North Carolina Retail Sports Betting Could Begin By March Madness

North Carolina Retail Sports Betting Could Begin By March Madness article feature image
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Al Drago/CQ Roll Call. Pictured: North Carolina State Capitol.

North Carolina sports betting could begin in time for the 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament after representatives from the state’s two Native American casinos and the state government agreed to a sportsbook operating deal last week.

The agreement only permits in-person sports betting at the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ two casinos in the rural western part of the state after nearly 1.5 years of negotiations, but it sets up another state with a legal wager option ahead of the most lucrative betting event of the sports calendar.

Two in-person sportsbooks will likely be a negligible part of the national market, which sees hundreds of millions of dollars in handle monthly, the vast majority of which comes online, but it will be a boost to the EBCI as well as the region’s bettors. The EBCI’s brick-and-mortar sportsbooks will be the first two legal retail betting options in an eight-state region that includes Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. The eighth state, Tennessee, has legal mobile betting but no retail sportsbooks.

“COVID-19 has negatively impacted funding for critical community services within our nation, so we welcome this new diverse revenue stream,” EBCI principal chief Richard Sneed said in a statement to the Cherokee One Feather, the tribe’s official newspaper. “The addition of these new services is a positive step towards a more stable and secure future for our Tribal members and government operations.”

Background on North Carolina Sports Betting

Sports betting’s path forward comes after the tribe and Gov. Roy Cooper finalized a revised compact earlier this month. Though Cooper had technically approved sportsbooks at the tribe’s two casinos in July 2019, the parties still needed to confirm an updated compact that incorporated sports betting.

The lengthy delay from technical legalization to first bet now awaits final sign-off from Cooper and the federal Department of the Interior. After both receive the amended compact, it is still subject to a 45-day waiting period, the One Feather reported. Assuming submission doesn’t come in the next few days, it seems unlikely sportsbooks could open in time for Super Bowl LV in February, but it should be live ahead of the first March Madness games.

The tribes’ Harrah’s casinos in Murphy and Cherokee, located in the far western part of the state near the Tennessee border, have been preparing for legal sports betting since even before Cooper signed the bill into law. The legislation permitting retail sports betting passed through the legislature with minimal opposition, but it was still subject to a revised compact, a process that proved more complicated and was reportedly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the delay, the EBCI will be among the first Native American groups to accept a sports bet at a tribal casino and will be, for at least the immediate future, the only entity able to accept a legal wager in North Carolina.

Online Betting Not Likely to Follow Quickly

The pending retail launch could help open the door for statewide mobile betting, but that process will likely be even more difficult politically and logistically than the retail launch.

Despite growing national support for legal wagering, North Carolina politicians have largely opposed gaming expansion. The last state on the east coast to approve a state-sanctioned lottery, North Carolina remains among a dwindling number of states without a commercial casino.

Some high-profile backers are looking to change this opposition, including Carolina Panther owner David Tepper, who has publicly supported legal wagering in both North and South Carolina. Neighboring Virginia approved its first commercial casinos this year, including one in the city of Danville, which sits along the North Carolina border. Virginia’s first online sportsbooks should go live in early 2021.

It remains to be seen if that will compel online sports betting in a legislature that seems reluctant to embrace sports betting outside the two casinos. Religious and conservative groups hold considerable sway in state politics and will almost assuredly oppose any new gaming expansion.

A possible third North Carolina tribal casino could also muddy potential legal sports betting. Despite objection from the EBCI, the Catawba tribe is advancing a resort casino near Charlotte and the South Carolina border. Though the Catawba’s federally recognized tribal lands are in South Carolina, which has even stricter rules toward gaming and no casinos, the federal government has allowed them to advance plans for a North Carolina facility.

This jeopardizes the EBCI’s de facto monopoly of the state’s (and region’s) casino gaming operations and could complicate any new form of gaming. Combined with the political obstacles, legal online wagering may not be a reality in the immediate future.

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