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Future of sports betting lounges remains murky in WNY

ALBANY — The Seneca Nation is making preparations to open three sports betting lounges at its casinos in Western New York.

But a key question remains: When?

A day after a commercial casino in Schenectady became the first in the state to begin offering in-person sports betting to its patrons, the Seneca Nation on Wednesday — unlike two other New York tribes with gambling ventures — remains elusive about its own sports plans.

Still, the Seneca Nation said talks with the state “to date have been cooperative” regarding discussions to bring sports betting to Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Salamanca, according to a statement the tribe provided to The Buffalo News.

Such claims of cooperation are in stark contrast to an often-nasty, 28-month dispute over the Senecas’ decision to stop making annual casino revenue sharing payments to the state. The tribe says a 2002 compact permitting Indian gambling halls in Western New York was silent about any payments being due after the end of 2016. The tribe announced a halt to those payments in March 2017.

The Cuomo administration has fought the tribe’s contention. Two of three arbitration panel members have sided with the state and said the Seneca Nation needs to pay more than $255 million in lapsed casino revenue sharing obligations.

It would seem unlikely the Cuomo administration would want to do anything to drive more casino revenues to the Senecas — via expanded sports betting opportunities — at a time when the compact dispute is still raging. The tribe last month took the matter to federal court in Buffalo, a move the state believes is a stall tactic and with no legal merit.

But, because of a clause in the 2002 compact, the state might not have direct say over whether sports betting can be started by the Seneca Nation.

On Tuesday, Rivers Casino Resort, which is located along the Mohawk River in Schenectady, became the first casino to open a sports-book operation.

Efforts to legalize online sports betting — as is permitted in New Jersey and Pennsylvania — failed during the past legislative session in Albany. Many in the sports betting industry have expressed a ho-hum reaction to the in-person sports betting in New York because the real revenues come from online betting through smartphones, computers and other electronic devices.

In 2013, voters statewide legalized up to seven new commercial casinos. Four have since been opened. In a separate piece of “enabling” legislation, Cuomo and lawmakers in 2013 also OK'd a provision that would let those new casinos offer sports betting if a federal ban was ever reversed. The U.S. Supreme Court lifted that ban last year.

A casino in Tioga County, located in a rural area west of Binghamton, is expected on Friday to open its sports betting lounge.

[RELATED: Sports betting by smartphone? It could be coming soon to New York]

The Oneida Indian Nation earlier this week said it expects to have approvals from the state in hand to be able to open sports betting facilities at two of its three casinos located east of Syracuse. The St. Regis Mohawks plan a sports gambling lounge at its casino in northern New York near the St. Lawrence River.

Two other commercial casinos,  one in Sullivan County in the Catskills and the other in Seneca County located between Rochester and Syracuse, are building sports wagering facilities but have not yet announced opening dates.

“The Seneca Nation is making preparations to offer sports wagering at our casino properties, and we look forward to making this amenity available to our patrons in Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Salamanca. Our right to offer this now-approved offering is clearly outlined in our compact,’’ the Seneca Nation said in a written statement.

That claimed right might permit the Seneca Nation to go ahead with sports betting — with or without the state's approval.

A clause on page 22 of the 793-page compact between the Senecas and New York State provides rights for the tribe to offer new kinds of wagering if such bets are approved for other casinos in New York State. It requires the tribe to notify the state if it is going to begin offering a new form of wagering that has already been approved elsewhere in New York.

The Cuomo administration Wednesday would not answer whether the state would seek to block the Seneca Nation from opening sports betting lounges while the broader casino compact payments are still in litigation.

“The state has been working with each tribe on compact amendments that adopt state standards. The amendments for all three tribes have not been finalized," said Jason Conwall, a Cuomo spokesman.

Calling it an “amenity” for customers, the Seneca Nation is not believed to look upon sports betting as some source of major new revenues. That view would change, sources say, if the state legalizes such betting through online platforms. While illegal, such online betting is already a busy pastime in New York by bettors who place their sports wagers through offshore wagering accounts.

As it has for months, the Seneca Nation won’t provide a timetable for sports betting in Western New York.

“We will offer more specific details regarding our plans once we are ready to do so," the tribe said in a statement Wednesday.

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