Sports betting battle pitting casino owner against tribes could go all the way to the Supreme Court

The owner of a Washington card room has argued that tribal casinos have unfairly monopolized sports betting and is suing state and federal officials for the right to participate in the game. But local tribes, including his own, say his lawsuit threatens their economies and sovereignty.

“There are no circumstances in which I would settle,” Maverick Gaming CEO Eric Persson told Fox News. If his lawsuit reaches the US Supreme Court as expected, a ruling in his favor could affect sports betting in states far beyond Washington, according to an analysis by PlayUSA.

“I have the resources to go all the way, and so do they. So there will be a battle,” Persson continued. “We’re going to have a lot of fun and I’m going to win. That’s what makes it fun.”

Maverick Gaming owner Eric Persson is suing the state and federal government over what he says is an unfair tribal monopoly on sports betting.
(Hannah Ray Lambert/Fox News Digital)

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Maverick Gaming owns some 20 neighborhood arcades across the state, properties that Persson likens to “Cheers” bars. They usually have a bar, restaurant, and up to 15 tables where customers can play poker, blackjack, baccarat, and other games.

But the flashing lights and tinkling music from the slot machines are absent, reserved for the state’s 29 tribal casinos. And, at least for now, so is sports betting.

When the US Supreme Court struck down a federal law banning sports betting in 2018, states were given the opportunity to create their own rules. Two years later, the Washington legislature decided to allow sports betting only on Native American land, with advocates saying tribal governments were well-equipped to oversee responsible gambling and prevent widespread expansion.

More than 30 states have legalized sports betting since a 2018 Supreme Court decision struck down a federal ban on the practice, according to the American Gaming Association.

More than 30 states have legalized sports betting since a 2018 Supreme Court decision struck down a federal ban on the practice, according to the American Gaming Association.
(Ramiro Vargas/Fox News Digital)

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Tribes “have a lot of influence in our legislature,” said Republican Sen. Curtis King, who sponsored a competitive bill in 2020 that would have extended sports betting to card rooms and mobile apps. “They were able to stop that bill from moving forward.”

“What that means is that on a Saturday or Sunday, when the football is on, one less reason to be in a game room, one more reason to be in a tribal facility,” Persson said. “And we don’t think that’s fair.”

Then Maverick Gaming sued the state and federal government, alleging that Washington’s implementation of the Indian Gaming Regulation Act (IGRA) has created tribal monopolies in some types of gambling. The lawsuit further argues that the tribal monopoly violates the Constitution’s equal protection clause by “irrationally and impermissibly discriminating on the basis of race and ancestry.”

“This is an attempt to make a mockery of the Indian Gambling Regulation Act,” said Rebecca George, executive director of the Indian Gambling Commission in Washington. “Thinking about the arguments that this is racial profiling is not just wrong, it’s offensive.”

In 1988, IGRA created a framework for Indian games as a means of generating income for tribes and promoting their economic development.

Washington, along with most Western states, has authorized gambling to a limited extent. Proceeds from tribal gaming fund essential government services like education and healthcare, and that windfall has finally sent “numbers in the right direction for our people,” George said.

“The Indian games are doing what they set out to do, and that is to help lift people out of poverty,” he said.

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Persson grew up in Hoquiam, a small town an hour north of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe, of which he is a member. With his sights set on a gambling career, Persson graduated from Georgetown University Law School and began building his own empire, which now encompasses 31 casinos in Nevada, Colorado and Washington.

As Persson seeks to profit from sports betting, his tribe leads the opposition, portraying him in court documents as someone who “left the reservation and moved” to Nevada and amassed his wealth.

“He now seeks to destroy … the primary source of employment and discretionary income for his own tribe,” reads part of the Shoalwater Bay motion asking a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit. More than a dozen other Washington tribes have signed the petition, characterizing Maverick’s lawsuit as an attack on their existing rights and interests.

The Shoalwater Bay movement is “theatrical,” Persson told Fox News.

“It’s not uncomfortable for me,” he said. “It should be awkward for them. They’re the ones who should be embarrassed.”

But tribal organizations argue that Maverick’s lawsuit is about more than sports betting and that undermining Washington’s gaming pacts 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 that represents Maverick Gaming.

“As an Indian, to think about the impacts any of these cases would have on our communities is devastating,” George said.

An employee deals cards at Maverick Gaming's Great American Casino in Tukwila, Washington.  Card rooms in the state can have up to 15 tables where customers can play games like poker and blackjack.

An employee deals cards at Maverick Gaming’s Great American Casino in Tukwila, Washington. Card rooms in the state can have up to 15 tables where customers can play games like poker and blackjack.
(Hannah Ray Lambert/Fox News Digital)

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Any suggestion that his lawsuit could threaten the political status of the tribes is “ludicrous,” Persson said.

“People like to throw around scary adjectives, but at the end of the day, tribes are sovereign nations and this is all about sports betting,” he said. “This is about not allowing tribes to have a monopoly on sports betting in Washington state.”

Persson expects the lawsuit to be argued later this year, but expects appeals to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

“We believe that when we get to the Supreme Court, we are going to win,” he said.

A Supreme Court ruling in the case could reach well beyond Washington and potentially affect states with similar tribal gaming relationships, according to an analysis by PlayUSA. In Florida, for example, the state government has authorized sports betting as long as the private companies first reach an agreement with the Seminole tribe (that law is currently embroiled in legal challenges).

“Do I think this lawsuit has a chance? I don’t think so,” George said. “I think they’re going to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court and we’re going to spend a lot of money fighting it? Yes.”

He said that thinking about the amount of money that will be spent is “disgusting.”

“Knowing where that money could go, to education and health care and saving salmon and all the things that tribal governments really care about,” he said. “I think it’s unfortunate.”

An employee distributes chips at a baccarat table at the Great American Casino in Tukwila, Washington.

An employee distributes chips at a baccarat table at the Great American Casino in Tukwila, Washington.

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Persson said that allowing gambling halls to participate in sports betting would have minimal impact on the tribes’ results. Currently, 90% of his business comes from within a three-mile radius, which rarely overlaps with tribal land, he said.

But the benefit to gambling halls and their employees would be enormous, he added.

“There would be more than 600 jobs paying more than $75,000 a year that would help a lot of families,” he said. “I think sometimes that gets lost in the shuffle. There’s so much politics being played out, gambling halls are being shut out, and the tribes feel like they’re winning. But it’s Washingtonians who are suffering because these jobs are important.”

Ramiro Vargas contributed to the attached video.

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