Brandt Iden is an exceptionally informed gaming expert.
As a state legislator in Michigan, he helped guide the legalization Michigan online casinos and mobile sports betting, being able to reconcile the interests of commercial gambling companies and Native American gaming enterprises.
Currently, Iden is head of Government Affairs U.S. for Sportradar, a world leader in sports technology at what it describes as the “intersection between sports, media and betting.” Sportradar counts 1,700 sports federations, media outlets, betting operators and consumer platforms in 120 countries among its partners and clients.
Recently, Iden discussed the prospects for the legalization of California sports betting in the state with the highest population. The three most populated states – California, Texas and Florida, have proved to be difficult markets for the legal sports gambling industry to gain a foothold, each for distinct reasons.
Iden’s responses have been edited lightly for brevity and flow.
Two Sports Betting Measures on November Ballot
California is the biggest prize in online sports gambling because of its enormous population (more than 39 million people, almost 12% of the total U.S. population).
Two competing referendums are on the November ballot in California concerning sports wagering.
One, Prop 26, backed by the largest Tribal interests that dominate casino gambling in California, would keep sports gambling mainly in Native American casinos.
The other, Prop 27, backed by the large commercial gambling companies that have dominated the early stages of online sports betting in America, calls for internet sports wagering in California with far broader market access, and with tax money earmarked to address homelessness and mental health issues. It would still allow Tribal interests to have sports wagering.
To succeed, either proposal would need more than half of the votes cast.
Iden: At first, I thought there could be an opportunity for a compromise. Last year, there was a lot of discussion leading up to this. Then, I think, it just got to the point where the commercial operators said, "Look, we can't find a solution. And we don't want to get boxed out. So, our only option here is to put up a competing ballot initiative."
The tribes are continuing to take the position that they've had the exclusive gaming rights in California for over 40 years now and they don't want any other operators coming into the market and infringing upon those rights. And now you're seeing where both sides are going to go to the mattresses, if you will, on this issue.
That doesn't mean, though, that they couldn't come up with something (of a compromise) as things get closer and closer. As polling changes and they get closer to November, maybe, they come together and try to find some sort of compromise.
Online Initiative for ‘Social Good’
BetCalifornia: One of the points that tribal interests make is that they have invested collectively billions and billions of dollars in the bricks-and-mortar casino and any threat to that, they take quite seriously. They're going to further argue that what they do adds actual jobs as opposed to the minimal number of jobs that an online operation offers. How do you view that?
Iden: The commercial operators have tried to combat that by basically saying, "Our initiative is for mental health and homelessness. And we're going to ensure that hundreds of millions of dollars come to the State of California for social good." Now, that's different than obviously job creation and economic development but it's also a social good and it's also bringing in something that is certainly needed in the state of California.
(Iden added that some smaller tribes are beginning to weigh in on the side of the commercial operators, recognizing that partnering with the large operators and collecting some portion of the revenue gets them into the marketplace more effectively).
Regarding the argument of, “You're damaging the retail bricks-and-mortar casinos,” it's something we have not seen in any state that has launched mobile sports or iGaming, meaning a decline in foot traffic in casinos.
”What we've seen in Michigan and Atlantic City, which are two of the strongholds that I point to with both iCasino and (internet) sports betting, there's been no decrease in foot traffic into the bricks-and-mortar casinos. If anything, it's gone up.”
‘Tremendous Amount of Information’
BetCalifornia: From a political point of view and as a legislator you had to deal with more than just gaming issues. California, of course, has tremendous problems with homelessness and the online commercial companies have latched on to that. As a legislator, do you see that resonating with voters?
Iden: What happens here, unfortunately, is you see two competing ballot proposals in front of the voters and they're getting inundated with a tremendous amount of information from both sides.
This will be the most expensive ballot initiative campaigning (estimated at about $300 million) in the state for any referendums ever put forth. With all that information out there, I think it's tough for either one of these to get over the finish line. Voters typically get confused with all the information. They don't know what to believe with all the ads, because they've heard so much and they're tired of it by the time November rolls around. And I'm disappointed to say that it's likely, statistically speaking, they vote no on both.
(Note: More than 50% of votes cast is required for either referendum to pass).
So, you have to figure that if they split it up and maybe there is 30% that vote yes, 30% that vote no and 30% that don't vote, neither one of them make it. And that's using very simple math, but that's typically what you see with these initiatives. You're going to get folks who have family that works at the casinos. You have folks that are just anti-gambling in general. And then you have people that are going to want the statewide mobile. All of that gets mixed together, you see a situation where neither of these get to the threshold to get over the mark that they need.