March Madness remains off limits for legal sports betting in Northwest, but maybe not much longer

Mar 19, 2021

With March Madness getting into full swing this weekend, it's a safe bet that some area fans want to wager on their favored teams in the NCAA basketball tournament. Placing a legal bet on college basketball is virtually impossible in the Pacific Northwest for the time being, though there are changes afoot.

Three tribal casinos near the Oregon Coast are the only places in the Northwest taking legal wagers on March Madness games. Last year, the Washington Legislature legalized sports betting, exclusively in tribal casinos. But Brian Considine, legal and legislative manager of the state Gambling Commission, said regulatory details have to be finalized before Washington tribal sportsbooks can open.

"We had hoped we would have sportsbooks live in tribal casinos by March Madness, but it's looking like probably football season, September-October is the next window that we're targeting where we can get everything done and launched," Considine said in an interview Friday. "No guarantee, but that's a goal we have right now."

Fan interest in wagering on area teams may be higher than normal with Gonzaga, Eastern Washington, Oregon and Oregon State all in the 2021 men's tournament. In addition, national sportsbook operators have been advertising heavily. But betting on the local team isn't possible for different reasons specific to each Northwest state.

Idaho lawmakers have shown no interest in legalizing any sports betting since the U.S. Supreme Court cracked open the door to it in 2018. The Washington Legislature prohibited the forthcoming sportsbooks in the state from accepting bets on contests involving in-state college teams. All collegiate sports are excluded by law from the Oregon Lottery's online sportsbook.

A legislative bill introduced this winter in Salem at the request of the Oregon Racing Commission proposed to relax the state's prohibition on offering bets on college games. But state Rep. Marty Wilde (D-Eugene), the chair of the House General Government Committee, declared the bill as dead on Friday.

A spokesperson for the Oregon Lottery said the agency continues to engage with stakeholders to explore ways of adding college sports to the lineup of its online and mobile sportsbook. The lottery's Scoreboard app launched in late 2019.

"We’re talking about anywhere from an additional 30%-50% in handle that we believe we’re leaving on the table by not offering collegiate wagering, so it’s a significant chunk that we’re missing out on," the lottery's Manager of Community and Corporate Engagement Matt Shelby told the industry journal Legal Sports Betting in an interview last fall.

In the meantime, tribal casinos by virtue of being an extension of sovereign nations can play by slightly different rules. The Chinook Winds Casino in Lincoln City, the Mill Casino in Coos Bay and Spirit Mountain Casino in Grand Ronde are heavily promoting March Madness action at their on-premises sportsbooks.

In Washington state, four tribes are at the head of the line to introduce sports betting in their respective casinos. They first need to work out the details of such things as licensing vendors, integrity of betting, overlapping regulatory bodies and funding for problem gambling treatment. The Tulalip, Suquamish, Snoqualmie and Kalispel tribes opened negotiations with the state Gambling Commission last summer, since joined by the Muckleshoots and one or two others.

National sports betting brands such as DraftKings, FanDuel and William Hill appear interested in competing for contracts to operate the tribal casino sportsbooks, as evidenced in public comments to the Washington State Gambling Commission during their recent discussion about getting a head start on background checks.

The 2021 Washington Legislature turned aside a request from a major operator of private card rooms to expand the venues where sports betting could be offered. Maverick Gaming was the chief backer of a bill to allow non-tribal card rooms and horse racing tracks to join the sports betting action. Maverick owns 19 neighborhood card rooms across Washington, sometimes referred to as mini-casinos.

Tribes strongly opposed the proposal, reasoning that their de facto monopoly in the state aligns with public wishes to limit the availability of gambling in Washington. Reserving the sports gaming revenue for tribal governments they added, would also ensure it pays off in spending on housing, health care and education in their communities. Democratic legislative leaders who run the tables in Olympia -- and tend to be sympathetic to the tribes -- bottled up the proposed sports betting expansion in committee last month.

A survey conducted on behalf of the trade group American Gaming Association estimated that 47 million people will place bets on the March Madness tournament this year, easily making it one of the nation's favorite sporting events to bet on. Association CEO Bill Miller said the landscape has changed rapidly with "more legal, regulated sports betting options than ever before."  The AGA said 25 states have authorized sports betting, which is 13 more jurisdictions than when the hoops tournament was last held in 2019.

The Big Dance tipped off on Thursday in Indianapolis. The entire men's tournament is taking place in and around Indiana's capital as a pandemic precaution. Similarly, this year's women's tournament is scheduled in one city from start to finish, in San Antonio, to minimize travel.