In January, the Navajo Nation announced a partnership through its business arm Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise (NNGE) with Seminole Tribe's Hard Rock Digital to launch the Hard Rock Sportsbook mobile app in Arizona. The deal is set to introduce an exciting and profitable new vertical for the Navajo tribe, while extending Hard Rock's sports betting product presence to a third state, following New Jersey and Iowa.
In an exclusive video interview with Yogonet, Brian Parrish, Interim Chief Executive Officer for the NNGE, discussed the key features of the deal and how it will complement Navajo's existing offerings in the state. Moreover, the executive talked about New Mexico, another state in which the Navajo Nation has a presence, in which sports betting is currently not regulated but still allowed at tribal casinos.
Parrish also reflected on how the deal will integrate with Navajo Nation's retail gaming operations, and discussed strategies to position the new product in the competitive Arizona market. The CEO also explains why the Seminole Tribe of Florida was elected for the deal, and what was taken into account when choosing a suitable partner for sports betting.
The Navajo Nation has partnered with Hard Rock Digital to launch the Hard Rock Sportsbook mobile app in Arizona. What would you describe as the key features behind this deal?
We spent a lot of time on this deal, focusing on interviewing a lot of different potential partners that were out there. But we really settled on Hard Rock because they align with Navajo very well: their value system, their emphasis on community, they’ve got an excellent product, a solid brand, they’re really good casino operators, they’re worldwide… They fit well with us, so I think it’s an easy partnership.
In terms of the mobile application for sports wagering, they’ve got a team with a ton of experience. This is an area where our guys have all run sportsbooks and done a lot of marketing and operations, but mobile platforms are not one of our primary areas of expertise, but it is with these guys.
They’ve done it before and they’ve got an excellent product, proven in New Jersey and Iowa. It’s also operated in Florida, and we think it’s going to be a great partnership for us not only in Arizona, but expanding it to New Mexico, where we have additional operations.
What opportunities do you think this new deal opens up for both the Navajo tribe and its gaming enterprise?
Mobile event wagering is very important. It’s an opportunity to create a new source of revenue and more jobs. That’s our primary mission for the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise. Prior to the pandemic, we had 1200 team members; we’re growing and we’ve got five different enterprises and a strategic plan to develop even more.
The pandemic slowed things down for us but this partnership with Hard Rock is a chance to jumpstart all of our development again. So we think it’s going to be excellent in terms of mobile event wagering, but we are also partnering with them on our sportsbooks: we will open brick-and-mortar retail sportsbook operations. And then there are all of the cross-marketing opportunities associated with it.
Hard Rock is one of the most well-known brands worldwide - and the Navajo also is. It’s synonymous, if you will, with Native American culture in the US. So we’ve got a lot of very important authentic culture and business opportunities, and products and different things that we’re anxious to share, and we think this partnership with Hard Rock and the Seminole Tribe of Florida is just a great fit for making all those things happen.
Brian Parrish, Interim Chief Executive Officer for the NNGE
You mentioned brick-and-mortar sportsbooks. What are Navajo’s plans for sports betting within its land-based operations?
We have three larger casinos, two in New Mexico and one in Arizona, plus two smaller properties. In the three larger properties, we’re going to open sportsbooks, areas with all the lines and odds boards, and betting windows, and things like that. A place for people to go in, sit down, and enjoy watching the games, and win on them.
For our two smaller properties, we’re going to have kiosk betting, so they can make their own bets. There’s always personnel available if they have questions or want to understand more about a particular wager. It’s a nice amenity for us to offer to our patrons and then there’s of course cross-marketing with all the other amenities that we offer at our properties.
Does the Navajo Nation have a schedule to open these new amenities? How is it approaching these new developments?
For the state of Arizona, they approved a new gaming compact in 2021, and so that compact provides for mobile event wagering and also legalizes sports betting on a retail basis within casinos. So on the Arizona side, we’re starting off by launching the mobile app. That’ll be in the next two weeks, and then we will transition over to the sportsbooks.
On the New Mexico side, the 2015 gaming compact allows for all forms of Class III gaming, which includes sports betting, but only on a retail basis inside the casino buildings themselves. So there is no online gaming allowable under the current New Mexico compact.
What we would like to do is work with the state of New Mexico and the other tribal and pueblo leaders from New Mexico to eventually have the compact amended. That would provide for mobile and online gaming in that state.
The New Mexico case is an odd one for sports betting in the United States, because while it is not regulated, it is still allowed at tribal casinos. Do you see this changing in the future? You mentioned potential discussions with other tribal operators and the state.
I think that the discussions are very preliminary and just really getting started on the New Mexico side. I can tell you that there are four or five tribes over there that have their sportsbooks up and operating. We didn’t want to rush in; we didn’t feel the need to be first to market. What we wanted to do was have the right partner, the right product and roll out something that really fits well with our culture, our values and the cross-marketing opportunities we wanted to share with our partner.
We took our time, found the right partner in Hard Rock, and now we’re starting to work more diligently on how we can take those opportunities and build them into our operation. So it’s still early on; there’s no timeline for mobile wagering on the New Mexico side, but the retail sportsbook operations - that’s available now. You will be seeing us in the next couple of months roll out our sportsbooks in New Mexico as well as Arizona.
Going back to the case of Arizona, it used to hold the title for the fastest state to top $1 billion in sports bets before New York took it. There clearly is a growing demand for sports gaming in the state, but at the same time, it has become more competitive as of late, with more operators entering the market. How will the Navajo Nation and Hard Rock stand out from the competence?
There are 20 licenses for mobile event wagering in the state of Arizona; 10 for Native American tribes, and 10 for commercial sports teams. That’s quite a few. The Phoenix metropolitan area is the 12th largest in the entire United States, so the way the compact is structured, and all this being new, it kind of feels like a little bit of a gold rush. Everybody wants to hurry and take advantage, and so what’s happened is that the initial rollout of these mobile event wagering platforms has been very, very aggressive from a marketing standpoint, and so the costs of marketing are extremely high.
We knew that rushing in to be part of that wasn’t going to be an advantage strategically or financially. So again, what we have done is we have concentrated on finding the right partner, making sure we have the right product we will be rolling out to the market. We’ve got a real savvy and proven strategy that we are gonna deploy for marketing and cross-marketing. And then, of course, with the Hard Rock brand and the Navajo Nation gaming and culture brand we’ve got all kinds of really neat things to share with our patrons. We’re really excited about doing that.
We think that it will help us stand out in the market, and the other thing I want to share is that we’ve got a long-term agreement with Hard Rock. This is not short-term: we are patient, we are deliberate and we’ve got a long-term strategy to build on the successes that we create. We are not in a hurry: we want to optimize the opportunities that are available, but we are going to be deliberate and data-driven with everything that we are doing.