The Northern Arapaho Tribe has plans to launch a sports betting operation on the Wind River Reservation in the coming months. Tribal leaders hope the addition will help the tribe's three casinos recover from months of closure and revenue loss amidst the pandemic.
Brian Van Enkenvoort, CEO of the tribe's flagship Wind River Hotel and Casino, said the tribe is poised to offer its casino patrons a unique experience.
"Well-regulated sports betting is an excellent way to make the gaming experience even better for our customers," Van Enkenvoort wrote in a statement. "This is truly an amenity that sports fans can't find anyplace else in Wyoming."
Sports betting remains illegal under Wyoming State Law, even after the creation of a statewide gaming commission to regulate "skill-based" games earlier this year. But unlike most gaming tribes, the Northern Arapaho Tribe does not operate its casinos under a compact with the state. Instead, the tribe answers to federal regulators with the U.S. Department of the Interior.
"The state has no regulatory authority over us when it comes to gaming," said Northern Arapaho Business Councilman Stephen Fasthorse.
Still, Fasthorse hopes the move doesn't damage relations between the state and tribal governments, and that the tribe's efforts can serve as a model should state leaders decide to expand gaming in Wyoming.
"We extend an olive branch to the state of Wyoming, the Governor, and the legislators who are advocating for gaming. We're considered the [gaming] experts here. We would like to look at partnerships that could be beneficial to both the tribe and the state," Fasthorse said. "We would rather be partners than adversaries."
Fasthorse said the tribe has kept sports betting "in its back pocket" since a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision cleared the way, and decided to move forward this spring after state lawmakers created the Wyoming Gaming Commission. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Fasthorse said the addition of sports betting will help the tribe's casinos maintain some "exclusivity" as state lawmakers appear poised to expand gaming, and that the extra revenue will help keep the tribe afloat.
"We don't have a tax base revenue on the reservation to support our programs or even the tribal government. We rely on the revenues from our casinos to keep us maintaining," Fasthorse said.
More than a dozen tribal nations have launched sports betting operations since 2018, including tribes in Montana , Colorado and New Mexico. According to Katherine Rand, a professor of law and co-director of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy at the University of North Dakota, sports betting has been "generally positive" for those tribes. She said the revenue associated with launching a sports betting operation tends to come from "amenity spending" in casino restaurants, gift shops and hotels.
"There really isn't expected to be much direct gaming profit associated with a sportsbook. It's a way to bring people into the casino, to expand the customer base and so forth," said Rand.
Fasthorse said the tribe hopes to create a sportsbook atmosphere similar to what you might find on the Las Vegas strip at its three casinos on the Wind River Reservation. He said the tribe has some remaining regulatory requirements to satisfy with the National Indian Gaming Commission, but that sports betting could be available at the Wind River Hotel and Casino before the 2021 Superbowl.