Game on: Seminole Tribe launches first legalized sports betting in FL history

Betting via digital devices begins; gambling foes predict a swift end

By: - November 1, 2021 7:28 pm

Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Just hours ahead of a Monday Night Football game between the New York Giants and the Kansas City Chiefs, Hard Rock Sportsbook launched Florida’s first legalized sports betting operations on Monday, announcing on its website “Game On, Florida.”

It marks the first time in Florida’s history that sports betting is offered statewide and under the auspices of state government, via a 30-year contract with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Sports betting, a pastime that has illicitly flown under the radar of state law for years, is worth an estimated $7 billion a year, according to Seminole Gaming CEO Jim Allen. Now it is out in the open in Florida and fully operational anywhere in the state via cellphones and other digital devices. Apps to play are available for Apple and Android devices.

John Sowinski, president of No Casinos, which is fighting expansion of gambling in Florida, predicted sports betting will be short-lived as he expects a federal court in Washington, D.C., to strike it down as illegal.

“It’s a little ironic, since this goes to court on Friday,” Sowinski told the Phoenix. “I’m very confident we’ll win on the merits. I look forward to Friday.”

Hard Rock Sportsbook in Florida is run by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which negotiated a long-term gambling compact with the state in April that includes monopoly control of sports betting and limited expansion of casinos and previously illegal games. The Florida Legislature convened a special session in mid-May to ratify the compact and adopt implementing legislation.

The federal government neither approved nor disapproved the compact, but allowed it to move forward by letting a 45-day review period expire.

The compact ensures an average of $500 million annually to the State of Florida for the first five years — at a minimum, $2.5 billion — and potentially more in years after that.

Lawsuits against the compact are pending in state and federal courts, including the one being waged by Sowinski and a group of south Florida business people opposed to more gambling in their area.

The launch Monday, which may have been advertised to fans but was not announced to news media, follows an announcement Thursday by Seminole Gaming that it has entered partnerships with five Florida pari-mutuel facilities that can host sports betting onsite, to the exclusion of all others to date.

Along with those sportsbook hubs in those five facilities, sports betting is now legal online anywhere in Florida.

The pari-mutuels that have signed agreements so far with the Seminole Tribe are Palm Beach Kennel Club, Hialeah Park Casino, Ocala Gainesville Poker and Ocala Breeder’s Sales Company, Tampa Bay Downs, and TGT Poker & Racebook in Tampa.  More agreements are expected, according to the Thursday statement issued by Seminole Gaming.

“We have already exceeded the compact’s requirement for a minimum of three pari-mutuel agreements and we look forward to developing more relationships with pari-mutuels around Florida,” stated  Seminole Gaming’s Jim Allen, who also is chairman of Hard Rock International, which is owned by the Seminole Tribe. Allen’s statement was from the Thursday announcement.

Not among the tribe’s sports-betting partners to date are Magic City Casino and Bonita Springs Poker Room, pari-mutuel facilities suing state and federal agencies to invalidate the tribe’s exclusive control over sports-betting operations. The plaintiffs would rather see sports betting legalized statewide by way of a proposed constitutional amendment, with all pari-mutuels free to join in.

Also not involved to date are DraftKings and FanDuel, international sports-betting platforms that contributed $20 million to support that constitutional amendment drive. Overcoming the Seminole Tribe monopoly and getting voters to approve statewide sports betting would grant them the entrée they want to tap into Florida’s multibillion-dollar market.

Magic City Casino and Bonita Springs Poker Room said in court records they had expected the Seminole Tribe to launch its sports betting operations on Nov. 15. The Legislature mandated it could begin no earlier than Oct. 15.

Seminole Gaming remained vague about the launch date, letting its launch Monday do the talking.

The lawsuit filed by Sowinski and others seeks to strike down the entire gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe as a violation of federal Indian gaming laws. That lawsuit argues the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a branch of the U.S. Department of Interior, wrongly allowed the compact to proceed regardless of reasonable legal questions raised by its opponents.

Sowinski’s group also was behind the constitutional amendment passed in 2018 that outlaws expansions of gambling without statewide voter approval. The Seminole Tribe also supported that amendment, though Jim Allen testified last spring it was not intended to block sports betting in particular.

Sowinski said the ruckus raised since adoption of the gambling compact in May demonstrates why voters want to keep a lid on gambling.

“The compact has created a free-for-all among competitors in a business that relies on addiction and sells false hope,” Sowinski said.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.