The federal government has signed off on two Oklahoma gaming compacts that would legalize sports betting. When – or if – the Sooner State can take its first bet remains to be seen.
Here’s what you need to know about the federal response to Oklahoma sports betting, the legal challenges that await and what to expect next from state tribes – and courts.
What Does the Federal Decision Mean?
The U.S. Department of the Interior let a compact between the Oklahoma government and two state tribes pass into law. Once published in the Federal Register (the full list of national government rules and regulations), Oklahoma’s deals with the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and the Comanche Nation are legal, at least in the eyes of the federal government.
The pact struck by Gov. Kevin Stitt and the two tribes allows expanded brick-and-mortar retail options as well as the right to take in-person sports bets on some of those properties. The two tribes operate a handful of gaming facilities in the state, which has about 120 such facilities overseen by around 30 total separate tribes.
But, according to the compacts, the Otoe-Missouria and the Comanches will be the only two that can take legal sports bets.
Can Sports Betting Happen Today?
The Federal Register will likely publish the agreement by the end of next month, clearing the final perfunctory federal-level hurdle. From there, it would still likely take a few months for the two tribes to partner with an operator, train employees and finalize the miscellaneous other logistical measures necessary to run a sportsbook.
In a best-case scenario for bettors, that could mean legal bets at Oklahoma tribal sportsbooks sometime in fall 2020. There are long odds for a best-case scenario.
While Stitt and the two tribes lauded the DOI decision, multiple groups still questioned the very legality of their deal, threatening legal sports betting before it begins.
Which Groups Opposed the Deal?
The two biggest obstacles for the compact’s two beneficiaries (and, subsequently, Oklahoma’s first legal sportsbooks) are other tribes and other members of the state government.
The powerful Oklahoma Indiana Gaming Association maintains that the deal is illegal, arguing Stitt doesn’t have the authority to strike such deals with two tribes and give them extended gaming authority. The OIGA suspended memberships for both the Otoe-Missouri and the Comanche tribes after they signed the deal.
Lawmakers have also denounced the compact. On behalf of the Oklahoma Legislature, Attorney General Mike Hunter filed an opinion last month that sided with lawmakers and the tribes, arguing the governor lack authority to enter into such an agreement.
The tribes and the legislature maintain Stitt’s actions, without approval by lawmakers, violates state and federal law, and are therefore invalid.
Why Are the Deals so Controversial?
In addition to the conflicting views of the law, Oklahoma sports betting – or more broadly, the state’s relationship with its tribal gaming interests – has been overshadowed by tense negotiations between both parties over the expiration (or not) of a prior gaming compact.
In 2004, an Oklahoma ballot measure gave federally recognized tribes the rights to offer certain types of casino-style games, the details of which were agreed to as part of a sweeping compact between themselves and the state government. The 15 year-deal granted tribes the exclusive rights to offer these games in exchange for gaming taxes paid to the state government.
In his first year in office in 2019, Stitt sought a new agreement, this one with higher taxes. The tribes argued that in absence of a new deal the previous 15-year compact renewed in perpetuity. Stitt disagreed, and ruled that any casino that opened its doors after the original agreement expired on Dec. 31, 2019 was violating state law.
The casinos remained open on Jan. 1, and the tribes and the government are now in a protracted court battle. In the meantime, Stitt began an individual approach to new deals, instead of the original, all-encompassing structure of the old one.
The Otoe-Missouria and the Comanche Nation were the first to finalize such an arrangement. Meanwhile, the state’s other tribes, including its three largest in the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw, have opposed any individual deals as the fate of the 2004 compact remains unsettled.
What Happens Next?
For the moment, nothing much.
The tribes and/or lawmakers will most likely look to stop the compact from taking effect. The Oklahoman reports Hunter, the attorney general, said the deals can’t be enacted until the state Supreme Court determines their legality, a process that could take weeks or months to settle. Notably, federal officials allowed the compacts to pass into law instead of proactively affirming them, opening up another possible legal avenue for opponents.
In the meantime, the tribes are looking to not only stop the new deals, but resolve the status of the 2004 compact they argue is still in effect.
All this creates an even more tangled legal and logistical mess that continues to hang over the fate of Oklahoma sports betting. The federal government, governor and two state tribes believe sports betting can begin this year. State lawmakers, the attorney general and most other tribes argue it can’t.
The two powerful groups now square off on what will surely be a difficult legal battle in which Oklahoma sports betting – and the future of the state’s entire gaming industry – hangs in the balance. No matter which side prevails, it looks like legal wagering will be delayed through the end of the year, and possibly far longer.