Inside the NHL

Last week’s sponsorship deal between NHL Seattle and the Muckleshoot Casino was clearly a precursor to a potentially larger sports-gaming pact. But that isn’t the only preparation taking place in anticipation of such gambling being legalized here.

Anyone paying close attention might have noticed a growing Washington incursion by a relatively-new Nevada-based company — Maverick Gaming LLC — that now owns roughly half the “card room’’ casinos in this state. The company is co-owned by Hoquiam native Eric Persson, a somewhat under-the-radar fixture in Nevada’s gaming community.

Washington’s tough anti-gambling laws don’t allow any sports betting. And casinos beyond tribal lands are limited to card rooms — also called “mini casinos”– where poker, blackjack and other card games can be played against the “house” but not other bettors and where slot machines, video lottery terminals and video pull tabs are prohibited.

But last year’s repeal of a federal sports-gambling law has left it up to individual states to decide legality. There are now 13 states with legalized sports betting — compared with five a year ago — and a push has begun for such gaming here.

Maverick, backed by the HG Vora hedge fund, embarked on a summerlong Washington buying spree and now owns 19 card rooms — and is acquiring five more — out of 44 in the state. And while Persson insists his company’s half-billion-dollar expansion wasn’t a sports-gaming bet, he’d love to have it within his fledgling network of nontribal casinos.

“There’s a clear demand from consumers,” Persson said. “So, I’d love to be a part of that.”

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Problem is, a bill sponsored in the state legislature last winter by Rep. Eric Pettigrew (D-Seattle) and other lawmakers calls for sports gaming only within tribal facilities. If passed, HB-1975 would grant tribes such as Muckleshoot exclusive domain over sports betting.

NHL Seattle’s position on HB-1975 is about as see-through as the Plexiglas surrounding your typical rink. Muckleshoot — one of the bill’s prime beneficiaries — is now the official casino partner of NHL Seattle, while the team has also hired HB-1975 sponsor Pettigrew as a community ambassador and director of suite services.

One can hardly blame NHL Seattle for hoping to eventually follow other hockey teams profiting from sports-gaming deals. The NHL reaps less money from national television than other leagues, and sports betting could significantly bolster annual revenue.

NHL Seattle appears positioned to best capitalize on sports gaming if its official casino partner and their tribal brethren are holding all the cards, rather than sharing the pot with competitors such as a statewide Maverick gaming network.

Persson isn’t divulging much strategy, other than saying he’s met regularly with the Washington State Gambling Commission and plans his own legislative bill this session or next. “We’re more focused on drafting a bill that we think makes the most amount of sense and has the broadest base of support,” he said. “We’re doing a lot of work right now understanding what Washingtonians really think so we can provide good information to the legislature.”

For now, he’s talking up how sports gaming can generate $50 million in annual state taxes, while saying his company’s “self-exclusion” software can identify problem gamblers and block them from entering Maverick-owned casinos.

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“There’s clearly a need to make sure the product that gets delivered to the consumers of Washington is well-regulated,” Persson said. “And I think there’s great opportunity to talk about responsible gaming.”

Since June, Maverick finalized acquisition of Nevada Gold and Casinos Inc. and its nine Washington card rooms — seven in the Seattle area — followed two weeks later by the purchase of three Great American Casino properties in Everett, Tukwila and Lakewood.

Maverick then bought the Roman Casino in Renton in July, followed in August by Wizards Casino in Burien, the Caribbean Casino and the Caribbean Cardroom in Kirkland, the Caribbean Casino in Yakima and the Macau Casino in Lakewood and Macau Casino in Tukwila.

Persson said his card rooms are underutilized and can be highly profitable in their own right with enough marketing. But while that’s a nice Plan B, the timing and scope of the statewide acquisitions by Persson and Maverick co-owner Justin Beltram clearly envision more.

Worth watching will be how NHL Seattle and its tribal and political allies play this hand they’re about to be dealt.

Sure, the team isn’t about to walk back its deal with financial powerhouse Muckleshoot. But that doesn’t mean NHL Seattle has to slug it out with every other gaming entity. Especially not a well-oiled Nevada machine backed by serious hedge-fund money that could rain down on HB-1975 proponents like a Boston Bruins power-play barrage.

Persson prefers not to frame what comes next in the context of a fight. A member of the Shoalwater Bay Indian Nation, he has suggested he’ll “join forces” with tribal leaders and state lawmakers to reach accommodation.

“‘I’m going to propose a bill that’s going to fit the needs of Washingtonians,” Persson said. “And I’d love for the Native Americans to be part of it. And I’d love for all of the people who are part of this regulated gaming industry … we should all be paying our fair share of taxes. I’m happy to pay my fair share. And I’d imagine they are, too.”

We’re only in the first period of this one, so things could get interesting. Especially if both sides forgo any business arrangement and choose instead to drop the gloves and go at each other.