Florida Tribe’s Legal Victory Boosts Prospects for Sports Betting, but Implementation Remains on Hold

In a recent ruling, a Washington, D.C.-based appellate court has upheld a 30-year deal that grants the Seminole Tribe of Florida exclusive control over sports betting in the state. However, despite this decision, it seems that Floridian gamblers will have to wait a while longer before they can place sports bets from their phones. The outcome of ongoing legal challenges in both state and federal courts means that the future of sports betting in Florida remains uncertain.

Following the appellate court’s ruling, the question arises as to whether the Seminoles will relaunch their sports-betting app before all the litigation is resolved. Gary Bitner, a spokesperson for the tribe, commented that the ruling was a positive development but would not have an immediate impact on their plans. The Seminole Tribe of Florida is cautiously optimistic, but it appears that they are not ready to make any hasty decisions just yet.

Thursday’s ruling has set the stage for a potential review by the U.S. Supreme Court, as two pari-mutuel companies challenge the 2021 agreement, also known as a compact. This agreement was signed by Governor Ron DeSantis and Seminole Tribe of Florida Chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr. and was subsequently ratified by the Florida Legislature. In addition to the federal lawsuit, the companies have also petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to strike down the sports-betting component of the deal.

At the heart of the legal battle is the “hub-and-spoke” plan, which would allow gamblers to place mobile sports wagers anywhere in the state. Under this plan, all bets would be handled by computer servers located on tribal property, and any bets made using a mobile app or other electronic device would be deemed to be exclusively conducted by the tribe. The pari-mutuel companies argue that this arrangement violates the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) as it permits gambling off tribal lands.

Initially, U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich ruled against the compact, describing the sports-betting plan as a “fiction” and invalidating other aspects of the agreement. However, a panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia subsequently reversed this decision. The full appeals court has now refused to reconsider the challenge, prompting the pari-mutuel companies to request that the panel decision be put on hold while they appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the midst of this legal turmoil, the Seminoles briefly launched the Hard Rock SportsBook mobile app in 2021. However, they halted the acceptance of wagers and deposits following Judge Friedrich’s ruling. West Flagler Associates and Bonita-Fort Myers Corp., the two pari-mutuel companies involved in the legal challenge, hold jai alai licenses and operate poker rooms in Florida.

Separately, the companies, along with owner Isadore Havenick, have filed a lawsuit directly with the Florida Supreme Court, arguing that the sports-betting component of the deal violates a constitutional amendment from 2018. This amendment prohibits expansions of casino-style gambling without approval from voters statewide. The outcome of this lawsuit and the potential involvement of the state Supreme Court remain uncertain.

In exchange for exclusive control over sports betting, the Seminoles have agreed to pay the state a minimum of $2.5 billion over the first five years of the compact. Furthermore, the tribe may potentially pay billions more throughout the 30-year agreement. However, while the future of sports betting in Florida remains unclear, state gambling regulators have recently taken action against fantasy sports companies. Three operators have been accused of offering potentially illegal mobile betting games, with threats of legal action if they continue to operate in the state.

Lou Trombetta, the Executive Director of the Florida Gaming Control Commission, sent letters warning Underdog Sports, SidePrize LLC (also known as Performance Predictions LLC), and Betr Holdings, Inc. that their activities may be illegal. The alleged conduct, which includes accepting illegal bets and conducting an illegal lottery, is strictly prohibited in Florida and is considered criminal activity. It is worth noting that these three companies are not the only ones that could be affected by the crackdown.

John Lockwood, an attorney representing multiple operators, has stated that the language in the warning letters applies broadly to all paid fantasy sports contests. He further added that the commission staff confirmed that there are currently no paid fantasy sports companies operating legally in Florida. Lockwood disagrees with this assessment and intends to work with the commission and potentially the Legislature to ensure that Florida sports fans can continue to participate in these activities.

As legal battles continue to unfold and the future of sports betting in Florida remains uncertain, gamblers and operators alike are eagerly awaiting further developments. The outcome of these cases will have significant implications for the gambling landscape in the state and could shape the future of sports betting regulations across the country.

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