Eastern Band Of Cherokee Indians Supports North Carolina Online Betting Expansion

Written By Matthew Kredell on April 28, 2021

One possible obstacle to legalizing online sports betting in North Carolina won’t be in the way after all.

Lawmakers tell PlayGeorgia that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) is on board with online sports wagering in North Carolina.

Ashleigh Stephens, chief of staff for the EBCI, confirmed the tribe’s interest in statewide sports betting. She added that the tribe is working with bill sponsors to add a few details to the bill.

Tribe comes around on mobile sports wagering

The EBCI has two casinos in North Carolina: Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort and Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel. They opened retail sportsbooks last March.

The tribe came to former Sen. Jim Davis, whose district included the casinos, early in 2019 and asked him to introduce legislation adding sports betting to the games the tribe was allowed to offer at its casinos. At the time, Davis said the Cherokee wasn’t interested in mobile, and “probably have no interest in expanding in the future.”

That turned out not to be the case. There’s more money to be made from mobile sports betting, and the Cherokee seems ready to accept competition to the market as long as they can participate.

“People change,” Lowe said. “They see where it can be profitable to them, so they’re open to it.”

Bill as introduced doesn’t mention tribes

Sens. Jim Perry and Paul Lowe co-sponsored the statewide sports betting bill S 688. Sen. Jason Saine introduced the companion bill H 631 in the House.

The legislation authorizes the North Carolina State Lottery Commission to hand out between 10 and 12 interactive sports wagering licenses. Other than being deemed “qualified” by the Commission, there are no other stipulations for these licenses.

Perry said the EBCI and its sports betting partner could apply for and receive one of those open licenses. But the tribe would probably want more assurance than that.

The Catawba Indian Nation also is building a casino in North Carolina and could seek a mobile sports betting license.

Retail lottery locations could become part of NC bill

In drafting the legislation, the sponsors took suggestions made by Spectrum Gaming in a study of the sports betting market submitted last year.

Some of those suggestions incorporated into the bill include running sports betting through the Lottery Commission and allowing wagers on college sports and e-sports.

However, Spectrum also asserted that the most profitable means of implementation for the state was through online channels and lottery retailers.

The bill as introduced limits statewide sports betting to mobile and online. However, Perry said changes could include adding lottery retailers to the legislation.

Authorized lottery retailers in North Carolina include gas stations, convenience stores, grocery stores, bars, and restaurants.

Sponsors seeking revenue to avoid tax increase

The Senate bill sponsors are not pitching the bill to represent gaming interests in their districts.

North Carolina desperately needs to build more schools and has considered raising taxes to do so. They see the potential revenue from sports betting as a possible alternative to raising taxes to fund these educational improvements.

“Two-thirds of the poorest counties in the state are located in the eastern region where my district is located,” Perry said. “Some lawmakers want to raise property taxes to build schools, but that impacts our larger property holders which are our farmers. We’re obligated to examine new revenue that can help our farmers.”

Lowe said they don’t have any exact figures, but they hope sports betting could bring as much as $50 million to the state. According to the Spectrum study, statewide sports betting could generate $367 million in gross gaming revenue at market maturity. At the proposed 8% tax rate, that would create about $30 million annually for the state.

“Our major goal is to get more revenue,” Lowe said. “In and of itself, it is a revenue bill. We’re trying to get revenue to support the things we ought to support in our state.”

Path to passage for NC sports betting bill

Since being introduced earlier this month, the North Carolina sports betting bills have yet to get a committee assignment. However, that’s not a negative indicator for the bill as the legislature has just started to get committees up and running.

Perry admits that gambling legislation can be a sensitive subject in a state such as North Carolina. The state doesn’t even have commercial casinos. But as majority whip, he is comfortable facilitating conversations to help with passage of controversial legislation.

Saine introduced his bill with 20 co-sponsors, showing the issue does have a good deal of support in the House.

“I think it’s too early to handicap today,” Perry said. “I don’t want to bet on it. There are a number of members who understand the difficulties we face in some of the rural areas and how this could be a potential revenue source to build schools.”

Lowe hopes for the bill to get a committee hearing in May. North Carolina doesn’t have a definitive end date to the legislative session, though it typically runs to July or August.

“Sports betting is something that’s happening everywhere, but we’re not getting any revenue from it,” Lowe said. “At some point, we’ll be able to get in committee and have some real discussion about this bill. It’s our hope that we’ll get it passed. We feel very confident about it.”

Photo by AP / Gerry Broome
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