Will Legalization of California Sports Betting Require Constitutional Amendment?

Dan Favale
By , Updated on: Jun 25, 2024 12:00 AM
The future of California sports betting is up in the air. And that has many wondering about whether it can be legalized in a different way.

The journey of California sports betting legalization is a unique one. And as we enter the next phase of its debates, we can’t help but wondering: Is there a chance this process begins to stand out even more?

More specifically, is it possible sports betting in California can be legalized without a constitutional amendment?

This isn’t necessarily a question that’s top of mind. Because next year, many expect tribes and online sportsbooks in the United States to potentially collaborate on a joint bill that would legalize sports wagering throughout the Golden State. And if this happens, the subsequent assumption is that California sports betting could be live by 2026

Still, nothing is guaranteed at this juncture. California knows this as well as any state. Back in 2022, they were considered a lock to legalize sports betting. 

Sure, there was some debate over how it would be approved. Separate initiatives appeared on the 2022 general election ballot. One was sponsored by tribes and would have green lit on-site sports betting. The other was backed by top online sportsbooks in the United States and would have allowed mobile betting sites the opportunity to enter the market. Even so, the expectation was that one of these measures, if not both of them, would be voted into law.

In the end, though, California voters shot down both sports betting initiatives put before them. The fallout since then is still unfolding. In fact, neither tribes nor online sportsbooks proposed a new gambling bill in 2024, ensuring the issue would be tabled until at least 2025.

So, you can understand why skepticism continues to permeate the subject. Not only must a bill (or bills) make it through the House and Senate, but they must garner more support from voters—unless California travels down a different path.

Can Sports Betting Even be Legalized without a Constitutional Amendment?

For the most part, the legalization of sports betting throughout the United States is associated with a three-step process. It’s more complicated than this, obviously. But generally speaking, sports betting gets legalized after an initiative gets approved by the House, the Senate and then the voting population. In certain circumstances, however, states do not need legal sports betting bills to appear on an election ballot. 

Tribes usually hold exclusive gaming rights in states without sports wagering—control that predates the normalization of this industry. Technically speaking, states have the option of renegotiating compacts directly with tribes and amending those to include sports betting.

We have seen this play out in a number of places. Sports betting in Wisconsin was legalized near the end of 2021 without a constitutional amendment. The same goes for sports betting in Florida

In each of these cases, you’ll notice the legalization of online sports betting is not part of the gaming compact. Wagering in Florida and Wisconsin, among other states, is allowed exclusively on tribal property. (For what it’s worth: The interpretation of this criteria is currently being litigated in the Sunshine State.) So if officials want to legalize California sports betting without a constitutional amendment, it likely won’t include the introduction of California online betting sites

Could the Next California Sports Betting Push Look to Circumvent the Constitutional Amendment Route?

At first consideration, the idea of California legalizing sports betting without a constitutional amendment seems far fetched. Surely one of the top three sports betting markets in the United States will want to incorporate legal online betting sites. As it turns out, though, maybe not.

Tribes have so far made it clear they do not want mobile betting sites in California operating with independent licenses. They also played a key role in derailing California online sports betting efforts in 2022. As San Manuel chief intergovernmental affairs officer Dan Little previously told Legal Sports Report: “The key takeaway from the election is that any future gaming expansion in California must go through the tribes.”

Framed this way, it would seem that a renegotiation of tribal gaming compacts could be on the table. After all, if most tribes aren’t going to advocate for online sports betting sites in California, why go through the trouble of amending the constitution and, by extension, waiting for the 2026 election to determine the fate of gaming expansion?

Make no mistake, this is a fair question. And frankly, it’s one that could pick up steam between now and 2025 legislative sessions. However, if we’re being honest, it’s also not a particularly likely outcome.

A Constitutional Amendment Still Seems Like the Most Likely Path Toward Sports Wagering Legalization in the Golden State 

Most experts agree that California sports betting will ultimately require voter approval. Their reasoning, for the most part, is twofold. 

First and foremost, there will be officials in the House and Senate and even among tribes who want to have the option of rolling out California mobile sports betting if and when they deem it appropriate. Having a constitutional amendment already in the rear view will make that easier down the line.

But let’s say that’s not a concern, and that both state and tribal officials are willing to negotiate on-site-only betting parameters. Doesn’t that make a renegotiation of the gaming compact relatively easy? Not exactly.

For starters, there are so many tribes in California. Not all of them are going to agree. Especially if certain tribes get left out of the gaming compact. On top of that, California sports betting could be an eleven-figure-per-year industry. That all but guarantees lobbyists on behalf of online sportsbooks will do their darndest to stymie tribal-only sports betting legalization. Heck, we witnessed as much happen in 2022. Things shouldn’t be any different if the state and tribes enter into an exclusive negotiation. 

All of which is to say: If and when California sports betting legalized, it will almost certainly be through the amendment of the state’s constitution and the general-election vote it requires.

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Meet the author

Dan Favale

Dan first began writing about sports back in 2011. At the time, his expertise lied in the NBA and NFL. More than one decade, that remains the case. But he's also expanded his catalog to include extensive knowledge and analysis on the NHL, MLB, tennis, NASCAR, college ba...

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