North Carolina Tribe Makes First Move For Possible Tennessee Casino, Sportsbook

A brick-and-mortar sportsbook in Tennessee after all?

According to a report from the Knoxville News Sentinel, the North Carolina-based Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has acquired land in Sevierville, Tenn., in a rumored play for a Las Vegas-style casino. Tennessee isn’t home to any commercial or tribal casinos, or racinos. The Cherokee Tribe hasn’t said what it will do with the land.

This spring, Tennessee lawmakers advanced legislation to legalize online/mobile sports betting in the state. There was no on-site sports betting legalization in the bill that will become effective July 1. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, let the legislation become law without his signature, citing an opposition to state-sanctioned gambling. The state General Assembly had bipartisan support for legalizing and regulating sports betting under the Tennessee Lottery Corporation.

The Cherokees acquired 122 acres for $7.65 mm, according to the report. The sale was recorded June 18, according to local records.

The tribe owns a pair of casinos in North Carolina, which are operated by Harrah’s, an offshoot of Caesars Entertainment Corp. Caesars recently reached a deal to be acquired by Eldorado Resorts.

Discussions over the land acquisition were ongoing as far back as February.

“This property, if purchased, will be utilized for future economic development for the EBCI,” Principal Chief Richard Sneed said in a statement. “The location of the property lends itself to many possibilities for economic diversification for the Eastern Band, and I am excited about this opportunity.”

The property reportedly is easily accessible from Interstate 40, which would be advantageous for a casino. The land where a casino could potentially sit is also situated behind Smokies Stadium, home to a minor league baseball team. It’s worth noting that Major League Baseball has opposed betting on minor league baseball games in other states, but Tennessee officials could still permit legal sportsbooks in the state to take bets on the games. It’s up to the regulators’ discretion.

TN constitution

Right now, the tribe couldn’t build the casino on the site, unless the state legislature, as well as voters, approve of such a facility, according to TN state Rep. Rick Staples, sponsor of the legislation that legalized upcoming online/mobile sportsbooks in the Volunteer State.

“In order to have table gambling, horse racing, or any type of casino in Tennessee, we’d have to amend the constitution,” Staples told this past winter.

The big problem for the Cherokees, should the tribe be looking to build a casino, is that Gov. Lee blasted casinos in a statement announcing that he would let the sports betting bill become law.

“I am letting HB 0001 become law without my signature,” Lee said. “I do not believe the expansion of gambling through online sports betting is in the best interest of our state, but I appreciate the General Assembly’s efforts to remove brick-and-mortar establishments. The bill ultimately did not pursue casinos, the most harmful form of gambling, which I believe prey on poverty and encourage criminal activity.”

Lee added that he won’t be allowing additional gaming expansion under his watch. That position could change over the course of his term, especially if the upcoming sports betting industry performs well and generates its expected tax revenue for the state. He was elected last November, coming into the state’s highest office without prior official political experience.

“Compromise is a central part of governing,” Lee continued in his sports betting statement, “but I remain philosophically opposed to gambling and will not be lending my signature to support this cause. We see this issue differently, but let me be clear: Any future efforts to expand gambling or introduce casinos to Tennessee will assure my veto.”

It is, of course, possible that state lawmakers could override the governor on legislation aimed at amending the state constitution to allow for a tribal casino.

The tribe could also sit on the land until there’s a new governor.

Sports betting in NC?

North Carolina is also considering legalizing sports betting, which would allow the two Cherokee-owned casinos (Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort and Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel) to have on-site sports wagering. Online/mobile sports wagering in NC isn’t in play for the near-term, as discussions haven’t included allowing those platforms.

Legislation in Raleigh has stalled so far, with the ongoing legislative session ending June 30. There’s still time to put the finishing touches on passing legislation. On Tuesday, the legislation, S 154, was re-referred to the House Committee on Commerce. The legislation passed the NC Senate in April. The last-minute nature of the sports betting debate doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t cross the finish line in the session’s final days, as lawmakers in Illinois and Indiana, for example, both approved sports betting at the tail end of their respective sessions.

Earlier this month, a bill to allow online fantasy sports in North Carolina, which would benefit New Jersey online sports betting companies DraftKings and FanDuel, was shot down in committee.

DFS regulation in NC would allow DK and FD to get a head start on online/mobile sports betting should the state ever legalize that activity.