the same time as oil prices did, necessitating massive cutbacks in higher education spending and forcing significant cutbacks in every government department. There isn't much left to cut, and state officials are worried. In their eyes, the taxable income that would come with legalized sports betting was a way out, but Oklahoma won't be getting it in 2021. It might not even get it in 2022. 

The relationship between Oklahoma's government and tribes has been poor for some time, coming to a head this past summer as the two sides ended up in court over the renewal of the gaming compacts that exist between the state and its tribal casino operators. The state wanted to break the compacts because Governor Kevin Stitt felt that the tribes were keeping too much of the revenue. He wanted their state's stake to be doubled. The US District Court felt otherwise, and the compacts were renewed on their existing terms for the next fifteen years. That leaves the Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Choctaw tribes holding all the cards when it comes to what forms of gambling are and are not permitted within the state - and they're in no rush to see sports betting on their territory. 

The chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association is Matthew Morgan, who was very relaxed about the matter when he spoke to the press on December 15th. Morgan stressed that there was “no clock ticking” in terms of introducing sports betting in Oklahoma and that it might not be a priority within the next legislative session. Any state official or politician looking at Oklahoma's finances might disagree with the assessment that there isn't a clock ticking, but Morgan left them a small crumb of comfort. He expressed his hope that discussions about introducing the activity might provide an opportunity for the state and the tribes to mend their relationship and establish a better, more profitable future for both parties. The message appears to be that it suits the tribes just fine not to have sports betting in the state, but if state officials want to talk about it, they're open to business. 

It's probably unsurprising that Oklahoma looks like it's going to be one of the last adopters of sports betting laws when you consider the state's existing gambling legislation. Sports betting aside, it isn't even legal to place bets through the internet in Oklahoma at the moment. Online slots websites are prohibited, and anyone caught operating one could be imprisoned. There's no specific law that says citizens aren't free to play online slots on websites that are hosted outside the state, but the existence of a gray area isn't a ringing endorsement. Oklahoma prefers people to do their gambling in person at a selected number of officially-approved venues. If playing online UK slots - a liberty that's existed in many other states for more than a decade - is out of the question there, sports betting might still be another ten years away from becoming a socially acceptable idea. In normal circumstances, it would probably be out of the question completely. Only because of the current dire financial straits that Oklahoma is facing has the matter found itself on the table for debate. 

The critical issue facing Oklahoma is that even if a bill could be introduced and approved quickly, there would still be a long journey to implementation. Louisiana isn’t expected to implement sports betting for another twelve months. If Oklahoma doesn’t get around to passing a bill until late 2021, it could conceivably be 2023 before anyone within the state sees any financial benefit from it - and nobody knows what the fiscal picture might look like by that point. 

The reason the tribes have largely got the blame from supporters of the sports betting initiative is that had they lost their court date with the Governor, event betting would already have been approved. As part of the proposed renegotiated gaming compacts, the state would have taken a 20% split of all revenue, but event betting would be on the agenda, and more locations would have been opened. The tribes stuck to their guns and kept hold of their current (more favorable) revenue split, but in doing so, they may have kicked sports betting into the long grass. That criticism isn't really fair, though. The matter at hand wasn't sports betting. It was revenue and rights, and if a court believes that the tribes were in the right to stand up for themselves, then we shouldn't doubt them. 

In practice, there’s no reason for any tribe to be against sports betting so long as they’re included in the deal. As they control so many gaming outlets and have so much control, it makes sense for them to host and administer any new sports betting facilities that might appear. The tribes of Oklahoma are unlikely to say no to any sensible sports betting proposal, so it’s down to the state’s officials to come up with one.

Celebrating 10 years of Native News...

We launched Native News Online back in February 2011 with the belief that everyone in Indian Country deserves equal access to news and commentary pertaining to them, their relatives and their communities. That's why the story you’ve just finished was free — and we want to keep it that way, for all readers. We hope it inspires you to celebrate our first decade with a gift of $10 or more to Native News Online so that we can continue publishing more stories that make a difference to Native people, whether they live on or off the reservation. Your donation will help us keep producing quality journalism and elevating Indigenous voices. Any contribution of any amount — big or small — gives us a better, stronger future and allows us to remain a force for change. Donate to Native News Online today and support independent Indigenous journalism. Thank you.