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Florida Sports Betting Back On Table As Federal Court Hears Case To Restore Compact

Bill Speros for Bookies.com

Bill Speros  | 7 mins

Florida Sports Betting Back On Table As Federal Court Hears Case To Restore Compact

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NEW SMYRNA BEACH, Florida - A federal appeals court Wednesday heard arguments from the federal government and the Seminole Tribe of Florida to restore the gaming compact that briefly allowed sports betting in the Sunshine State.

The fate of compact, signed in 2021, and the return of Florida sports betting was debated in front of a three-judge panel in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The Biden administration and the Seminole Tribe are appealing a ruling from Federal Judge Dabney Friedrich that nullified the deal between the Tribe and the state of Florida.

After the Hard Rock Betting app was up, running, and taking bets across Florida, Friedrich ruled that the compact violated the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act because it allowed wagering to occur off property owned by the Seminoles via the betting app (i.e. anywhere in Florida).

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That ruling came from a pair of lawsuits filed by the owners of the Magic City Casino in Miami-Dade County and the Bonita Springs Poker Room (West Flagler); and a group who backed the state's "No Casinos" push. The West Flager group claimed the compact caused a "potentially devastating" impact to their casino and poker businesses. The "No Casinos" group said the compact violated the state's constitutional prohibition on gambling expansion off Indian lands without a referendum.

Florida attorney and gambling law expert Daniel Wallach said on Twitter that the hearing could portent good news for the Tribe - but not anytime soon.

"After today's oral argument, the notion of legal sports betting in Florida as early as 2023 may not be so far-fetched," Wallach posted.

The 30-year, $500-million per year compact was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2021 after it was passed during a special session of the Florida Legislature. A decision from the three-judge panel is not expected until late January and may not come until the spring.

"The ruling may not even be the final word on the issue, as the non-prevailing party will likely seek rehearing “en banc” before full court, with SCOTUS possibility too," Wallach added.

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No Legislative Action Until Case Is Decided

A spokesman for State Rep. Randy Fine (R-Palm Bay) has told Bookies.com that Fine "expects to see the compact work its way through the courts before any new action is taken."

Fine is the chairman of the House Select Committee on Gaming. The Florida legislature is currently in special session to deal with the state's home insurance crisis. The 2023 legislative session begins in January.

Fine was chosen by House Speaker Chris Sprowls to shepherd the compact through the House last spring. Fine was a casino executive in Las Vegas, ran a gaming consulting firm, and managed the Greektown Casino in Detroit before moving to Florida.

Fine's perspective here is important not only because of his role in the legislature, but because he predicted the 2021 compact's eventual downfall in the courts. Last year during the special session that approved the compact, Fine warned its mobile sports betting component would not "survive" legal muster. He was right.

It was the "hub-and-spoke" sports betting part of the compact that Judge Friedrich cited when throwing the full deal out in court last year.

Court Saga Continues

Florida Sports Betting Back On Table As Federal Court Hears Case To Restore Compact 1

Judge Friedrich threw out the compact after consolidating two cases filed against the Department of the Interior. One case was filed by a group that included West Flagler Associates, owners of the Magic City Casino in Miami. The other appeal was filed by Monterra MF, LLC, representing among others the "No Casinos" group.

While both sides oppose the compact, they have vastly different goals. Monterra wants no more gambling in the state, unless approved by voters under Amendment 3. West Flagler, meanwhile, claimed the gaming compact caused it financial harm during its 34-day run last fall.

In addition to mobile sports betting via the Hard Rock Sportsbook app, the 2021 compact between the state and Tribe also permitted roulette and craps in the Seminole Tribe’s casinos.

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Florida passed the largest state budget ever - $112.1 billion - in 2022. And not a single penny of that record spending spree came from Florida sports betting revenue.

Sports bettors in Florida enjoyed a brief period of state-wide betting in November of 2021 – when the Hard Rock Sportsbook app was up and running across the Sunshine State. Unless you happen to be Calvin Ridley, it was great to be in a state where not only was sports betting legal, but you could go to the beach on Thanksgiving without freezing to death in the process.

Many in the legal community and some of those who supported the gaming compact as written and passed knew that the “hub-and-spoke” approach to sports betting was a long shot at best.

Amendment 3, passed in 2018, prohibits the expansion of “casino gambling” in the state of Florida without 60% approval from the public in a state-wide election. It says nothing about “sports betting,” which was legalized nationwide by the Supreme Court after the Amendment was originally drafted but before it was passed.

In one of great ironies in this tale, nearly all of the funding to pass Amendment 3 came exclusively from Disney and the Seminole Tribe. Both of those entities now are in the lead float of the sports betting parade.

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While the 2021 gaming compact between the Seminole Tribe and Florida languished in federal court, a group called Florida Education Champions pushed to get a measure on the 2022 state ballot legalizing mobile and on-site sports betting.

It was doomed from the start, given that the signature gathering did not begin until June of 2021. DraftKings and FanDuel spent more than $36 million on the quixotic effort and the initiative fell more than 370,000 signatures short of the number needed to get on the ballot.

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Unless the 2021 compact is upheld on appeal in a federal court, it’s nearly impossible to see a path to legal mobile sports betting in Florida before 2025.

Amendment 3 bars the legislature from enabling any new gambling in the state – save for a compact with the Seminole Tribe. The Tribe remains free to begin on-site sports betting on Indian lands – meaning inside the Hard Rock Casinos – at any time.

But nothing will change until the current compact’s fate is finalized in court.

Compact’s Fate Determines Next Steps

Florida Sports Betting Back On Table As Federal Court Hears Case To Restore Compact 2

If the compact is upheld, the Hard Rock Sportsbook app could return and those who enjoyed those 34 heady days of online wagering would be free to bet with abandon on the sports betting app.

If it officially goes down, the state and Tribe could finalize a new deal – minus the “hub-and-spoke” online betting model.

The compact as passed shuts out other betting providers. A unified effort between DraftKings, FanDuel, BetMGM, PointsBet, Penn/Barstool, Caesars Sportsbook and others would be the wisest path to follow if these providers ever hope to enter the lucrative Florida market. Florida was the most-populous state to ever legalize mobile sports betting, even if it only lasted five weeks.

The failed measure backed by DraftKings and FanDuel has rolled over into the 2024 election cycle. But the signature-gathering effort has reset to zero. Initiatives must receive 891,589 verified signatures to get on the Florida ballot, with a minimum number required in 14 of the state’s 27 congressional districts.

Florida Is Flush With Cash

Florida Sports Betting Back On Table As Federal Court Hears Case To Restore Compact 3

Florida’s monstrous FY 2022-23 state budget includes a 5.38% pay raise for all state employees, bonuses to law enforcement officers, a $15 minimum wage for state workers, new higher base wages for teachers, and a month-long gas tax holiday in October. The funding includes $37 billion in federal revenue Florida received this year.

The total is 10% higher than the current budget and 20% more than the last pre-pandemic spending plan passed in 2019.

In other words, Florida is flush with cash. That in part helped DeSantis roll to re-election by nearly 20 points in November of 2022.

The argument that “Sports Betting Is Good For The State’s Bottom Line” and “It’s Needed To Fund Education” fell flat in 2022 and will fall flat again in 2024.

Especially in a presidential election year that could include both Donald Trump and DeSantis in a nasty GOP primary.

If any provider outside of the Seminole Tribe hopes to get a foothold in Florida, they will have to think outside the traditional box.

That could mean making an argument rooted in personal freedom if sports betting gets on the ballot in 2024. It could mean trying to work an end-around on Amendment 3 in court given that it doesn’t specifically preclude sports betting. Or, the so-called “out of state” providers could work with the Seminole Tribe to create a “super book of super books.”

Thankfully, those calls aren’t up to me.

About the Author

Bill Speros for Bookies.com
Bill Speros
Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist and editor whose career includes stops at USA Today Sports Network / Golfweek, Cox Media, ESPN, Orlando Sentinel and Denver Post.
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