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Q&A: Ernie Stevens Jr, chairman, NIGA

Insight | Analysis

Ahead of his keynote discussion with the AGA’s Geoff Freeman on the State of Gaming in America as part of tomorrow’s Tribal Gaming Exchange at ICE, National Indian Gaming Association chairman Ernie Stevens Jr speaks to IGB about the global aspirations of gaming tribes, formulating a position on sports betting and new challenges under the Trump administration

iGaming Business: You will be speaking at ICE about the global aspirations of gaming tribes, which may surprise many given the specific conditions associated with Indian Gaming in North America. Broadly, what do these aspirations look like for NIGA and its members?

Ernie Stevens Jr: The National Indian Gaming Association has and continues to educate America and the world about Indian gaming.  Indian gaming has created a pathway for tribes to not only expand their expertise in the global gaming market, but also allows for tribes to look at other business opportunities at home and abroad. The revenues generated from Indian gaming go back into our tribal communities to provide for services, community and economic development. Gaming has brought some of our communities out of poverty and dependence and has opened doors for an array of business development to ensure stable economic futures for our governments and their citizens.

How has NIGA and its members been going about exploring any potential opportunities (i.e. with regulators and other stakeholders)?

NIGA has participated in the International Casino Exhibition the past four years and has engaged with international representatives in the gaming community by offering a tribal gaming segment during the exhibition and we have also engaged in government-to-government discussions with the British Parliament through a business exchange and networking opportunities. These encounters have resulted in a few tribes embarking in casino developments in other countries and in business partnerships being developed for hospitality, restaurant, manufacturing and energy production. There are many business opportunities that tribes are willing to explore within the gaming industry and beyond.

Can we ultimately expect to see gaming tribes invest in and enter casino/resort markets in Europe and beyond, and if so, what form is this likely to take (i.e. outright ownership, branding rights, partnerships etc.)?

Yes, I think you can expect gaming tribes to invest in casinos and resorts worldwide and their participation could consist of ownership, franchising, partnerships and the like. Tribes have gained over 40 years of experience in the gaming industry and their expertise ranges from operations and management to ancillary services to regulation and governance. Their participation could take on many forms and is flexible to the markets that are seeking start-ups or a fresh and new face on their operations.

Could igaming – including online casino – conceivably form part of the tribal gaming offer in these markets outside the US?

Yes, igaming will be a part of the global gaming market that tribal gaming would engage in.  Although it is not legalised in the United States to date, many tribes are paving their way into the igaming market through mobile and electronic means that do not violate the legal ban in place today. Tribal gaming is already developing opportunities to bring on-premise mobile gaming to their customers and clientele and will be able to bring that kind of expertise with them to the global gaming market.

After it was announced that NIGA had joined the AGA’s sports betting coalition last year, you immediately issued a clarification that this was to ensure your members’ voices were heard at the table, rather than a tacit expression of support for legalised sports betting. Why did you feel it was important to do this?
It was important to clarify this as the membership of the National Indian Gaming Association is made up of 184 sovereign tribal governments.  Each of these governments has negotiated legally binding compacts with the state governments in which they reside.  This is required by the federal statute called the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. As an association we must do all that we can to protect the rights of each tribal government to participate in sports betting in the manner which is most suitable to their circumstances and the terms of their gaming compacts. Tribal government gaming is at the table to learn more, to be the eyes and ears of Tribes and to share concerns and issues affecting Indian Gaming.

Leading on from this, how is NIGA and its members preparing for the eventuality of a US Supreme Court ruling in NJ’s favour as early as Q2/Q3 this year, paving the way for the repeal of PASPA?

NIGA has formed a sports betting working group which will be providing some educational sessions followed by an opportunity for tribes to share their comments and concerns with regard to sports betting. The working group will gather this information and provide some recommendations to the NIGA board of directors and the member tribes so that they can formulate a formal position for the Association.  It is our hope that we will have a formal position coming out of our board of directors meeting at our annual tradeshow in April.

iGaming Business North America early last year, you emphasised that preserving tribal sovereignty, existing rights under IGRA and tribal-state gaming compacts and promoting your right to use gaming as a means of supporting your communities were your main priorities when it came to making your case at the federal level. Have you found the Trump administration amenable in this respect?

It has been a little over a year now that the Trump administration has been in play and we did submit a legislative agenda on behalf of NIGA to the administration shortly after the elections in November 2016.  To date, Indian gaming has not been impacted negatively by any policy decisions, but there a few issues pending right now that have us concerned.  The administration has proposed changes to the Land into Trust rules and regulations and did not consult with tribes prior to issuing the proposed changes.  They are engaged in consulting with tribes currently and so far, all of the comments submitted do not support these changes.  We will see in a few months if the tribes’ wishes are honoured and these changes are not put into effect.  This administration also has yet to name an Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs to carry out their policy objectives. The Land into Trust regulation changes have been forwarded without a key policy-making position being filled. It concerns NIGA and our member tribes that the administration is moving forward with these types of proposals without having the leadership in place within the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

What do you see as the main internal challenges ahead (i.e. within the US) for NIGA and its members in 2018?

I see the main challenges in 2018 for Indian gaming being the outcome of the pending Supreme Court Decision on sports betting in America, Congress’ action or inaction on the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act and the end results of the consultations for the proposed Land into Trust regulation changes.  In the end; all of these issues impact the Indian gaming tribes and how they exercise their governing authorities over their right to gaming.

You are giving the keynote at ICE with Geoff Freeman, CEO of the trade association for the commercial casino industry in the US, the AGA. What will be the main messages you and Geoff will be looking to get out there to the assembled international audience at ICE?

Our main message would be to share the positive aspects that Indian gaming brings to the global gaming market and how our shared efforts with the AGA only make us a stronger partner, how we bring best practices and state of the art industry expertise to the competitive market.