Port: Should North Dakota's tribes get a monopoly on sports betting?

A free society should stand in opposition to monopolies. Even those pursued as a way to amend the grievous sins of the past.

Prairie Knights Casino.jpg
Prairie Knights Casion & Resort, near Fort Yates, North Dakota, on the Standing Rock Reservation, is a major source of revenue and jobs for the tribe.
Special to The Forum

MINOT, N.D. — The relationship between our state government and North Dakota's five Indigenous tribes has been strained in recent years. Tax issues and mineral rights disputes and the ugly, violent protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline have all added up to a tense situation.

Now the tribes are proposing, to Gov. Doug Burgum, something they say will help ease the tension. They want a monopoly on sports gaming in the state.

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Gambling, outside of the state lottery, and charitable gaming, is illegal in North Dakota, but state leaders have been loosening things up. A big shift came with the approval of electronic pull tabs (basically slot machines) during the 2017 legislative session. Non-tribal gaming revenues in our state jumped 52% after that, and the tribes say it came at the expense of their gaming operations. The Spirit Lake Sioux tribe reported a 42% decline in their revenues that was contemporaneous with the proliferation of the new pull tab machines.

Now there's a push to legalize sports betting in North Dakota — a proposal to do so came up just one vote short during last year's legislative session — and the tribes are trying to get ahead of it.

Gambling is legal on Indian reservations under the federal government's Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, but that law requires that tribes work out a compact with their state governments. The current compact between North Dakota and its tribes expires at the end of the current year. The tribes want a new compact to give them exclusive rights in our state to sports wagering, both on the reservations and off.


"Tribes believe the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act gives them authority to conduct online betting statewide, using servers on tribal lands," the Associated Press reported last week .

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Aerial view of the marina at Spirit Lake Casino & Resort on the Spirit Lake Reservation, much of which is along the southern shore of Devils Lake in North Dakota. Special to The Forum

"I think it’s time to start looking at ways on how we can work together and help each other and mend relationships and move forward in a positive way,” Cynthia Monteau, executive director of the United Tribes Gaming Association, told the AP .

Should the tribes get a monopoly on sports bets?

There is some national context to consider.

In California, online betting giants such as Draft Kings have been pushing a ballot measure to legalize sports betting, though recent headlines suggest the effort is sputtering in the face of opposition from tribal gaming interests .

Also, states may not have the ability to grant this sort of exclusivity. Florida gave its Seminole tribe exclusive rights to expand gambling, and sports betting, statewide, but the deal is tied up in a lawsuit. In November , a judge found that it violated federal rules which require gaming sponsored by tribes to take place on tribal lands.

This brings us back to the decision that's before North Dakota and Gov. Burgum. Should he give tribal interests a monopoly over sports betting?

I doubt the average North Dakotan, interested in placing legal bets on sporting events, cares all that much whether the revenue goes to a tribal consortium or some non-tribal corporation. But maybe they ought to. If we're going to legalize sports gambling as a new sort of enterprise in our state, shouldn't everyone get a crack at serving the market, and not just tribal-owned businesses?


This isn't to say that the case the tribes are making isn't a sympathetic one. Our tribal friends and neighbors have been treated miserably by our government. Their gaming industry is both an important source of revenue and jobs for their communities, and also a recognition of the sovereignty our government hasn't always been very rigorous about recognizing.

But with this proposal, we aren't just talking about gaming on tribal lands. We're talking about gaming across the state.

A free society should stand in opposition to monopolies. Even those pursued as a way to amend the grievous sins of the past.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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