Legislature poised to allow fantasy sports betting in principle, but not in fact — at least, not this year

By: - May 18, 2021 7:10 pm

Photo illustration by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

There won’t be legal online fantasy sports betting in Florida anytime soon — at least, it looks unlikely this year.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe of Florida have agreed in their gambling compact to allow these games. And legislation ratifying that deal, approved Tuesday by the Senate and by a House select committee, authorizes such gambling, at least in principle, during the deal’s 30-year life.

But the Senate essentially dropped separate legislation creating the real-life rules for these games — the framework for state regulation, vetting requirements for companies involved, and more. The House Select Committee on Gaming did the same later in the day, in advance of a floor vote on the gambling package set for Wednesday.

And without that administrative framework, the betting can’t happen. The situation is essentially this: Legalized fantasy sports betting remains a possibility in Florida but the reality is lagging behind.

“It got derailed. … Maybe next year,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson.

Randy Fine, the Republican chairman of the House select committee, said members were unable to agree about the details of legislation (HB 9-A).

“It’s not essential to doing the compact,” Fine said of fantasy sports. “We can always come back and look at it in the regular order next year.”

Among the disputes over the measure was whether people 18 and up should be allowed to participate. The main compact ratification bill (HB 1-A) set the minimum age at 21.

Also left by the wayside was separate legislation establishing the requirements for acquiring a license and paying fees to the state.

The Phoenix tried to contact Scott Ward, an attorney for fantasy sports betting venues DraftKings and Fanduel, but he hasn’t responded yet.

Peter Schoenke, who serves on the board of directors for the Fantasy Sports & Gaming Association, told the Phoenix that the outcome is probably a good thing because the bill “had a lot of problems.”

“This legislation on fantasy sports was not done by working with the industry,” Schoenke said.

The association sent out a press release Monday to encourage its members to contact Florida lawmakers and tell them to vote down on the fantasy sports legislation. Its various concerns included a proposed ban against betting involving collegiate teams and hefty operator application fees.

“There needs to be legislation that works for the entire industry — it’s not just FanDuel and DraftKings. There are a number of smaller fantasy sports companies that are really popular. Under this bill, they just really wouldn’t be able to operate.”

The industry group told the Phoenix earlier that 19 percent of Americans aged 18 and above already play fantasy games. The industry claims these contests are legal, but Florida law does not expressly say that they are, according to a legislative analysis.

The fantasy bill would have allowed private, small stakes betting pools to proceed unmolested by state agents. On Tuesday, Simpson suggested they have nothing to fear notwithstanding the lack of official sanction.

“I haven’t heard of anyone getting challenged on the backyard game of fantasy football or baseball getting arrested,” Simpson said.

The compact would amount to a broad expansion of gambling in Florida. The tribe has guaranteed the state $2.5 billion during the first five years. Presuming the Legislature approves, the compact would need an OK from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The main implementing legislation in both chambers allows betting by people aged 21 and up on actual sporting events via cellphones from anywhere in the state, but the bets need to run through servers on tribal land. This is designed to get around Amendment 3, approved by the voters in 2018, which requires any gambling expansion to go back to the voters.

Even backers of the effort concede it’s not clear whether the courts or Interior Department will buy the arrangement.

The legislation also expands casino-type games the tribe can run in its facilities to include craps, roulette, and blackjack. It allows pari-mutuel sites to continue to offer designated-player card games, which the state has allowed them to do in defiance of a 2010 compact that reserved banked games to the tribe. The Seminoles have been withholding some $350 million per year in revenue sharing from the state over the dispute.

Florida Phoenix reporter Danielle J. Brown contributed to this report.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.

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