- IGT will power retail sports betting at Arizona’s Cliff Castle Casino.
- The Cliff Castle Casino Hotel is a gaming enterprise of the Yavapai-Apache Nation.
- IGT has become a serious player in the US sports betting industry and recently bolstered their team with the hire of Las Vegas sportsbook veteran Joe Asher.
I’ll preface this story with the usual disclaimer about Arizona sports betting. The market continues to expand despite the fact that at the regulatory level it does little more than serve the needs of state politicians’ political cronies and financial benefactors. Amid this sleaze, there is a fairly decent sports betting ecosystem coming together. Granted, it could be one of the best in the US were it not for the closed door machinations of state government. Instead, they get–as I described it earlier this year:
…a mishmash of dimwitted incompetence and sheer imperiousness on the part of the state’s political elite. In particular, the process of license allocation is nothing more than shameless cronyism and log-rolling with a veneer of objectivity slapped on create some ‘plausible deniability’.
Arizona has the 14th largest population in the US and would be doing massive numbers if the state’s government were more concerned about developing the sports betting ecosystem and not just juicing in a small group of political cronies. At some point, I’m hoping that the regulatory cesspool is cleaned up but until then there’s at least a reasonably good sports betting market for players. In fact, today’s story has a subplot that underscores the mess behind the scenes with Arizona sports betting.
On the surface, this story is fairly simple–International Gaming Technology (IGT) has announced a multi-year agreement with Cliff Castle Casino in Camp Verde, Arizona which is roughly midway between Phoenix and Flagstaff and about a half hour from Sedona. The casino is a gaming enterprise of the Yavapai-Apache Nation. IGT PlaySports technology and trading advisory services will power Cliff Castle Casino’s retail sportsbook, enabling bettors to place pre-match and in-game wagers over the counter or at the venue’s self-service PlaySports Kiosks. IGT PlaySports technology powers sports betting at nearly 60 gaming venues across 19 states and is poised to grow even more. The company recently reorganized their business segments to give sports betting and iGaming greater emphasis. They also hired Las Vegas sportsbook veteran Joe Asher to head up their sports betting efforts.
It was Asher–now holding the title of IGT President of Sports Betting–who gave the quote for his company:
“Cliff Castle Casino can be confident in the reliability and scalability of IGT PlaySports technology, and in the abilities of our skilled trading advisory services team to help them maximize the opportunity. Arizona is an exciting sports betting market and we’re pleased to see IGT’s long-time customer, Cliff Castle Casino, be a part of this growth opportunity.”
Aaron Moss, Cliff Castle Casino General Manager, is looking forward to adding sports betting to his property’s product mix:
“We believe adding sports betting to Cliff Castle Casino’s existing entertainment offering will enable us to attract new patrons, extend and enhance our guests’ visits and help us stay competitive in Arizona’s rapidly growing sports betting market. Cliff Castle Casino looks forward to introducing our guests and local sports fans to the excitement and quality of an IGT-powered sportsbook.”
Now here’s where the story gets interesting and/or confusing–you’ll recall that the Yavapai-Apache Nation and partners PointsBet were screwed out of a sports betting license when they were awarded in early September. BTW, Arizona’s loathesome anti-vaxxer governor Doug Ducey gave an amazingly feeble explanation of why they had to deny some tribes sports betting licensure–he said that he had to guarantee that Arizona would be able to ‘keep its unique identity’ and that it wouldn’t ‘become a Las Vegas situation’. He further emphasized the importance of keeping gaming limited to tribal land.
Keep in mind that he also juiced in the state’s professional sports organizations meaning that there will be sportsbooks at their venues. Ducey is either too dumb to realize–or more likely too duplicitous to admit–that he could give every tribe in the state a sports betting license and that it wouldn’t create any additional retail betting outside of tribal land. The tribes would operate retail sportsbooks in their existing gaming properties and partner with third party companies for mobile betting. Arizona could have hundreds of mobile sportsbooks and unless you’re actually wanting to bet at them you wouldn’t know the difference. Just like Colorado, where they have the most vibrant and competitive sports betting ecosystem in the US with 26 mobile platforms and 19 retail sportsbooks–and if you don’t want to bet you’d never notice the difference. That isn’t the case with the retail sportsbooks that will operate at the various sports facilities, mostly in the Phoenix area. I have no problem with that but Ducey trying to play the ‘we don’t want Arizona to become like Las Vegas’ card is laughable. I can’t remember the last time anyone played the ‘we don’t want to be like Las Vegas NIMBY card’. Las Vegas isn’t even ‘like Las Vegas’ anymore and it hasn’t been since the 1970’s.
Anyway, PointsBet and the Yavapai-Apache Nation didn’t receive a license with no reason given. Never mind that PointsBet is a highly competent organization and the Cliff Castle Casino is always ranked right at the top of any list of the best gaming properties in Arizona. Here’s what PointsBet said at the time:
PointsBet Holdings Limited (ASX: PBH) today announces that Cliff Castle Casino Hotel, a Subordinate Economic Organization of the federally recognized Yavapai-Apache Nation (“Cliff Castle”), with whom its wholly owned
subsidiary PointsBet Arizona LLC had entered into an agreement to pursue online sports betting market access in Arizona, did not receive a sports betting license awarded by the Arizona Department of Gaming (the “ADG”) on Friday, 27th August 2021 (US time). Online sports betting was legalised by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey in April 2021, allowing for up to 20 sports betting licenses (10 for professional sports teams and 10 for tribes in Arizona).
The ADG has not provided any further information as to why Cliff Castle was not selected. Whilst disappointed that Cliff Castle was not awarded a licence, PointsBet continues to assess market access opportunities in Arizona.
To add insult to injury, the State of Arizona initially awarded PointsBet and the Yavapai-Apache Nation a sports betting license only to withdraw it several days later claiming an ‘administrative mistake’. I’ve followed the sports betting industry for as long as I can remember and have never heard of this occurring before. Of course, there’s no explanation of why the licensing was rejected and there won’t be one as the state has denied repeated FOIA requests for information about the evaluation process. Because that’s exactly what you do when everything is done on the ‘up and up’.
Fast forward to the IGT announcement and it appears that the tribe is going ahead with retail sports betting despite not being awarded a license. No idea what happened to PointsBet’s involvement or what Cliff Castle Casino is planning relative to mobile betting. Other tribes have done this in other jurisdictions–in New Mexico, the Buffalo Thunder Casino and Sana Ana Star both opened retail sportsbooks soon after the US Supreme Court struck down PASPA despite no action by state government. Much of this is based on an interpretation of the intricacies of Native American gaming–the actual regulatory wording is significantly more confusing but generally speaking tribes can offer any game on tribal land that isn’t specifically outlawed by the state or federal government. Since sports betting is now legal in the US and not specifically prohibited in the state of New Mexico the Santa Ana Star started offering sports betting under an existing Class III compact with the state. Not long after, the Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort Casino also opened a retail sportsbook. Earlier this year, IGT announced a deal to power retail sports betting at the Dakota Magic Casino and Hotel in Hankinson, North Dakota. The Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Tribe operates the property and is launching sports betting despite inaction from the state government.
That could be what is going on here and if so kudos to the Yavapai-Apache Nation. They’re pursuing their best interests and if he’s smart Ducey will avoid a conflict with the tribe that will be a PR nightmare and that he’d likely lose. Hopefully, more tribal operators in backwards and/or corrupt states will follow suit. I can only speculate at this point–I dug through a mountain of news sources about tribal gaming in and out of Arizona and with the exception of reporting the Cliff Castle deal with IGT there’s no additional context. It’s ridiculous that US residents are still being kept in the sports betting dark ages by state government and the status quo entities they empower.