Home > People > Playing the long game

Playing the long game

| By Marese O'Hagan | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Marese O’Hagan speaks to Anika Howard, president and CEO of Wondr Nation, about her change in direction from Foxwoods, succeeding in the tribal gaming space and nurturing the relationship between tribes, commercial operators and regulators.

Saying that Howard had already made her mark on the industry before her appointment at tribe-owned Wondr Nation would be an understatement.

She began her career with Caesars in 2000, where she remained for nine years in a number of roles, working her way up to the regional director of marketing for Southern Nevada.

Her next foray was to International Game Technology, where she held several roles over six years, and finally her three-year tenure as vice-president of brand marketing and digital at Foxwoods Resort Casino, a company operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe.

The shift from being a Foxwoods employee to partner and supplier was not one Howard found difficult. Rather, she sees the bigger picture: the benefit it holds for tribal relations.

“For me, it’s been a pretty easy transition,” she says. “Being part of the Foxwood leadership team, I always looked at opportunities globally for the tribe. Now that we have the opportunity to really deliver on that, I have a unique vantage point.”

Howard explains that the marketing and digital experience she honed at Foxwoods allowed her to view her new role from a unique perspective.

“Because I led marketing and digital, and I know what the team and I expected from a supplier, it’s very easy to deliver on that promise to them,” she says. “Also, some of the initiatives that I led on the digital side – for example, for social – I carried with me.

“Now I’m delivering some of those things, just now as a managed service for the tribe. From that standpoint, I think it’s been a seamless transition.”

Tracking the growth trajectory

Howard’s grand plan to develop Wondr Nation involves partnering with other tribes and technology companies. She says that events like ICE London help to advance this strategy.

“What we want to do is to create an ecosystem of somewhat tribally focused partners,” she explains. “It’s important they understand the unique and specific needs of the tribes and then we can help educate them on the best ways to work with tribes, as well as bring those solutions to other tribal organisations and even smaller casinos to bridge that gap.

“ICE is a very big part of that, because you have so many great potential suppliers and partners right here.”

But whether all tribes are fully receptive to the online betting and gaming space is a moot point.

In Connecticut, Foxwoods is active in the online sports betting and casino space, launching its offerings in the state in October 2021 alongside DraftKings. One month later, both Foxwoods and DraftKings opened a permanent retail sportsbook in the state.

While situations in states like Connecticut have somewhat led the charge, tribes continue to lean more towards land-based gaming.

“Part of it is just wanting to better understand the supplier landscape,” she says. “In many cases, especially in California, there’s been a contentious relationship between potential suppliers and partners and tribes. That’s one of the things that we feel are slowing up opportunities.”

What’s in store?

But it’s not a case of looking for someone to blame. Howard says the situation depends greatly on regulation in each state, as well as tribe-on-tribe relationships.

“It depends on the regulatory environment, the tribal compacts and the relationship with the regulator and the elected officials in that state,” she explains. “It also depends on the overall relationships between the tribes.

“In many cases, it’s layers of things that need to get pulled back in order to move forward.”

This, coupled with a sometimes confusing regulatory environment, can cause issues for tribes.

“I think that’s been a little bit of the challenge, just figuring out how do you get out of the minutiae and pull back and say, ‘OK what do we want to do? And what is the best path for this?’”

But Howard is optimistic on the outlook for tribal relations in the US. From her perspective, the situation must be approached with understanding to ensure a successful partnership.

“I think a big piece of it, which we’ve seen in California and other markets, is working together,” she says. “Part of that is once again understanding the relationship and what the specific needs of the tribes are.”

Crucially, all parties must be knowledgeable on how the tribes operate, particularly with regard to their community-driven approach.

“With the tribes, it’s not just about the financial aspect, it’s also about the community,” Howard explains. “It’s about making sure that the solutions in place are additive to their way of life, additive to building generational wealth and figuring out if there’s a path forward to creating opportunities for tribal members.”

Some aspects of the relationship between tribes, regulators and operators are out of the industry’s hands. But for Howard, flourishing in the tribal gaming space is determined by who’s playing the game.

  • Regions:
  • US

Subscribe to the iGaming newsletter