High-stakes poker player, crypto whiz, pitch skeptical tribes on California sports betting plan

Monitors flash upcoming sporting events as well as various live games at Maryland Live! Casino Wednesday., Dec. 21, 2022. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron, The Baltimore Sun)

One is a jet-setting high-stakes poker player with a taste for fancy resorts, drinks and cars. Another is a blockchain and cryptocurrency entrepreneur.

They’ve teamed up before for an online gaming venture in Southern California that made millions. Now they’re betting they can do it again. But first they’ll have to sell skeptical tribal leaders and the Golden State’s wary voters — who rejected two sports betting ballot measures in California last year — on a plan to legalize sports books in what would become the largest U.S. market.

Whether Reeve Collins and Kasey Thompson’s 2024 California sports betting initiative campaign gets off the ground could be decided as soon as this week, when they pitch their plan Wednesday to California’s tribal gaming leaders — the same group of people who feel blindsided and disrespected because they weren’t consulted before the partners filed their proposals with state authorities last month.

“The legalization of sports wagering has been a contentious battle in the past, but if the proposition is structured properly and has significant tribal support, 2024 will be the year it passes,” said Collins, one of the proponents of the new sports betting initiative. “We are doing our best to make that happen.”

Added business partner Thompson, “this is not something put together lightly.”

“If I’m willing to fire $25 million in a few weeks” in a bid to qualify a ballot measure, Thompson said, “it shows I’m pretty prepared for this.”

But are others? The California Nations Indian Gaming Association represents 52 federally recognized tribal governments dedicated to the gaming industry. In a statement released the day the proposed initiatives were filed, the organization said that it was “deeply disappointed” the measure proponents didn’t reach out to tribal leaders first.

Tribal leaders have largely avoided further comment before hearing the pitch, but it’s not expected to be warmly received. Victor Rocha, a gaming industry strategist with the Pechanga Band of Indians in Temecula, home to one of the state’s largest casinos, has been sharply critical.

In social media posts after the initiative proposals were filed, he called the proponents “morons” and “idiots” and he’s cut them little slack since, calling their effort a “fool’s errand” last week. But he did say the proposal “opens the conversation” about a possible 2026 measure that would introduce sports wagering at tribal casinos and, eventually, online.

“The tribes will take an incremental approach,” Rocha said in a Nov. 8 post. “We will not be hurried.”

Thompson took that as an encouraging sign.

“I can assure you I will spend time with him to make sure he knows this is the best proposal he’s ever seen,” Thompson said, adding that while no tribal leader has endorsed the proposed ballot measure, none have formally voiced opposition.

The new online gaming proposal comes less than a year after California voters dealt tribal casino and online gaming interests crushing defeats of two November 2022 ballot propositions, despite record spending — nearly half a million was raised to support or oppose the competing initiatives.

Proposition 26 would have allowed tribal casinos and some horse racetracks to offer sports books, while Prop 27 would have legalized online sports wagering through tribal agreements with proceeds funding programs for homelessness and mental health. The measures split the tribes, and political analysts said voters were put off by the bickering and confusion over dueling plans.

Though Thompson filed two measures this year for consideration with the Attorney General’s office, the plan is for only one to go forward. One of the proposed initiatives would simply establish that the state could only authorize sports books through its recognized tribes, the other adds a suggested framework for doing so. Thompson said the proposals can be modified over the next few weeks with tribal input.

Thompson and Collins were previously involved in a successful online gaming platform — Pala Interactive — developed with the Pala Band of Mission Indians in San Diego County. Nevada casino giant Boyd Gaming Corp. bought Pala Interactive a year ago for $170 million. Boyd Gaming and the Pala Band of Mission Indians said they aren’t involved with the proposed California initiatives.

“We’ve swam in these waters before,” said Thompson. His Instagram account describes him as one of the original “Molly’s Game” high-stakes poker players, and is filled with images of him in private jets, sports cars and at resorts and sporting events. He calls himself as an online gaming executive and “founder of amazing companies” with a passion for charities. He also cofounded All In Magazine, a poker industry trade publication.

Collins describes himself on LinkedIn as “a long-standing pioneer in both digital marketing and the Bitcoin/Blockchain space,” who co-founded BLOCKv, Tether and SmartMedia Technologies.

Thompson said the last-minute filing for a 2024 ballot measure was strategic and designed to eliminate the possibility of competing initiatives. He said their proposal would offer tribes a variety of ways to profit from sports books at no cost to themselves, as he and his partners are prepared to bankroll getting the measure before voters.

Thompson believes it would bring overseas sports books into the sunlight as legitimized operators, similar to what happened with PokerStars, now owned by FanDuel’s parent Flutter. Those overseas sports book are now profiting from gray-market gamblers in the Golden State without providing revenue to tribes or the state.