A monumental rejection by California voters on the 2022 ballot showed sportsbook operators they need to change their approach if they want to participate in the country’s largest market.
What worked to legalize sports betting in other states didn’t work in California, where Indian tribes control the gaming landscape.
To help better navigate the nuances of dealing with California tribes, FanDuel hired someone with extensive experience working for one of the tribes that most vehemently opposed Prop 27.
Rikki Tanenbaum, former chief operating officer for the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, joined FanDuel last month as senior vice president of strategic partnerships. Between working for San Manuel and joining FanDuel, she spent a year as president of gaming at The Stronach Group, operator of California horse racetracks Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields. Tanenbaum spoke with PlayUSA about her new role.
“My belief is that FanDuel is a self-reflective place,” said Tanenbaum, who will work remotely from her home in Las Vegas. “The team has a solid track record of building partnerships that enable market access in many states. But now the landscape has changed and I think the company understands that what has gotten them here won’t necessarily get them there. FanDuel was already embarking on a listening tour to seek a better understanding of tribal views in California and elsewhere, and we both thought I could be helpful in those conversations.”
Bringing tribal experience to FanDuel
Tanenbaum joined San Manuel in 2018 as chief marketing officer for the tribe’s casino. She quickly moved up to run marketing, public affairs and philanthropic efforts for the tribe. In 2020, San Manuel promoted her to chief operating officer for tribal government.
“Working for San Manuel was the honor of a lifetime,” Tanenbaum said. “The tribal leadership are good people, smart people, and they have the foresight to consider how to ensure the positive sustainability of their government and their people for seven generations.”
FanDuel hopes to work with California tribes in the future. Tanenbaum, who also worked at Viejas Casino & Resort early in her career, can offer lessons learned from working for tribes.
“What I learned about tribal government gaming is that it’s a primary economic development tool for tribes to sustain their governments and preserve their cultures. I firmly recognize that every tribe is different, every tribe is sovereign. But a lesson learned at San Manuel, being in a staff position, is that policy affecting tribes in California is tribal-led. Meaning it’s the role of staff and the role of outsiders to give your best advice, provide data, but ultimately defer to the wisdom of tribal leadership. It’s that type of humility with which I would suggest we approach tribes in any state.”
Making amends with California tribes
Before FanDuel can forge a future with California tribes, it needs to correct mistakes of the past.
FanDuel joined other major sportsbook operators last year in attempting to gain entry into California with a proposal to partner with tribes. In the early going, the operators had reason to believe they would have some tribal support for the initiative.
But when the possibility of support from major tribes evaporated, operators continued forward with bringing the initiative to the ballot anyway. That angered many tribes and resulted in a historic loss at the ballot.
Tanenbaum saw this firsthand from the tribal perspective, as San Manuel alone spent more than $100 million to defeat Prop 27.
“I just don’t think they knew,” Tanenbaum said of FanDuel. “California Indian Country is different than other places, so nuanced with more than 100 federally recognized tribes. I don’t think the commercial operators fully appreciated the strength of the tribes. What I’ve seen since joining FanDuel, though, is this is an incredibly curious, self-reflective, self-effacing organization that wants to learn. Nobody on the FanDuel side loved how things went down in ’22. I became convinced that they really do want to do things differently and in the right way.”
Figuring out how to work with CA tribes
And what is the right way? That’s what Tanenbaum is there to help FanDuel figure out.
“I don’t want to be presumptuous of where the front door is, but FanDuel hopes to find a front door and knock politely. We will spend a lot of time listening for the next year and give tribes the space to work through this on their own. And, when the time comes, we’ll share some of the frameworks that we collectively think are commercially viable.”
The front door could be speaking to a group of 50 or more tribes through the California Nations Indian Gaming Association. CNIGA Chairman James Siva has spoken highly of how FanDuel has reached out to try to make amends since the 2022 election.
“If CNIGA is receptive, we’ll be delighted — in fact, grateful — to show up for a conversation,” Tanenbaum said. “That being said, I don’t think there is any rush right now. I haven’t seen any polling that indicates there is an appetite in ’24. I think everyone is still tired from the last go-around, so let’s give the issue time to breathe.”
California won’t be Tanenbaum’s only focus at FanDuel
While California is a major market to work through, Tanenbaum’s role will have a nationwide focus.
She will help FanDuel strengthen existing partnerships and build new commercial and tribal relationships, working toward participating in markets that have proven challenging to enter. These include Florida, Texas and Minnesota.
“FanDuel has had a pretty successful playbook in how it enters a certain market,” Tanenbaum said. “The markets left likely need bespoke approaches, and I’m expected to help work through those ideas.”
Tanenbaum will bring a diversity of thought from her experience in the brick-and-mortar commercial gaming industry. She is one of the few employees at FanDuel with a land-based gaming background. She spent much of her career working in marketing at MGM Resorts, Penn Entertainment, Caesars Entertainment and Golden Nugget.
FanDuel President Christian Genetski said:
“We’re thrilled to have Rikki join FanDuel’s partnerships team. Her diverse experience across commercial brick & mortar operations, tribal government operations and racing in many markets across the US has sensitized her to a variety of perspectives, which we think will be valuable as we navigate prospective opportunities across North America. Rikki’s business acumen and practical, transparent, collaborative approach to relationship building is an ideal fit for FanDuel’s road ahead.”
Tanenbaum still works for one tribe. She chairs the board of directors for the Grand Canyon Resort Corp., owned by the Hualapai Tribe in Arizona. The economic development corporation operates tourism and hospitality businesses, including the Grand Canyon West Skywalk bridge.
That’s appropriate for Tanenbaum, who hopes she can be somewhat of a bridge-builder for FanDuel.
“There’s no presumption that any of this is going to be easy,” Tanenbaum said. “This job will be a slow and difficult building of bridges, but bridges I hope can last for generations.”