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

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

“There is no situation where I will settle,” Maverick Gaming CEO Eric Persson told Fox News. If his suit goes to the U.S. Supreme Court as planned, a ruling in his favor could result in take on sports betting in states far beyond Washington, according to a PlayUSA study.

“I have the resources to go all the way, so they will. So there will be a battle,” continued Persson. “We have a lot of fun going on, 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.

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 has about 20 neighborhood card rooms across the state, properties Persson compared 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 blaring music of the slot machines are absent, reserved for the state’s 29 tribal casinos. And – for now at least – as is the guarantee of sports.

When the US Supreme Court struck down a federal law that banned 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 on Native American lands only, with advocates arguing that tribal governments were qualified to oversee responsible gaming as long as they also avoid extensive expansion.

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

“Yes that means Saturday or Sunday, when football is going, one less reason to be in the 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, claiming that Washington’s implementation of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) has created tribal monopolies on certain forms of gambling. The suit also argues that the tribal monopoly violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution by “recklessly 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. this is offensive.”

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

Washington, along with most Western states, has allowed gambling within a limited area. The money from tribal gaming funds essential government services like education and healthcare, and that windfall has finally “put numbers in the right direction for our people,” George said.

“Indian games are doing what they were meant to do, and that is to 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 began building his empire, now spanning 31 casinos across Nevada, Colorado and Washington.

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As Persson looks to cash in on sports betting, his tribe is leading the fight, portraying him in court documents as someone who “left the reservation and moved” to Nevada and accumulated his wealth.

“He is now seeking to destroy a primary source of employment and discretionary income for his own tribe,” reads part of Shoalwater Bay’s motion asking a federal judge to throw out the suit. More than A dozen other Washington tribes have signed the petition, marking Maverick’s suit as an attack on their rights and interests.

The Shoalwater Bay move is “theater,” Persson told Fox News.

“It’s not strange to me,” he said. “It should be awkward for them. They are the ones who should be ashamed.”

But tribal groups argue that the Maverick suit is about more than just sports betting and that undermining Washington’s gaming treaties 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, it’s terrifying to think about the impact one of these cases would have on our communities,” George said.

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

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

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Any suggestion that his suit could threaten the tribes’ political status is “ridiculous,” Persson said.

“People like to throw out adjectives that are 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 allowing tribes to have a monopoly on Washington state sports betting.

Persson hopes the case will be heard later this year, but he expects appeals to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

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

The Supreme Court’s decision on the case could reach far beyond Washington and could affect states with similar tribal gaming relationships, according to an analysis by PlayUSA. In Florida, for example, the state government authorized sports betting as long as private companies reach a contract with the Seminole Tribe first (that law is currently involved in legal challenges).

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

She said that thinking about the amount of money that will be spent is “sickening”.

“I know where that money could be going, to education and health care and saving salmon and all the things that are true for tribal governments,” she 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 allowing card rooms to participate in sports betting would have little effect on tribal lines. Currently, 90% of his business comes from within a three-mile radius, which rarely crosses tribal land, he said.

But the benefit for card rooms and their employees would be huge, he said.

“There would 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 mix. So much politics being played, and card rooms being shut out and tribes feeling like they are winning. But it’s Washingtonians who are hurting because these jobs are important.”

Ramiro Vargas added the accompanying video.

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