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

The owner of a Washington card room is suing state and federal officials over its rights to the games, arguing that tribal casinos unfairly monopolize sports betting. But local tribes, including his own, see the claim as a threat to their economy and sovereignty.

Maverick Gaming CEO Erik Persson told Fox News, “I don’t have a situation where that would be resolved.” If his lawsuit goes to the U.S. Supreme Court as expected, a ruling in his favor could affect sports betting in states far from Washington, according to a PlayUSA analysis.

“I have the resources to go all the way, and so do they, so it’s going to be a fight,” 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.

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 Rae Lambert/Fox News Digital)

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Maverick Gaming has about 20 card rooms across the state, which Persson compares to a Cheers bar. They are generally bars and restaurants and have up to 15 tables where customers can play poker, blackjack, baccarat and other games.

But there are no flashing lights or blaring music of slot machines, and that’s for the state’s 29 tribal casinos. And so is sports betting for now.

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law banning sports gambling in 2018, it allowed states to create their own rules. Two years later, the Washington Legislature decided to allow sports betting only on Native American lands, and supporters say tribal governments are well-equipped to control responsible gaming and avoid sprawl.

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

“It’s one less reason to be in the card room and one less reason to be in the tribal facility when there’s a football game on Saturday or Sunday,” Persson said. “We don’t think it’s fair.”

So Maverick Gaming sued the state and federal government, arguing that Washington’s implementation of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) created a tribal monopoly on certain forms of gambling. The lawsuit further alleges that the tribe’s monopoly “discriminates on the basis of race or descent” in violation of the Constitution’s equal protection clause.

“It’s trying to make a mockery of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act,” said Rebecca George, executive director of the Washington Indian Gaming Commission. “It’s not only wrong, it’s insulting to think about it on racial grounds.”

In 1988, IGRA established the Indian Gaming System as a means of generating income for tribes and supporting their economic development.

Washington, along with most western states, allowed limited gambling. Revenue from tribal gaming funds is critical to government services like education and health, and this windfall finally sent “numbers pointing in the right direction for our people,” George said.

“Indian Playhouse is doing what it set out to do, which is to help lift people out of poverty,” he 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, which now includes 31 casinos across Nevada, Colorado and Washington.

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The tribe has led opposition to Persson’s claims of making money from sports betting, and court documents describe him as someone who “left the reservation and moved” to Nevada and amassed his wealth.

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

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

It’s not uncomfortable for me, she said. “They should be uncomfortable. They should be uncomfortable.”

But tribal organizations see Maverick’s claims as more than just sports betting, which could threaten their status as sovereign states by disrupting Washington’s gaming compacts. This comes as the Supreme Court challenges India’s Child Welfare Act, arguing that it was brought by the same law firm representing Maverick Gaming.

“As an Indian, it’s scary to think about the impact of one of these incidents on our society,” George said.

An employee deals cards at Maverick Gaming's Great American Casino in Tukwila, Washington.  The State Card Room allows up to 15 tables where patrons can play games such as poker and blackjack.

An employee deals cards at Maverick Gaming’s Great American Casino in Tukwila, Washington. The State Card Room allows up to 15 tables where patrons can play games such as poker and blackjack.
(Hannah Rae Lambert/Fox News Digital)

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

“People like to throw around horrible-sounding adjectives, but at the end of the day, tribes are sovereign nations, and that’s what sports betting is about,” he said. “It’s about not giving tribes a monopoly on sports betting in Washington state.”

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Persson expects the lawsuit to be heard later this year, but an appeal will go to the Supreme Court.

“We believe we will win when we go to the Supreme Court,” he said.

The Supreme Court’s decision could reach far beyond Washington and affect states with similar tribal gaming relationships, according to an analysis by PlayUSA. In Florida, for example, the state government allows sports betting if private companies first reach an agreement with the Seminole Tribe (a law currently facing legal challenges).

“Do I think this lawsuit has a chance? I don’t,” 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.”

She says it’s “sick” to think about how much to spend.

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

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

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

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Allowing sports betting in card rooms would have minimal impact on the tribes’ bottom line, Persson said. Currently, he said, 90% of his business comes from a 3-mile radius, which barely overlaps with tribal land.

But the benefits to cardrooms and their staff will be huge, he added.

“Having more than 600 jobs paying more than $75,000 a year would help a lot of families,” he said. “Sometimes I think it gets lost in the mix. There’s a lot of politics being played, the cards are being cut, and it feels like the tribes are winning. But because these jobs are important, who are the Washingtonians who are hurting?”

Ramiro Vargas contributed the accompanying video.

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