When it comes to crafting success out of unexpected circumstances, it sure seems like Sara Tait has cornered her portion of the market.
The executive director of the Indiana Gaming Commission since the summer of 2015 got her start in the industry because of eagerness. She moved up the career ladder because of her efficiency.
And now, she’s steered the Hoosier State to sports wagering regulatory excellence in the Midwest in spite of ever-changing, challenging environments. Tait and her staff of a dozen employees who were fully dedicated to the activity’s implementation — in step with Dennis Mullen, the state’s sports wagering guru — went from legalization to launch in a three-month span. In just over a year since bets have been accepted, the state has passed more than $1 billion in handle with a minimal number of technological or rulemaking hiccups.
Not too shabby a resume, really, when you’re still short of age 40 and when gaming was a personal afterthought as recently as a decade ago.
“I was a fresh lawyer looking for a staff attorney job in Indiana, and one available was with the gaming commission. I had relatively little knowledge or expertise (in the industry),” the 37-year-old Tait said. “But I had someone tell me that if you can regulate a casino, you can regulate anything, so I went to learn and it was a great place for me to develop my skills.
“Frankly, from there, I’ve been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.”
The staff attorney job became a promotion to director of license control. That position led to a general counsel post. When her predecessor, Ernest Yelton, decided to retire, Tait made her pitch to then-Gov. Mike Pence.
“I essentially had to say, ‘Hey, I can do this’ and that I wanted to be considered for the role. I was a young female, and all the previous directors were men and more advanced in age,” she explained. “But what I had going for me was that I had worked in the agency, and — you’ll hear me say this a lot, and I mean it — we have such a great, long-serving staff at the IGC that works well together.”
She made her case and won the job, and she’s since been off to the races. More so than being in her role as a woman, Tait said that if she’s encountered any eyebrow-raising in industry meetings, it was because of her age. But that time has come and gone, she said, with her casino leadership peers giving support because they’ve appreciated the quality of her work.
“You just have to prove yourself. You go in and demonstrate why you’re the person sitting at that table, and fortunately, I’ve been able to do so,” she said. “Our operators in Indiana are great, and everyone has been a pleasure to work with and welcoming. I can’t say enough good things.”
People outside the commission bubble have been equally effusive of their praise in return. Ed Feigenbaum has been the editor and publisher of the Indiana Gaming Insight newsletter since 1993. Especially when compared with neighboring states, he’s said that the commission has succeeded over the years because of its timely, consumer-forward approach.
He said Tait has been a worthy bearer of the burden.
“Sara is loved by her staff and respected by her peers,” he said. “She is proactive and does things right.”
Perhaps the best recent example of such forethought is in the commission’s work leading up to and following the landmark Supreme Court decision that effectively nixed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in 2018. Even before the national decision was rendered, Tait and the commission had set forth research firm Eilers and Krejcik to lay out for legislators how a statewide operation would work, including enforcement options, a range of taxes and the pros and cons of mobile wagering and remote registration.
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Once a handful of other U.S. states were up and running with their sports wagering protocols, Tait added to the study by showing lawmakers those other policies. Preparedness was key when the state approved sports wagering for a Sept. 1, 2019 start date and a mobile launch a month later.
That summer of constant meetings and furious license approvals brought many late nights, stressful moments, shifts in job responsibilities and several trips for Tait to buy the staff pizza. As wagering on mobile devices has rapidly increased — Tait said that conservatively, north of 70% of all Indiana handle comes from bets made on phones or computers — she’s been grateful for members of her staff with technological backgrounds who have become the unsung superstars of the sports wagering team.
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The months since the coronavirus pandemic have actually seen the work increase for Tait and her staff, given the increased focus on mobile operations and health and safety measures that also allow facilities to keep their daily operations above-board. In this time that’s heavy on remote work, she said she’s missed the camaraderie that came with rolling up collective sleeves with her staff and accomplishing tasks together. A recent socially distanced picnic reminded her of good fortune.
“I’ve tried to be more mindful to call and check in on people,” said Tait, herself a mother of three children who only recently saw them returning to in-person learning in early October. “Or have a video conference to see how they’re doing, ask about that non-professional stuff. I’ve missed the watercooler talk. At that outdoor picnic, with all of us in our lawn chairs, it was really great to see everybody’s faces.”
And when the time comes for normalcy to reappear, the Indiana gaming industry will remain confident that Tait is the face regulating it.
“The biggest takeaways should be we did everything right in Indiana, and we had everybody together on this,” Feigenbaum said. “Everybody understood what was was needed and wanted out of it. That’s the way things have been in this state’s gaming industry since 1993, and (sports wagering) was more of the good same.”