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Four tribal casinos in vanguard to introduce legal sports betting to Washington state

Northern Quest Casino
The Northern Quest Casino in Airway Heights could be among the first places in Washington state to offer legal sports betting.

Four Washington state tribes have opened negotiations with the state government to introduce sports betting. Earlier this year, the legislature authorized wagering on sports, but only at tribal casinos -- unlike the broader legalization in Oregon.

The four tribes that want to be the first in Washington to take legal bets on sporting contests are the Tulalip, Suquamish, Snoqualmie and Kalispel. They are now negotiating the regulatory details with the state Gambling Commission. The talks cover items such as integrity of betting, licensing, enforcement and funding for problem gambling treatment.

"There's definitely excitement from the sports bettor to the operator and other companies that are involved," said Rebecca George, director of the Washington Indian Gaming Association. "This is the first new opportunity for a gaming product in our state for quite a while."

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown some uncertainty into the timeline for the debut of sports betting. Tribal casinos have reopened after a lengthy shutdown in the spring, but the ongoing risk of infection is making life difficult for sports leagues and athletes. The Ivy League on Wednesday announced the cancellation of fall sports, a possible sign of things come. Football and basketball tend to be the most popular contests on which to bet.

Kevin Zenishek, executive director of casino operations for the Kalispel Tribe's Northern Quest Casino near Spokane, said he once hoped to launch sports betting in time for the NFL season. But the pandemic slowed things down and forced him to adjust expectations.

"I have a goal (to launch) by the end of the year," he said in an interview Wednesday. "But even that might be a little ambitious."

Zenishek said his casino's initial plans are to upgrade an existing keno and off-track horse racing betting area to add sports betting. The teller stations are already there. He said it won't be extravagant like a "Las Vegas style" sportsbook, but should still be nice.

George said casinos provide the main source of revenue to Northwest tribal governments for a wide range of social service, education and economic development programs. Washington state government will not share in the profits from sports betting.

"It's an opportunity for some new revenue that will help in a time when tribes need it most," George said in an interview Tuesday.

Washington state lawmakers chose to have more limited availability than other states that legalized sports betting. There will be no broadly accessible internet or mobile betting options, unlike in neighboring Oregon where the state lottery offers a smartphone sports betting app.

Washington state's sports wagering authorization allows betting on a wide range of sporting events including college sports, professional sports, overseas leagues and Olympic and World Cup competitions. One exception is that no bets are allowed on games involving in-state college teams, such as the UW Huskies or WSU Cougars, or minor league teams.

The Oregon Lottery's website and mobile sports betting app, which is named Scoreboard,does not currently include any NCAA games as a matter of policy.

In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for states beyond Nevada to have sports betting. It is now a state-by-state choice for policymakers to make. The Oregon Lottery dove in last year with its online sports betting app. Two coastal Oregon tribes added sportsbooks to their casino offerings.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.