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Tribe Launches First California Online Sports Betting App, With A Twist

Written By Matthew Kredell on February 23, 2024
Tic Tac Toe

Voters rejected giving California tribes the right to do sports betting, but one California tribe has figured out a way to offer a sports betting product.

Earlier this month, the Chicken Ranch Tribe of Me-Wuk Indians launched Playbawk, a Class II bingo-based, sports-themed betting app that allows people to wager on the performances of professional athletes.

Chicken Ranch partnered with Vetnos to offer the product called PlaySqor, which can be branded to the tribe. Chicken Ranch uses Playbawk as a chicken-themed play on its name.

Although the app is mobile, it can only be used on Chicken Ranch’s reservation in northern California near Yosemite National Park.

“This allows people of California to get their sports itch out of their system, while at the same time allowing it to be with each tribe itself,” Chicken Ranch Tribal Chairman Lloyd Mathiesen said. “It’s a way for us to be able to have sports betting.”

How a California tribe can offer sports betting

Typical sports wagering is considered Class III under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. For tribes to offer full sports wagering, they must first get it legalized in the state constitution and then enter a gaming compact with the state.

Tribes tried to make that happen in 2022 with Prop 26. But after they focused their campaign on defeating online sports betting initiative Prop 27, Prop 26 that allowed in-person tribal wagering finished with just 33% support from California voters.

Tribes don’t need permission from the state to offer Class II gaming. Tribal governments are responsible for regulating Class II gaming independently, with oversight from the National Indian Gaming Commission.

No compacting also means the tribe doesn’t have to pay any revenue share to the state. Tribal governments must use all Class II gaming revenue.

How CA tribal sports betting product works

Playbawk does not allow people to place bets on the outcome of sporting events. It’s a parlay pick’em game matching up two athletes.

First, people need to pick who will have the highest performance score in nine matchups between athletes in the same sport. Then the bettor places those matchups in the nine spots around a tic-tac-toe board. They will want to put the pick in which they are most confident in the center square.

Mathiesen explained:

“It’s not the way your grandparents played bingo. A lot of people now aren’t really concerned with teams. They’re about players. … That’s a lot of what our app does, you get to pick your player. So it’s going into that new era of just being able to follow players and pick who is going to have a better night.”

On a tic-tac-toe board, it is possible to get three in a row in eight areas. To win, bettors have to get matchups correct and put them in the right spots on the board. Here are the payouts for each tic-tac-toe trio:

  • 1 = 0.5
  • 2 = 1
  • 3 = 2
  • 4 = 4
  • 5= 8
  • 6 = 16
  • 8 = 32

People can wager between $1 and $20. So betting $10 and getting all nine matchups right to complete the board pays $320. Someone could get up to five out of nine matchups right but not get any payout because of placement on the board.

Chicken Ranch hopes to bring the product to other tribes

In 2022, Chicken Ranch invested in Vetnos. So Chicken Ranch wants to partner with other California tribes to offer PlaySqor.

Mathiesen and Vetnos President Dan Orlow spoke to a tribal audience on a panel this week during the Western Indian Gaming Conference at Pechanga Resort Casino to pitch their product.

“We’re the ones who will control Vetnos in the state of California,” Mathiesen said. “So whoever wants this has to come and talk to us, and of course, we want everyone to do it. We want other tribes to do it because we make our money from passing this on to other tribes.”

Mathiesen has modest goals of expanding the app across the state in 2024.

“This year, I would love to be able get four or five other tribes signed up and have the snowball effect of it just continuing to go,” he said.

California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA) Chairman James Siva moderated the panel at which they pitched the product.

Siva told PlayUSA he was still trying to wrap his head around Class II on-premise mobile gaming. But he expects having Mathieson on board will attract interest from other tribes.

“I know there was a lot of interest coming from that room because it’s a new model. I do think there will be more tribes that look to partner with that group. Chairman Mathiesen is well known in Indian Country and well-trusted, so knowing that he and his tribe stand behind this I think will be a good first step.”

Orlow said Vetnos puts California tribes in control.

“It will give Chairman Mathiesen and hopefully other members of CNIGA hopefully an opportunity to craft their own narrative and their own sports gaming journey. We’re B2B. We do not want your data. We don’t want your customers. We really only want to participate in the volume on the side. We’re in service of Indian Country, that’s it.”

California online sports betting delays bode well

After statewide online sports betting was rejected by California voters on the 2022 ballot, tribes and regulated US operators decided not to try to put a sports betting initiative on the ballot in 2024.

California tribes need time to figure out how to do online sports betting in a way that benefits all 110 of them. FanDuel President Christian Genetski said Wednesday on the panel with Mathieson that it won’t happen until at least 2026, but it may be 2028 or 2030.

That leaves an opening for Chicken Ranch to pitch its Class II product as the only option for tribes that want to get into sports betting quicker.

“I don’t see anything coming on the horizon with sports betting in 2026 right now, so we’ve got four solid years to try to grab a hold of the market and see where it goes from there,” Mathiesen said.

Interestingly, Mathiesen was one of four tribal leaders to come out to PlayUSA in support of a sports betting initiative filed for the 2024 election. That proposal was eventually withdrawn for lack of enough tribal support.

Mathiesen said he supported the proposal in solidarity with Revenue Sharing Trust Fund tribes that felt it would bring them reservation-changing revenue. Chicken Ranch is coming off of the RSTF this year with the opening of a new, larger casino resort at the gateway to Yosemite National Park.

Mathiesen’s aspirations for the app go beyond California. In other states, tribes don’t have legal sports betting and/or only offer Class II gaming. The Eastern Shawnee Tribe and Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, both in Oklahoma, also have ownership shares of Vetnos.

“When 2028 comes and sports betting is legalized, we might be out of California, but there are plenty of tribes in other states that might like to have it. We’re trying to go coast to coast, border to border, whoever wants it we’d love to set it up for them.”

Photo by PlayUSA
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Matthew Kredell

Matthew Kredell serves as senior lead writer of legislative affairs involving online gambling at PlayUSA. He began covering efforts to legalize and regulate online gambling in 2007 after federal passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act disrupted his hobby of playing small-stakes online poker. He has since interviewed more than 300 lawmakers around the country and written extensively about online gambling legislation. He has led coverage of bills to legalize online gambling in most states. A lifelong Angeleno and USC journalism alum, Matthew started his career working as a sportswriter for a decade at the Los Angeles Daily News. He has written on a variety of topics for Playboy Magazine, Men’s Journal, Los Angeles magazine, LA Weekly and ESPN.com.

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