Years ago, while he was serving in the military, Jon Peters heard a drill sergeant say there were three types of Marines: ‘One who makes things happen, one who waits for things to happen, and one who says ‘what happened?’”
“We need to be the right kind of Marine,” said Peters, now the chief operating officer of the Kiowa Casino and Hotel.
In other words, Oklahoma tribes need to drive changes in the state’s gaming industry and not simply wait to react to changes, Peters said this week at the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association Conference and Trade Show.
One especially big change will involve the legalization of sports betting in the state, according to several participants at the conference, which ended Thursday at the Cox Business Convention Center in downtown Tulsa.
“It’s not ‘if’ but ‘when’ this change comes,” said Kelly Carpino, CEO of the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma.
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More than half the states have legalized sports betting since a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down a federal ban, speakers said. And Americans have since bet more than $143 billion on sporting events.
Bringing it to Oklahoma would generate revenue not only for tribes but for the state government, said Janie Dillard, senior executive director of commerce for the Choctaw Nation.
”We should be the ones driving it,” Dillard agreed during a panel discussion on the “state of gaming” in Oklahoma. “Sports betting is the next big prize.”
Legalizing it in Oklahoma would likely include technological changes for tribal gaming, with bets made online instead of at brick-and-mortar casinos, speakers said. And it would probably require amendments to the state’s gaming compact, which gives tribes exclusive rights to offer gaming while the state receives a percentage of revenue, speakers said. The current compacts do not include sports betting.
Renegotiating the compacts, however, will come with risks, said Bill Lance, the secretary of state for the Chickasaw Nation.
“It can’t be a dramatic, all-out change,” Lance said, noting that the tribes had successfully fought Gov. Kevin Stitt’s effort to force them to negotiate an entirely new compact.
“Anything that we do, going forward, we must protect the integrity of the current state compact,” Lance said.
Native American tribes contributed $15.6 billion to the Oklahoma economy in 2019, the most recent year with available data, making them a “top 10 industry in the state,” said Victor Flores, president of the Oklahoma Tribal Finance Consortium.
The tribes created more than 113,000 jobs, with the majority held by nontribal citizens, worth more than $5.4 billion in wages and benefits, Flores said.
“Tribes are an economic driver as well as a constant and reliable partner,” Flores said. “Unlike corporations that move based on economic conditions, our tribes are here to stay.”
While bullish on the continued growth of gaming in Oklahoma, experts at the conference urged tribes to diversity with investments in other industries.
As one speaker noted, Oklahoma tribes had to expand beyond bingo into casino gaming to generate enough revenue for health care, housing and other needs. Likewise, tribes will need to expand beyond gaming to keep up with future needs, Dillard said.
“Gaming has set our foundation. It’s built us. It’s made us what we are today,” she said. “But we’ve got to start looking outside of the gaming box at other opportunities. Diversification is very important to all of us.”
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