2022 Florida Gambling Market Highlighted By Legal Battles

Written By Steve Schult on January 6, 2023
2022 Florida gambling year in review

The main backdrop of the 2022 Florida gambling market was the courtroom. The stage was set following a federal judge’s decision to invalidate a new gaming compact at the end of 2021.

As a result, any meaningful update regarding the Sunshine State’s betting news came from the appeals process. There were plenty of other newsworthy events, but the immediate future of the market is riding on this decision.

In May 2021, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe agreed to a new, 30-year gaming compact. It was passed by the legislature and eventually by the Department of the Interior. The highlight of the agreement was the launch of legal Florida sports betting.

However, the model used in the deal gave the tribe exclusivity over online betting and a ton of control over the brick-and-mortar industry. Consequently, West Flagler Associates, the ownership group of two pari-mutuel facilities filed suit over the model.

When Judge Dabney Friedrich ruled in favor of West Flagler, the DOI and the Seminole Tribe appealed.

D.C. Court of Appeals took center stage in 2022

With Friedrich’s decision coming so late in 2021, meaningful movement in the appeal didn’t happen until later in 2022.

Before the D.C. Court of Appeals could begin hearing arguments about Friedrich’s ruling at the district court level, they needed to decide on the other lawsuit surrounding the compact.

Monterra claims the compact violated Amendment 3

Monterra AF LLC, a group comprised of South Florida businessmen and an anti-gambling group called No Casinos, also filed suit against the compact. But their reasons for filing were much different than West Flagler’s.

In addition to sports betting, the compact allowed Seminole-owned casinos to offer previously-prohibited games. Under the new compact, the tribe could spread games like craps and roulette at their casinos.

But Monterra argued the compact was illegal after Florida passed Amendment 3 just a few years earlier. Florida voters overwhelmingly passed the 2018 ballot initiative that said any gambling expansion must be approved by voters.

Therefore, expanding casino games without a vote would be illegal. In the first filing to the appellate court, Monterra argued their case needed to be heard.

On the other hand, the federal government argued the two cases should be consolidated. The DOI only wanted to deal with one lawsuit instead of two.

In June, the D.C. Court of Appeals dismissed Monterra’s lawsuit altogether. The judges ruled that since Friedrich had already invalidated the compact, there was no need to hear arguments from Monterra.

Seminole Tribe wants limited intervention, Feds have convoluted argument

Once Monterra’s case was out of the way, the court released a schedule for filings. There were staggered deadlines for briefs between mid-August and mid-November for the Seminole Tribe, the DOI and West Flagler.

The Seminoles, however, weren’t listed as a defendant in the original West Flagler lawsuit. But they wanted to be.

They filed a motion for limited intervention at the district court level. Friedrich denied their request. They were appealing her decision and trying to get that same motion at the appellate level.

If approved, the tribe would move to dismiss the case citing their sovereign immunity. Most legal experts believe this motion would succeed and would result in an immediate relaunch of Florida sports betting.

The defendant in the case is DOI Secretary Deb Haaland. West Flagler targeted her because she approved the compact through inaction in August 2021.

The federal government had to simultaneously defend Haaland’s action and argue that Friedrich ruled incorrectly. In Friedrich’s decision, she stated that since Floridians could place bets with the Hard Rock online sportsbook from anywhere in the state, the compact violated the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

The DOI argued that the compact was consistent with IGRA because betting off tribal land was more of an ancillary subject in line with state law. They also argued Haaland wasn’t explicitly required to reject the compact.

West Flagler pokes holes in feds’ argument

Obviously, West Flagler wanted Friedrich’s ruling to stand. Their filings consisted of a two-fold attack against the government.

First, they doubled down on Friedrich’s original ruling. Online sports bets are being placed with a tribal entity off tribal land. Thus, the compact violates IGRA.

Second, they argued that that state law did not allow online gaming off Indian land. In their filings, they cited the Florida Constitution to do so.

Additionally, they offered alternative arguments, stating that in addition to violating IGRA, the compact also fails to comply with the Wire Act and the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act.

Court hears oral arguments, no exact timeline on decision

Following the filings, the court scheduled oral arguments for Dec. 14.

In addition to allowing the three main parties to speak, the court granted two amicus parties time. Monterra and the State of Florida were granted a couple of minutes in front of the judges.

With the conclusion of oral arguments, the only thing to do is wait for a decision. The court doesn’t announce a concrete timeline for a conclusion, but most experts expect a decision in mid-late 2023.

Ballot initiatives fail to get in front of voters

During the first few months of 2022, most focus was on the two gambling-related ballot initiatives.

Through a political action committee dubbed Florida Education Champions, FanDuel and DraftKings were supporting a ballot initiative that would allow non-Florida entities to offer online sports betting in the state.

According to Ballotpedia, the pair of online betting giants donated more than $37.2 million to the PAC. West Flagler added another $4 million to the committee later in 2022.

The committee was tasked with getting signatures from registered Florida voters, supporting the initiative. The initiative would allow larger online betting companies to enter the market, and the tax revenue would be used to fund Florida’s education system.

Along with the sports betting initiative, Las Vegas Sands threw massive amounts of cash behind another one that would bring more casinos to the Sunshine State.

Las Vegas Sands donated $73.5 million to a PAC called Florida Voters in Charge. Like Florida Education Champions, this committee was funded to get signatures on paper and the initiative in front of voters.

This initiative would allow for commercial casinos in the state for the first in the state’s history. The only caveat was that it couldn’t be located within a 130-mile radius of a Seminole property.

Based on the funding efforts and the state’s geography, it was rumored that Las Vegas Sands wanted to build a casino in Jacksonville.

Florida Supreme Court gives initiatives hope in ’24

The Seminole Tribe fought against both initiatives with a massive media campaign. Neither campaign submitted the roughly 900,000 signatures needed.

However, in April, the Florida Supreme Court said it would review both proposals. This means sponsors won’t need to seek approval of the wording during their second try.

As a result, sponsors get a head start for 2024 which makes it more likely for these to pass during the next election cycle.

Battle Court makes Jai-alai a bright spot of 2022

Sure, the compact is tied up in a legal battle and sports betting initiatives failed. But it’s not all doom and gloom for Florida bettors.

The one bright spot? Jai-alai.

Magic City Casino in Miami, one of the two pari-mutuels owned by West Flagler, revived the game last year.

Shortly after the state’s final jai-alai court, known as a fronton, closed, Magic City announced it was launching a professional league called Battle Court.

The league partnered with Rush Street Gaming and betting on matches was permitted in seven states through the BetRivers app.  Florida, however, was not one of those states.

Aside from horse racing, jai-alai is the only sport Floridians can legally wager on. But Battle Court slightly altered the game to make it more exciting in a league format, unlike pari-mutuel wagering.

Therefore, Battle Court wasn’t compliant with state standards for wagering and Florida natives couldn’t wager on the matches. But the launch of the league rejuvenated betting at the pari-mutuel level.

Jai-alai was still running on days when Battle Court running. And according to Magic City COO Scott Savin, jai-alai betting was up 30% from the pre-Battle Court era.

Seminole Hard Rock sets Florida poker record

The Seminole Tribe’s flagship Florida property, the Hard Rock Hotel Casino in Hollywood hosts four major tournament series annually. During the first event of its Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open in August, the property set a record for the largest event in Florida poker history.

A $400 no-limit hold ’em re-entry event drew 7,703 entries. It generated a prize pool of more than $2.5 million and a first-place prize of $308,979.

The final five players agreed to a deal that slightly altered the payouts. Andrew Pecina received credit for the win and $225,906 for his efforts.

What to look for in 2023?

Everybody’s focus will be on the decision of the D.C. Court of Appeals. But that won’t happen anytime soon.

Before that happens, we will likely see the ballot initiative efforts ramp up again. The state deadline for signatures is early in 2024 which means the efforts will start later this year.

The Seminole Tribe will probably use its funds to fight against these efforts. Coupled with a failure in 2022, there’s plenty of motivation to start early to ensure it gets in front of voters.

On a bright note, Caesars will finish its renovation and rebrand of the Isle Casino in Pompano Park. Last February, the company announced that Isle Casino would become Harrah’s Pompano Beach. Caesars officially changed the name in December and expect renovations to be completed later this year.

It’s the lone Caesars property in Florida. Eldorado Resorts owned the Isle Casino. But when Caesars and Eldorado merged in 2020, the property fell under the new Caesars brand.

Photo by Shutterstock.com
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Written by
Steve Schult

As Managing Editor of PlayFL, Steve will stay on top of all things related to the Florida gaming industry. He is also a veteran of the gambling world. The native New Yorker started covering high-stakes tournaments in 2009 for some of poker's most prominent media outlets before adding the broader U.S. gaming market to his beat in 2018.

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