Following the wave of states that legalized sports betting during 2018 and 2019, Washington became the first state to do so in 2020. In late March 2020, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law a bill allowing retail sports betting on tribal lands only. The new law also permits mobile sports betting, but only at tribal casinos.
In May 2018, a ruling by the US Supreme Court lifted the federal prohibition on states other than Nevada offering legal sports betting. Some states eagerly did so right away, but it wasn’t obvious that Washington would be especially eager to make sports betting legal. While the state allows some forms of gambling, it has been steadfast against others. In fact, for many years Washington has been the only state in the country where illegal online gambling is a felony.
However, in 2019 a couple of sports betting bills came up for debate. They earned enough support for the topic to be revived in 2020, and multiple sports betting bills were proposed. One moved forward, and soon both the state House and Senate passed it by wide margins.
Normally a voter referendum would have been required for the bill to become law. But extenuating circumstances caused by the pandemic allowed an emergency provision to bypass that step, and Inslee signed the bill into law without a referendum.
That said, more steps must occur before sports betting actually kicks off in Washington.
Here is an overview of how sports betting came to the Evergreen State, and what to expect once sportsbooks finally do launch in Washington.
As noted, Washington has been generally opposed to legalizing gambling, although certain varieties have been permitted.
Like many other states, during the 1930s Washington legalized betting on horse racing. Later in the early 1970s, the state authorized bingo, raffles and Vegas-style “fundraisers.” In 1973, Washington also legalized one small form of sports betting, betting on “squares” such as when watching a football game. But no one could bet more than $1 per square, with only one board of 100 squares allowed per gathering.
In 1982, Washington introduced a state lottery. Legislators then authorized tribal gambling in 1988, and four years after that the first Native American casinos began to open.
In 1997 the state began to allow non-tribal house-banked card rooms as well. While some local jurisdictions have chosen to ban such rooms, many allow them, and around 50 such rooms currently operate in the state.
In early 2006 the state’s lawmakers explicitly outlawed online gambling in Washington. The law makes it a class C felony for those located within the state to gamble online, even on sites located outside of Washington. A later ruling additionally clarified that even social gaming for virtual chips was prohibited in the state.
Early 2019 saw the proposal of two different sports betting bills. One, proposed by House Rep. Eric Pettigrew, would allow sports betting only in the state’s tribal casinos. It also would provide an exception to the ban on online gambling, but only by allowing sports betting on site at the casinos. Neither of the bills advanced beyond committee hearings, but both returned at the start of 2020 for further consideration.
Every even-numbered year, Washington has shorter 60-day legislative sessions, thereby adding urgency to lawmakers’ actions. Thus it was early in the 2020 session when Rep. Brandon Vick and Sens. Curtis King and Ann Rivers proposed similar sports betting bills. Both HB 2478 and SB 6277 would allow not just the state’s tribal casinos but also its card rooms and racetracks to offer sports betting.
Meanwhile 20 representatives sponsored a new tribal-only bill, HB 2638. With such support from the get-go, that was the bill that moved forward. One of its sponsors, Rep. Jim Walsh, also added an amendment that would legalize the law immediately rather than requiring a voter referendum in November. Such a referendum typically would require a 60% favorable vote in order to pass.
The bill received bipartisan support, passing the House by an 83-14 vote in February. The Senate took it up and in early March passed it as well by a vote of 34-15. On March 25, 2020, Inslee signed into law the substitute bill, ESHB 2638.
WA sports betting has a ways to go. Tribes will need to add sports betting to their compacts with the state before they can offer sports betting at their casinos. Regulations will need to be finalized, as well. Only then will licenses be issued and sports betting begin.
It’s not likely sports betting will arrive in Washington before 2021 at the earliest.
While the tribes and others were pleased with the new law, not everyone was as enthusiastic. Nevada-based Maverick Gaming had purchased 19 card rooms in Washington in anticipation of sports betting becoming legal in the state. Unhappy with being shut out of sports betting by the new law, Maverick has indicated its intention to file a lawsuit challenging the new law’s constitutionality.
Thus besides updating tribal compacts, establishing regulations and issuing licenses, there may be a legal battle for Washington to win as well before sports betting can launch.
Tribal gambling is significant in Washington, accounting for more than three-fourths of the state’s $3 billion-plus in annual gambling revenue.
Washington is home to 29 federally recognized Native American tribes, the most of any state in the Pacific Northwest. Most of these tribes operate at least one of the 30 tribal casinos in the state. The largest is the Muckleshoot Indian Casino in Auburn, a casino and bingo hall comprising 120,000 square feet of gambling space.
Each tribe will need to amend its compact separately before it will be able to offer sports betting. That procedure requires several steps, including a public hearing, legislative review and approval by the governor.
By July 2020, four of the state’s tribes had already begun the process. Those tribes are the Kalispel Indian Community of the Kalispel Reservation, the Suquamish Tribe, the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe, and the Tulalip Tribes of Washington.
Several other tribes are expected to follow suit and pursue sports betting as well.
As noted, as the law currently reads, sports betting can only happen at retail sportsbooks in tribal casinos. Sports betting can also be offered via mobile sportsbooks, but bets at such online sportsbooks can only be accepted on site at those casinos.
It remains to be seen if any tribal casinos seek to launch geofenced apps — to allow the placing of bets only on site. Other states have done something similar, such as Montana, where online sports betting is allowed but only at licensed sports betting locations.
The Washington State Gambling Commission oversees sports betting in the state. The commission has begun the rule-making process, although tribal compacts will need to be amended before regulations can be finalized and the first licenses issued.
As written, the law will allow betting on the following types of sporting events:
The minimum gambling age in Washington is 18 years old, or 21 if the establishment serves alcohol.
Interestingly, given the tribal-only nature of the sports betting law, Washington will not impose a tax on the new sportsbooks. The state will charge license fees to operators. The state will expect the tribes to direct revenue from sports betting toward charitable organizations much as they have done in the past with other gambling revenue.
As noted, the new sports betting law does allow online sportsbooks to operate, but only on tribal lands.
It is possible tribes will forgo the expense of creating online sportsbooks and apps given that bettors will have to be on site, anyway, to place wagers.
It is also possible that future legislation could open the door to online sportsbooks in the state. This would be especially true if commercial card rooms or racetracks were ever able to open sportsbooks, although that would require new legislation.
When the first sportsbooks launch in Washington, there will likely be the usual menu of markets available to sports bettors. These include:
Note the inclusion of esports on the list. Washington’s sports betting law explicitly includes esports among the sports on which operators can accept wagers. That isn’t the case in every state with legal sports betting.
Meanwhile, unlike a few states, Washington does not permit betting on non-sports competitions like the Academy Awards.
Sports bettors in Washington should expect a variety of bet types from which to choose, including all of the most popular ones. These include:
Washington is home to a number of professional sports franchises:
The state’s NFL franchise, the Seattle Seahawks, should earn the most attention from sports bettors, given the team’s significant fan base. The Seattle Kraken, the state’s brand new NHL expansion franchise, ought to earn some attention as well among sports bettors in the state.
Washington has been without an NBA franchise since the Seattle Supersonics moved to Oklahoma City in 2008. However the Portland Trail Blazers do have a following as the Pacific Northwest’s favorite basketball franchise.
Again, sports bettors in Washington cannot bet on colleges or universities located in the state. That means no betting on the Washington Huskies, Washington State Cougars or Gonzaga Bulldogs at Washington sportsbooks.
Bettors in WA seeking local schools to wager on will therefore have to choose contests involving teams from neighboring states. These include the Oregon Ducks, Oregon State Beavers, Portland Pilots and Portland State Vikings in Oregon, and the Boise State Broncos, Idaho Vandals and Idaho State Bengals in Idaho.
Betting on horse races is legal in Washington. In fact, horse racing has a long tradition in the state. At present, however, there are only two active tracks in the state, Emerald Downs in Auburn and Sun Downs in Kennewick.
Off-track betting on horse racing is legal as well in Washington. The Washington Horse Racing Commission permits one OTB facility to operate in each of the state’s 39 counties. Presently about a third of the counties have an OTB facility, some of which are located at casinos in the state.
The state also allows licensed advance deposit wagering operators to accept horse racing bets over phones and online. Currently six operators have licenses that allow them to conduct business in the state:
The legal gambling age in Washington is 18 years old. However, the minimum is 21 years old if the establishment serves alcohol.
The Washington State Gambling Commission oversees all sports betting in the state. Meanwhile the state’s tribes can operate casinos via compacts with the state and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Those compacts, once amended, will also enable the tribes to offer sports betting.