Florida Won't Legalize Sports Gambling Soon, Even After Supreme Court Ruling

Photo by Nick Sortal
After a huge U.S. Supreme Court decision today, gambling on sports might be legal in some states in time for this fall’s NFL season. But Florida won't be one of them.

That's because approval by the state Legislature, a constitutional amendment, and sports betting's impact on an existing agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida stand in the way of legally laying down a wager on the latest Miami Dolphins game.

The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 today to strike down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, a 1992 law barring states from legalizing gambling on sports. The ruling left Nevada as the only state where Americans could wager on the results of a single game.

Gaming-law experts had been predicting this outcome since the case was first heard in December, and some states had even begun putting procedures in place to quickly regulate bets on sports. The West Virginia Legislature, for example, conditionally approved sports gambling and has a regulatory system already in place. Mississippi also passed a bill, with regulations to come.

Fort Lauderdale lawyer Daniel Wallach, who predicted the 6-3 vote by the justices, says he wouldn't be surprised if Mississippi moved fast enough to allow betting on this NFL season. More than a dozen other states have sports wagering in the pipeline.

Then there’s Florida. Let’s knock out the more obvious roadblocks first: The state Legislature is not even in session until next year, and a simple vote for approval might face a fight in Tallahassee, where gambling votes are never simple.

This November 6, voters will also decide on Amendment 3, which basically puts all decisions to expand gambling up to a constitutional amendment. Sports betting sure looks like “gambling expansion” under that definition, so if Amendment 3 passes — and polls show it probably will — the public will have a say in approving sports betting in the Sunshine State.

But the greater challenge in Florida, and many other states, will be reconciling existing agreements, which are called compacts, with Native American tribes. In Florida, the Seminole Tribe pays more than $250 million per year to have exclusive rights to slots outside of South Florida (the Tampa area is the Tribe's biggest moneymaker) and to conduct table games at all of its casinos. South Florida racetrack casinos can offer only slots and poker. The compact can be voided, though, if there is gambling expansion.

Native American tribes, many of whom have compacts guaranteeing them some sort of exclusivity, have seen this ruling coming. At the National Indian Gaming Association Tradeshow & Convention this past April in Las Vegas, speakers devoted quite a bit of time to playing the what-if game.

“The challenge will be what your current compact allows and how the negotiations go,” said Conrad Granito, general manager of the tribal Muckleshoot Casino in Washington state. In addition to the latest Supreme Court ruling, legalized internet and mobile gambling probably aren’t far away, which would again challenge the concept of exclusivity.

Some experts expect that a dedicated sports book would be created in fewer than 100 of the approximately 480 tribal gambling operations in 28 states. That’s because so many tribal casinos are just too small. Of the more than $30 billion in revenue produced by Indian gaming, only a couple dozen casinos are responsible for about three-fourths of the haul.

Jonodev Chaudhuri, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, was coy about whether local tribes would be interested in sports betting during a talk at a meeting of the National Council of Legislators From Gaming States this past January in Miami. He noted that for many tribes, adding another gambling enterprise — one that doesn’t make that much money, really — could be a difficult sell. Chaudhuri notes that most of the tribal facilities basically provide essential revenue for the well-being of tribes.

“They’re basically jobs programs located in rural communities,” he said, adding that sports betting is a low-margin business. The house keeps only 5 percent of the amount bet and must pay staffing and other essentials.

Inside the casino world, the American Gaming Association has made legalizing sports gambling its pet issue for about two years. So today is the company's payday.

But for the general public, there are many details left to be handled. A solid guess is you’ll be able to place a legal sports bet in South Florida around the same time the Miami Marlins vie for a pennant.
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Nick Sortal is South Florida’s expert journalist when it comes to the gambling scene.
Contact: Nick Sortal