Perhaps the most surprising thing about the chairwoman of the Nevada Gaming Control Board (NGCB) is that she doesn’t gamble.
That’s right. Becky Harris does not play casino games. Before 2015, she hadn’t given casinos much thought at all. However, she was vice chair of the State Senate Judiciary Committee in her first year in Nevada office. The board handled all gaming issues. So she dove in head first.
Skill-based gambling sparked Harris’s gaming career
One of the first bills to draw attention and a crowd came in 2015 when the committee debated skill-based gambling games. Despite knowing very little about it, Harris wanted to be prepared.
“I wanted to push back just a little bit in a respectful way, but wanted to kind of prod and probe along some of the issues that I thought that the bill brought up,” Harris said. “It was interesting because they were thinking of skill-based gaming in the form of slot machines and those kinds of things.”
“I asked the question, ‘Well, is there a way for FanDuel or Draft Kings to come in because some think that’s skill based. It’s a skill-based game. It’s sports betting. It’s different. And it was interesting because the whole room collectively shouted, ‘No,’ like with one voice.'”
It turns out her point had merit. A few months later, the state determined daily fantasy sports was a gambling product that needed regulation.
Harris returned to UNLV for the gaming program
Harris is not exactly capable of doing things halfway. Once gaming piqued her interest, she wanted to know everything.
When her law school, Boyd School of Law at UNLV, emailed her to let her know they were launching a gaming law program, it was time for a surprising conversation with her husband.
She told him she needed to go back to grad school immediately. She got a somewhat surprised, but supportive response.
“He was just wondering why, after 20-plus years of being an attorney, I was going to suddenly find myself back in a law school setting, but agreed and it was there that I got my great foundation in gaming law. I had been to some conferences like NCLGS, the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States, and received some gaming content education, but it just was so superficial. I just knew that I needed to get more. And it was at the law school that I got the depth I was looking for.”
Harris remained an active senator while going through school over the next 16 months. By the time the 2017 legislative session came around, Harris was ready with a wealth of new gaming knowledge.
Sandoval shortlists Harris for NGCB Chair
Like the email from UNLV, Harris knew what she needed to do when Gov. Brian Sandoval approached her about interviewing for the NGCB position.
In the midst of a re-election campaign, Sandoval gauged her interest in being a part of the board. Even then, Harris still thought it was a long shot.
Harris thought it was going to be one of those “it was an honor to be nominated” situations. Then her phone rang.
“I got a phone call in early January asking if I’d be willing to come to meet with the governor. And I knew that if I had that meeting and he asked me if I was willing to take this on that I have to say yes.”
He did ask. She said yes.
Harris ‘hit the ground running’
As Harris put it, she “hit the ground running” in her new post as the state’s first female chair of NGCB.
In the spring of 2018, gambling news broke seemingly every few hours. There was the Wynn scandal, the U.S. Supreme Court sports betting decision and contention within Carson City about whether or not online gambling was a good thing.
Harris handled all that news while trying to get a grasp on a new job overseeing hundreds of employees and licensees.
In just 10 months since her appointment though, Harris is leaving her mark on the industry. Her status as an industry outsider arguably is one of her biggest strengths. Conversations transpire around these issues and she can bring a new-and-different take to the table.
Harris wants Nevada to be a sports betting leader
One noticeable change in Nevada’s approach to gaming is it is far less insular than in years past. There are still those who argue sports betting expansion will hurt the state in the long run. Most concede that growth is good for Nevada. The isolationist approach is losing steam.
Harris is one who thinks the sensible choice is to lead the charge:
“With regard to sports betting that it was important for Nevada to take the leadership role. You know, we have so many different interests out there vying to be in charge, shape, manage, whatever adjective you want to use with regard to sports betting.
I felt that it was important with our distinctive designation as the most mature gaming jurisdiction in the United States, particularly with regard to sports betting, because we’ve had it on the books for about 45 years, that rather than let an information vacuum be created, to get out and be willing to talk about what a great model Nevada has.”
That is what Harris is doing, too. In addition to testifying in front of Congress, Harris regularly discusses what does and does not work in the diverse and mature Nevada gaming space. Rather than be competitive, she is collaborative. Rather than punch down, she is offering a leg up.
Moreover, she does not think Nevada’s plan is a fit for every state. She does think 85-90 percent of it is. Nevada has decades of experience. Rather than start from scratch, Harris hopes the states reach out to her for advice on getting started.
Perhaps because there are so many women at the charge, the gambling front is more united around sports betting than ever before. With everyone working together, wagering is progressing at an unheard of pace.
Harris hopes for a long future in gaming
She may not be a gambler, but Harris is rolling the dice a bit with her post. In this month’s election, Democrat Steve Sisolak won the gubernatorial race. This flip in parties in Carson City means Harris might be done in her post at year’s end.
Sandoval certainly has her back. “She’s a rock star, and she has taken on some extraordinary tough issues right out of the chute,” he told CDC Gaming Reports earlier this year.
So far, it seems like Sisolak will retain Harris after this memorable first year. Given her progress and achievements, it certainly makes sense to do so.
Harris won’t take anything for granted though. If she does leave, she still knows the snap judgment to take on this challenge was the correct decision.
“The privilege of being the first female chair for the state of Nevada for the Gaming Control Board is indescribable. That’s a major change for the state and for the industry. And navigating that with its unique challenges has been interesting. I hope it’s something I’ve done with care and thought. And so that’s something that I’m proud of, being able to take a look at gaming issues from a different perspective.”
She may not be a gambler, but Harris is a calculated risk taker. It is a type of gamble the NGCB doesn’t have enough of these days. After this year’s events though, it does seem like there will be plenty more of it in the future.