Florida Sports Betting Begins Long Uncertain Journey

Florida Sports Betting Begins Long Uncertain Journey article feature image

Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images. Pictured: The Florida State Capitol building.

Friday’s announced gaming compact agreement between Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe of Florida cleared the most important political hurdle to legal sports betting in the state. Many logistical and legal obstacles remain.

The Florida Legislature will reconvene next month to approve the deal. Championed by DeSantis as well as fellow Republican Senate President Wilton Simpson, it should help overcome many political issues passing compact-related legislation through the GOP-controlled statehouse. The deal, which will generate the state at least $500 million annually from the tribe’s gaming proceeds, will likely also have support from the legislature’s Democrats.

Assuming approval, the compact’s online sports betting component faces a seeming federal roadblock.

Online Sports Betting in Jeopardy

The compact permits the tribe to operate online sportsbooks through servers placed on sovereign lands. This, the compact writers argue, means bets should be treated as though the actual wager is being placed on tribal property, even if the bet is placed through a mobile device somewhere else in the state.

New Jersey and New York use a similar approach that allows them to operate mobile sportsbooks without violating state gambling prohibitions, but this strategy has not been approved for tribal operators. A recent court ruling in California prohibited a tribe from offering online gaming, and the overarching federal law that permits Indian gaming does not include any internet workarounds.

The Department of the Interior must approve any gaming compact such as Florida’s. An Interior Department ruling that permits the Seminole’s online interpretation would seemingly open the door for any other recognized tribal entity to have similar offerings.

More likely than not, legal analysts believe, the online provision will not be approved. Notably, the compact allows the deal to go into effect even if certain parts are rejected by federal officials.

This means the tribe could continue with plans to open retail sportsbooks at its casino properties, even if online sportsbooks or the compact's provisions that allow parimutuel facility sportsbooks to run in conjunction with the tribe are struck down.

Constitutional Concerns

Florida anti-gambling organizations argued the deal violates a 2018 constitutional amendment that subjects all casino gambling legislation to voter approval. Groups such as No Casinos argue the deal’s sports betting authorization as well as the Seminole’s right to open new gaming facilities are subject to a voter referendum.

Some gaming industry analysts argue the amendment only included common casino games at the time the amendment was approved. In 2018 only a handful of states allowed sports betting, meaning sportsbooks can be approved without voter approval.

In either interpretation, the compact will test the 2018 amendment. If No Casinos or other anti-gambling groups are successful, it could mean sports betting would have to be approved by voters on a future ballot, likely the 2022 midterm elections.

In that scenario, that would mean betting likely wouldn’t even begin until 2023. That’s also assuming voters approve the sports betting authorization on a hypothetical future ballot question, which is no sure bet either.

Bottom Line

The new compact removes the single biggest roadblock to legal sports betting in Florida. Retail sports betting will likely be approved at the federal level and, depending on Florida’s own ruling on its constitutionally, could begin either in the next few months or next few years.

Online betting is a bigger concern. With federal law seemingly incompatible with the compact’s online provisions, it could be even longer until a legal online sportsbook takes its first wager in the Sunshine State.

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