Business Owners Allege Discrimination As Virginia Ban On Skill Games Nears

Written By Dann Stupp on June 29, 2021 - Last Updated on August 1, 2023
Virginia ban

A group of Asian-American business owners is making a last-ditch effort ahead of the pending Virginia ban on electronic skill games.

The Asian American Business Owners Association (AABOA), which is based in Roanoke, has filed a complaint with the office of Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.

Beginning this Thursday, July 1, a Virginia gambling law goes into effect that fully bans “skill games.” The devices are found in small businesses, primary convenience stores and gas stations.

The AABOA argues that the machines are vital to their businesses’ bottom line.

They also allege that the upcoming ban unfairly targets minorities.

Biz owners scramble as Virginia ban nears

The AABOA filed its 18-page complaint on Saturday.

It follows a recent lawsuit from former NASCAR driver and Virginia small business owner Hermie Sadler. The VA native said his 41 skill games bring in $750,000 in annual net revenues to his businesses.

Like Sadler, the AABOA is preparing for the implementation of Senate Bill 971. The legislation bans skill games, which are similar to slot machines and other traditional gaming devices but have a questionable “skill” element that had allowed them to operate in a gray area of the law. Hence, the nickname “gray machines.”

When the coronavirus pandemic shut down businesses in early 2020, the Virginia General Assembly voted to give skill games a one-year reprieve before the July 1, 2021, ban. VA then regulated and taxed the machines. The program raised approximately $100 million to combat the coronavirus and the subsequent shutdowns.

Sadler, the AABOA, and other business owners hoped the audition would lead to full legalization of skill machines. Instead, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam‘s office said the July 1 ban will got into effect as scheduled.

The AABOA wants the VA attorney general to block the ban by refusing to enforce it.

Discrimination with skill games ban?

The upcoming ban essentially prohibits all businesses other than family entertainment centers from installing gray machines.

Skill-game proponents argue that the machines are vital to many businesses that Indian, African-American, Pakistani, and Yemeni merchants own.

The AABOA complaint specifically calls out the VA General Assembly for disparaging the games. Reps mention the following legislators by name:

  • Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City
  • Senate Finance Chair Janet Howell, D-Fairfax

The skill-games ban also comes at a time when legal gambling avenues are flourishing in Virginia. Online sportsbooks in Virginia went live in January, and the first Virginia casinos are slated to open in 2022 and 2023. The Virginia Lottery is as popular as ever. Additionally, live horse racing and historical horse racing are also available in VA.

As the AABOA complaint states:

“In recent years, gaming has been embraced by the commonwealth when it is enjoyed by the privileged in fancy casinos or by children in ‘family entertainment centers.’ But that very same activity is not acceptable when offered by Asian American owned convenience stores or enjoyed by minority or marginalized populations.”

Photo by Dreamsite / Carolyn Franks
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Dann Stupp

Dann Stupp is a longtime sports journalist who’s written and edited for The Athletic, USA Today, ESPN, and other outlets. He lives in Lexington, Virginia.

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