Sports betting in Florida still paused despite court ruling

Published on September 29, 2023 at 9:55 am

A Washington, D.C.-based appellate court on Thursday refused to put on hold a ruling that upheld a 30-year deal giving the Seminole Tribe of Florida control over sports betting throughout the state.

But as legal challenges grind through state and federal courts, gamblers in Florida shouldn’t plan on placing sports bets from their phones anytime soon.

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It’s unknown whether the Seminoles plan to re-launch a sports-betting app before all of the litigation is resolved, although Thursday’s appellate-court ruling gave a boost to the tribe.

“It’s another positive development, but it will have no immediate effect on the Seminole Tribe’s plans,” Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the tribe, told The News Service of Florida in a statement.

Thursday’s ruling set the stage for a possible review by the U.S. Supreme Court in a challenge by two parimutuel companies to the 2021 agreement, known as a compact. Gov. Ron DeSantis and Seminole Tribe of Florida Chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr. signed the deal, which was ratified by the Florida Legislature.

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The ruling came two days after the companies, West Flagler Associates and Bonita-Fort Myers Corp., also asked the Florida Supreme Court to strike down the sports-betting part of the deal.

The “hub-and-spoke” plan at issue would allow gamblers to place mobile sports wagers anywhere in the state, with bets handled by computer servers on tribal property. The deal said bets “using a mobile app or other electronic device, shall be deemed to be exclusively conducted by the tribe.”

The parimutuel companies filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the agreement violated the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, or IGRA, because it authorized gambling off tribal lands.

U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich in November 2021 ruled against the compact, calling the sports-betting plan a “fiction” and invalidating other parts of the agreement. A panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed the ruling, and the full appeals court this month refused to reconsider the challenge.

The parimutuel companies then requested that the panel decision be put on hold and said they intend to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue.

The Seminoles in 2021 briefly rolled out the Hard Rock SportsBook mobile app amid the legal wrangling but stopped accepting wagers and deposits on the app after Friedrich’s ruling.

West Flagler holds three jai alai licenses, while Bonita-Fort Myers Corp. does business as Bonita Springs Poker Room in Southwest Florida.

Separate from the federal-court fight, the companies and an owner, Isadore Havenick, filed a lawsuit Tuesday directly with the Florida Supreme Court, alleging the sports-betting component of the deal violates a 2018 constitutional amendment prohibiting expansions of casino-style gambling without statewide voter approval. It is unclear whether the state Supreme Court will agree to take up the case.

The lawsuit argued the federal appellate rulings have resulted in an “urgent” situation necessitating state Supreme Court review.

“Unless this (Florida Supreme) Court grants this petition, casino gambling throughout the state in the form of off-reservation in-person and mobile sports betting will take effect without the approval by the voters of Florida, as explicitly required by the text of Article X, Section 30 of the Florida Constitution. … Further, since the current status of the case is that the 2021 compact is valid under federal law, review of the legality of off-reservation sports betting under state law is urgent,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit only challenged the sports-betting provisions in the 2021 agreement, which also allowed the tribe to offer craps and roulette at its casinos. In addition, the deal would allow the Seminoles to add three casinos on tribal property in Broward County.

In exchange, the tribe pledged to pay the state a minimum of $2.5 billion over the first five years and possibly billions of dollars more throughout the three-decade pact.

Meanwhile, state gambling regulators recently began cracking down on fantasy sports companies, accusing three operators of offering potentially illegal mobile betting games and threatening legal action if the sites don’t immediately stop doing business in Florida.

Florida Gaming Control Commission Executive Director Lou Trombetta last week sent letters warning the three companies that they “may be offering or accepting illegal bets or wagers” from Floridians and “may be promoting and conducting an illegal lottery.”

The alleged conduct is “strictly prohibited in Florida and constitutes criminal activity,” Trombetta wrote on Sept. 19.

The letters targeted Underdog Sports, LLC, which is based in Brooklyn, N.Y; SidePrize LLC, also known as Performance Predictions LLC, doing business as PrizePicks, which is based in Atlanta; and Betr Holdings, Inc., which is based in Miami.

John Lockwood, an attorney hired by multiple operators, warned that other companies could be swept up in the crackdown.

“The commission staff confirmed to me that the language in the letter broadly applies to all paid fantasy sports contests, and they are not aware of any paid fantasy sports company operating legally in Florida. We disagree on the merits and will be working with the commission and potentially the Legislature so we can ensure Florida sports fans can continue to play,” Lockwood told the News Service.

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