FILE- In this Jan. 19, 2021, file pot, The Guitar Hotel at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood is illuminated at night in Hollywood, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
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Sports betting can continue in Florida — for the time being.

The Florida Supreme Court decided last week not to step in as a legal challenge continues with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Florida is far from the first state to have legal sports betting. But it will be the biggest state so far.

The Seminole Tribe relaunched its sports betting app to a limited group of people this month. It plans to offer in-person sports betting at its six Florida casinos in early December.

A late October decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to allow a lower court ruling to stand led the way for the Seminole Tribe to restart its sports betting business in Florida.

Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that the decision only related to the contract between Florida and the tribe allowing gambling on tribal lands. He warned if the contract allowed gambling elsewhere in the state, it “would likely violate” federal law.

“The Seminole Tribe thanks the State of Florida, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Justice for defending our Compact. By working together, the Tribe, the State and the federal government achieved a historic legal victory,” said Marcellus Osceola Jr., Chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida in a statement after the court’s decision.

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That same statement also announced the tribe would begin offering in-person craps, roulette and sports betting. One week later the tribe re-released its Hard Rock Bet app allowing mobile sports betting.

The path to sports betting

The journey to online sports betting in Florida has taken years.

The tribe had a sports betting app in 2021 after signing a deal with the state giving it the exclusive right to do so. The tribe unplugged the app after legal challenges.

But the story of legal sports betting doesn’t start there.

It began in 2018 when the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a law, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, that banned states from allowing gambling on sports. One state had been exempted from that law — Nevada.

After 2018, other states could join in, with Delaware, New Jersey and a handful of states allowed it before the end of that year. More than two dozen have since followed.

And now Florida.

Or, more accurately, the Seminole Tribe.

The tribe has the state monopoly on sports betting. It’s something the state agreed to a few years ago in exchange for billions of dollars and the possibility of future payments.

Over the last few years, however, there’s been a legal back and forth in the courts. The final whistle has yet to be heard and the stakes are much higher than just sports betting.

Two companies that operate poker rooms and jai-alai betting have challenged the gambling contract between the state and the tribe.

West Flagler Associates and Bonita-Fort Myers Corp. asked the Florida Supreme Court to “immediately suspend the sports betting provisions” of the 2021 contract between the state and the Seminole Tribe. The two firms have filed a legal challenge to that contract with the U.S. Supreme Court.

The deal between the state and the tribe has been scrutinized for two years over whether sports betting is covered by a state constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2018.

“It prohibited the authorization of casino gambling other than through a citizen initiative,” said Daniel Wallach, founder, Wallach Legal, a law firm in Hallandale Beach focused on the gambling industry. “It really provided the people with the sole right to authorize casino gambling. It took that power away from the state legislature. So now the legislature can’t include legislation to expand casino gambling or to even have casinos.”

Seventy-one percent of voters okayed adding the language to the Florida constitution, language that defines casino gambling as games included in the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and games typically found in a casino when the amendment was approved.

But in 2018, Florida did not have sports betting at casinos. Florida didn’t have any casinos; the casinos are on tribal land.

Location, location, location

Geography matters here because the state contract allows the Seminole Tribe to operate what it calls a “hub and spoke” structure of sports gambling.

It defines sports betting as taking place on tribal land. It says bets made by someone anywhere in Florida using a mobile or electronic device “shall be deemed to take place exclusively where received at the location of the servers used to conduct such wagering.”

In other words, if the computers processing the bet are on tribal lands, then the gambling is taking place on tribal lands.

That constitutional amendment which requires any gambling expansion in Florida to be decided by voters still allows lawmakers to negotiate gambling contracts with Native American tribes for “casino gambling on tribal lands.”

“I think this is where the rubber meets the road,” said Wallach. “I think the key question is whether sports wagering, even if it is a casino game, falls within the exception to [the] amendment for casino gambling on tribal lands.”

“Legislators can make laws, but they can’t make up truth,” said Jon Sowinksi, founder of No Casinos, the organization that led the way for the constitutional amendment. “They don’t have a magic wand that teleport us on to tribal lands,” he said.

Now the question of where sports gambling happens — if you bet on the Dolphins while in Miami, the Jaguars while in Jacksonville or the Bucs while in Tampa — could mean significant changes to gambling in Florida.

“I don’t know of any body of law that exists that attempts this [type of] legal fiction,” said Sowinksi.

Wallach said the more significant consequence is how the final outcome may impact all online casino games.

“That’s the big battle looming down the road,” he said. “The economic upside would be in the billions.”

Nationwide, Americans have legally wagered $220 billion in sports betting over the past five years, generating $3 billion in state and local taxes, according to estimates by the American Gaming Association.

Seminoles lead the way

Gambling has been huge for the Seminole Tribe in Florida. It runs a half dozen casinos, including Hard Rock casinos in Broward County and Tampa, and Seminole casinos in central and southwest Florida. It is thought to be one of the wealthiest Native American tribes.

“And the difference was casino,” said Jessica Cattelino, author of High Stakes: Florida Seminole Gaming and Sovereignty.

“It has allowed the Seminole Tribe as a government to do what it wants to do as a government [and] to ensure some financial security for its citizens,” she said. “It has also really placed the Seminoles on the leading edge of litigation, but also a broader understanding of tribal sovereignty and the political authority of American Indian tribal nations.”

The tribe spent $700,000 last year on lobbying, according to Open It made about $350,000 in political contributions to both Republicans and Democrats in the 2022 election cycle.

“Historically, it’s been hard for tribes to assert their political power because they haven’t had resources” Cattelino said. “It’s common understanding in politics that having resources strengthens our nation’s sovereignty. And it’s no different for the Seminole tribe.”

The tribe was the driving force that brought Indian gambling to Florida when it opened its first bingo room in Broward County in 1979 after winning a lawsuit. With its efforts to redefine sports betting in the Internet age, the tribe remains on the forefront of gambling and its legal issues.

“I’m often asked whether becoming wealthier and having new businesses undermines Seminole culture. And I guess my question in return would be why would wealth undermine culture more than decades of grinding poverty?” said Cattelino.

Tom Hudson

Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent. His work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.

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Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent. His work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.