Wednesday morning, Florida’s Seminole Tribe made an announcement that spawned rampant speculation. The tribe will begin offering craps, roulette, and sports wagering at its brick-and-mortar locations in Florida in a staggered start beginning Dec. 7.
That news, in and of itself, is big for a state where the fate of legal sports betting has been murky since a federal lawsuit was filed in August 2021 after the tribe’s compact to offer Florida sports betting became operational.
But within minutes of the news came the prognosticators discussing mobile betting. In particular, Andy Slater of FoxSports 640 tweeted that mobile wagering would begin in Florida within two to three weeks, which would be ahead of the brick-and-mortar launch.
But some in the industry say there is not only no reason for the Seminoles to launch digital that soon, there are also pitfalls and, potentially, administrative or technological reasons that it can’t or won’t happen. Hard Rock Bet is already available in Arizona, Indiana, New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee, and Virginia.
“I have no idea technically where the app stands,” one industry insider told Sports Handle. “Or where the contracts with suppliers like GeoComply or others stand. It’s something we’ve all been following, but I think once the stay was denied [by the U.S. Supreme Court], I don’t know that while we were all following the legal stuff that they were preparing” to go live.
“There’s a cost to that. … They’ve waited this long. I don’t think they are going to pull any bold moves. The worst thing that could happen is that they would [launch the app and then] have to take it down.”
SLATER SCOOP: Sports betting in Florida will begin on the @HardRockBet app within the next 2-3 weeks, sources tell me.
The Seminole Tribe of Florida announced they’ll be opening in-person sportsbooks and craps/roulette tables on Dec. 7.
The mobile app will launch before then.
— Andy Slater (@AndySlater) November 1, 2023
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Seminoles are content to wait and see
The Seminoles have already been down that road. In November 2021, the tribe launched what was then called the Hard Rock Sportsbook mobile betting app, only to have two federal courts order it taken down. Thirty-four days after launch, Hard Rock Sportsbook shuttered.
That left some people out of jobs and consumers disgruntled. While Hard Rock Bet will be the only platform available in Florida in the current landscape, it’s still bad business to provide a product and then take it away. In fact, as the industry strives to eliminate black-market betting, such a move might encourage customers to look outside of the regulated market.
“You really only have one chance to make a first impression, and right now, you’re taking a second bite of the apple because you have to — you don’t get a third,” industry analyst Brendan Bussmann of B Global Advisors told Sports Handle. “People are going to look to the black market if they want to bet on sports in Florida, as they already have been. The challenge will be when a legal betting option does exist, even if it’s a monopoly, is that enough with the product to draw people out of their previous habits?”
At the moment, the Seminoles, the state of Florida, and West Flagler and Associates (WFA) — the parimutuel that filed in federal and state court to keep the tribe from being able to offer statewide digital betting — are all waiting to see if the Florida Supreme Court will hear the case. Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state legislature have until Dec. 1 to respond to the complaint before the court determines whether or not it will hear the case.
On the federal level, the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 25 denied a stay that would have kept the Seminoles offline, so technically, the compact is valid and the tribe could legally launch. But WFA has publicly stated it plans to file with the U.S. Supreme Court by Nov. 20.
There don’t appear to be any other legal avenues that WFA could pursue, but industry sources have repeatedly said that they believe it is highly unlikely the tribe will launch until those legal challenges have been exhausted.
“The Seminoles evaluated the market, evaluated the current legal battles, and they went with what they knew was the safe bet and went with retail — and we’ll see on the digital,” Bussmann said.
Tribe is plenty rich, and patient
Beyond that, the Seminoles, like every other gaming tribe in the U.S., have a different end game than commercial operators — keeping tribal members employed and controlling what gaming under their purview looks like.
The Seminoles own and operate six casinos across Florida, every one of which employs tribal members. Under the 2021 compact, the tribe will pay the state $2.5 billion over five years in revenue share. That number represents up to 25% on a sliding scale of net win, meaning the tribe stands to take in an additional $7.5 billion in revenue over that time. “Net win” is defined in the compact as “total receipts from the play of all Covered Games less all prize payouts and free play or promotional credits issues by the Tribe.”
The tribe suspended payments to the state in May 2022, and said it would continue doing so until the validity of the compact is decided.
“Most of Indian County is already successful at running a casino,” the industry insider told Sports Handle. “So they don’t see betting as anything more than an amenity, and there is no hurry. They don’t need the money.”
The compact calls for up to 13.75% of net win to go to the state.
In-person launch the safest bet
The December in-person betting launch is a bit of a teaser. Those in Florida — South Florida, mostly — will finally have a chance to place sports bets on the hometown NFL team, golf tournaments, or anything else offered. It is also a sure thing. There is no question that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act governs gambling on tribal lands. And adding new games, whether those are craps or sports wagering, doesn’t seem to qualify as an expansion of gaming that must go to the voters.
The timing of the launch isn’t random.
“I think obviously, you’re opening up when you still have NFL going on, so it lets you test the platform before the playoffs, and then you’re into bowl season, so it gives you a lot of opportunity to test it before you’re into December-March, and into Super Bowl and March Madness,” Bussmann said. “Nobody wants to be on the sideline from the Super Bowl to March Madness.”
What is in question is whether or not that governance extends off tribal lands. The compact “deems” any bet placed anywhere in the state of Florida to be a bet placed in Indian Country if it flows through a server on tribal land.
Neither the federal nor state lawsuit directly address this technicality. Both instead question whether or not U.S. or Florida government employees or departments have the right to sign off on a compact that allows this model, which is not in use anywhere else in the U.S. This is because tribes cannot be sued in federal or state court because they are sovereign nations, so while it would seem that the party that should be sued in this case is the Seminoles themselves, they not only have not been sued, they’ve been denied standing, at least at the federal level.
Suing the U.S. Dept. of the Interior and DeSantis appear to be the only avenues available, even though they don’t get to the heart of the matter.
Another key point, which is at issue in state Supreme Court, is whether or not DeSantis and the legislature had the right to sign off on an expansion of gaming (off-reservation digital gaming) without voter approval, as required by Amendment 3.
Should the state Supreme Court side with WFA — which many following the case believe won’t happen — the state could decide to finally take the question of gambling expansion to the voters. Commercial operators tried to do just that ahead of the 2022 election, but failed to gather enough signatures to get an initiative on the ballot. Should the state decide to go this route, no signatures are required. The legislature is empowered to vote to put a referendum on the ballot.
So when will digital sports betting be available in Florida? Despite the pontificating, projections, and politics, the real answer is that no one knows. That decision, as of right now, is solely the Seminoles’ to make, and tribal leadership is smart enough not to share and not to hurry.
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