No matter what happens in November, the expansion of gambling is unstoppable


You can’t miss the brand new casino on Highway 99 in the Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove. It’s the size of a Costco, with light blue signs above the entrances proclaiming “Sky’s the Limit!”

This may seem like pure marketing, a sunny pun on the casino’s name, Sky River. But it describes the reality of gambling across California today: there are few limits to the action.

Back in 2000, when California voters approved casino gambling for Native American tribes, we were told that gambling here would be subject to strict limits. Only certain games would be allowed in California. Sports betting and Vegas-style gaming would stay in Vegas. And tribal casinos wouldn’t show up in our big cities and suburbs. They would be limited to Indian lands in less populated regions.

This year made it clear that we were fools to believe any of this.

The opening of Sky River is just one example of the unstoppable expansion of gaming in our state.

Indeed, tribes are not limited to previously owned lands; You can buy new land to build bigger, more accessible casinos. Agua Caliente opened its third casino in the Coachella Valley during the pandemic. Sky River is located on land acquired by the Wilton Rancheria Tribe under a federal trusteeship.

Nowadays gambling is ubiquitous. California now has 81 Indian casinos, four privately operated racetracks, over 20,000 shops selling lottery tickets and 72 state-licensed card rooms pushing for their own expansion.

Play money is now driving our politics and casino advertising is dominating the airwaves. That fall, Bay Area radio station KGO-AM wiped out its news and talk shows and relaunched as a sportsbook, The Spread.

This year demonstrated the extent of gambling’s cultural reach with over-the-top campaigns for and against two competing sports betting schemes. Proposition 26, sponsored by tribes with large casinos, seeks a tribal monopoly on sports betting while allowing roulette and craps in tribal casinos. Prop. 27, sponsored by online gambling companies, seeks similar power over sports betting for DraftKings and Fan Duel (while also allowing those companies to save on taxes).

Both measures are behind in the polls and should lose. But these proposals are not defeats for gambling expansion. On the contrary, the epic scale of the dueling campaigns for and against the measures has shown that betting establishments will break down all limits to their own expansion.

Collectively, gambling interests spent more than $440 million on the measures – doubling the previous record for campaign spending. Tribes and online gambling companies are sure to spend hundreds of millions more on future lobbying and electoral efforts – whatever it takes to win.

In fact, the campaign ads serve as a promotion and normalizer for sports betting. And while the measures’ supporters claim to limit gambling’s reach to adults, their ads are inescapable. My three young sons, faced with constant Prop. 26 and 27 ads on YouTube and other sites they visit to watch cartoons and age-appropriate videos, asked me all sorts of gambling-related questions.

This is not your father’s gamble. Online sports betting doesn’t bet a few dollars on the outcome of a three-hour soccer game; It’s an immersive environment where you can bet in real-time throughout the game and rack up huge losses in a matter of seconds. The expansion of this type of betting will fuel gambling addiction in California and increase the damage to families and personal finances. The average gambling debt for male addicts exceeds $50,000.

It’s unclear how serious the problem is in California because the state’s gambling addiction services are underfunded. There hasn’t been a thorough government investigation into gambling habits for more than a decade.

My own visit to Sky River shows just how enticing gambling can be in 21st Century California.

On a Tuesday morning, about half the tables were occupied, and dozens of people sat in front of bigger and colorful screens, playing slots and other games via video. The 12-restaurant food court has opened, offering everything from dim sum, oysters and sushi to street tacos and burgers. The bar was already full of people sipping drinks while playing computer terminals.

The opening of Sky River was celebrated in the town of Elk Grove, which wants the visitors and the tax revenue; and by Wilton Rancheria, which struggled for decades to restore its tribal status (achieved in 2009) and acquire land.

With the casino in place, the tribe should have a brighter future. Sky River is the closest casino to the State Capitol and is close to the Bay Area. And its geographic advantage is complemented by near-perfect timing. More gambling is coming to California, so much so that the sky isn’t even the limit.

Joe Mathews co-writes the Connecting California column Zocalo public square.


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