Sports betting battle pitting casino owner against tribes could go all the way to Supreme Court
Washington tribes say sports betting suit threatens their sovereignty, but Maverick Gaming says it's focused on fairness
TUKWILA, Wash. – A Washington card room owner argued that tribal casinos have unfairly monopolized sports betting and is suing state and federal officials for the right to get in on the game. But local tribes — including his own — say his suit threatens their economies and sovereignty.
"There's zero circumstances in which I'd settle," Maverick Gaming CEO Eric Persson told Fox News. If his suit makes it to the U.S. Supreme Court like he expects, a ruling in his favor could affect sports betting in states far beyond Washington, according to a PlayUSA analysis.
"I have the resources to go all the way, and so do they. So there's going to be a battle," Persson continued. "We're going have a lot of fun, and I'm going to win. That's what makes it fun."
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Maverick Gaming owns about 20 neighborhood card rooms throughout the state, properties Persson compares to "Cheers" bars. They generally have a bar, restaurant and up to 15 tables where customers can play poker, blackjack, baccarat and other games.
But the flashing lights and jangling music of slot machines are absent, reserved for the state's 29 tribal casinos. And — for now at least — so is sports betting.
When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law banning sports gambling in 2018, the states were given the opportunity to create their own rules. Two years later, the Washington legislature decided to allow sports wagering on Native American lands only, with proponents saying tribal governments were well equipped to oversee responsible gaming while also avoiding widespread expansion.
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The tribes "have a lot of clout in our legislature," said Republican Sen. Curtis King, who sponsored a competing bill in 2020 that would have extended sports wagering to card rooms and mobile apps. "They were able to stop that bill from moving forward."
"What that means is on a Saturday or Sunday, when football is going, one less reason to be in a card room, one more reason to be in a tribal facility," Persson said. "And we don't think that's fair."
So Maverick Gaming sued the state and federal government, alleging Washington's implementation of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) has created tribal monopolies on some types of gambling. The suit further argues the tribal monopoly violates the Constitution's equal protection clause by "irrationally and impermissibly discriminating on the basis of race and ancestry."
"This is trying to make a mockery of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act," said Rebecca George, executive director of the Washington Indian Gaming Commission. "To think about the arguments that this is racial discrimination is not only wrong, it's offensive."
In 1988, IGRA created a framework for Indian gaming as a means of generating revenue for tribes and encouraging their economic development.
Washington, along with most Western states, has authorized gambling within a limited scope. The proceeds from tribal gaming fund essential government services such as education and healthcare, and that windfall has finally sent "numbers ticking in the right direction for our people," George said.
"Indian gaming is doing what it intended to do, and that is to help pull people out of poverty," she said.
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Persson grew up in Hoquiam, a small town about an hour north of the Shoalwater Bay tribe, of which he is a member. With his sights set on a career in gaming, Persson graduated from Georgetown University law school and started building his empire, now spanning 31 casinos across Nevada, Colorado and Washington.
As Persson looks to cash in on sports betting, his tribe is leading the opposition, portraying him in court documents as someone who "left the reservation and relocated" to Nevada and amassed his wealth.
"He now seeks to destroy … the major source of employment and discretionary revenue for his own Tribe," reads part of the Shoalwater Bay motion asking a federal judge to throw out the suit. More than a dozen other Washington tribes have signed onto the request, characterizing Maverick's suit as an attack on their existing rights and interests.
Shoalwater Bay's motion is "theatrics," Persson told Fox News.
"It's not awkward for me," he said. "It should be awkward for them. They're the ones that should be embarrassed."
But tribal organizations argue Maverick's suit is about more than just sports betting and that undermining Washington's gaming compacts could threaten their status as sovereign nations. This comes as the Supreme Court considers a challenge to the Indian Child Welfare Act, brought by the same law firm representing Maverick Gaming.
"As an Indian person, to think about the impacts that either one of these cases would have into our communities is devastating," George said.
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Any suggestion that his suit could threaten the political status of tribes is "ridiculous," Persson said.
"People like to throw out adjectives that sound scary, but at the end of the day, the tribes are sovereign nations and this is about sports betting," he said. "This is about not letting tribes have monopoly on sports betting the state of Washington."
Persson hopes the suit will be argued later this year but expects appeals will take the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
"We believe when we get to the Supreme Court, we're going to win," he said.
A Supreme Court ruling on the case could reach far beyond Washington and potentially impact states with similar tribal gaming relationships, according to an analysis by PlayUSA. In Florida, for example, the state government authorized sports betting so long as private companies reach a deal with the Seminole Tribe first (that law is currently embroiled in legal challenges).
"Do I think this lawsuit has a chance? I don't think so," George said. "Do I think that they will appeal it all the way to the Supreme Court and that we will spend a lot of money fighting it? Yes."
She said thinking of the amount of money that will be spent is "sickening."
"Knowing where that money could be going, to education and health care and saving salmon and all the things that tribal governments really care about," she said. "I think it's unfortunate."
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Persson said allowing card rooms to participate in sports betting would have a minimal impact on tribes' bottom lines. Currently, 90% of his business comes from within a three-mile radius, which rarely overlaps with tribal land, he said.
But the benefit to card rooms and their employees would be huge, he added.
"There'd be over 600 jobs paying over $75,000 a year that would help a lot of families," he said. "I think sometimes that gets lost in the shuffle. So much politics being played, and card rooms being excluded and tribes feeling like they're winning. But who's hurting is Washingtonians because these jobs matter."
UPDATE: Washington lawmakers introduced new, bipartisan bills in the House and Senate Wednesday that would authorize sports betting at card rooms and racetracks.
Ramiro Vargas contributed to the accompanying video.