Try, Try Again: Florida Senator Proposes Sports Betting Legislation That Died In 2020

Written By George Myers on January 4, 2021 - Last Updated on May 25, 2022

As home to professional and college sports aplenty, not to mention major events such as the Super Bowl, Florida without a doubt could develop a bustling and profitable legal sports betting industry.

Still, legalization has yet to happen in the Sunshine State.

The reasons vary. And the hurdles stand tall.

But if a recent effort from one state senator indicates, efforts to legalize sports betting continue — as do the hopes that it all finally comes together in 2021.

Florida senator again puts legislative foot forward

Sen. Jeff Brandes recently filed three bills that would lay the groundwork for the legalization of sports betting in the state, including Florida online sports betting.

Brandes has been here before. Similar legislation filed by the senator in the latest legislative session died in the Innovation, Industry, and Technology Committee.

Still, Brandes aims for better luck in the 2021 session, which begins in March. The senator told local media his proposal would create “a much more legitimate way to play.”

If passed, the betting framework — captured in SB 392, SB 394, and SB 396 — would bring a fresh revenue source to a sports-crazed state juggling the financial impacts of COVID-19.

The proposal sets the sports betting revenue tax at 15% and licensing fees at $100,000.

But lying in wait are myriad complications and political landmines.

How should Florida sports betting work?

One of the biggest questions facing sports betting proponents in Florida involves its administration.

Brandes’ bills would tab the Florida Lottery to oversee state-regulated wagering. This means revenue would help support education, including public schools and college scholarships.

Others believe sports betting in Florida should fall under the purview of the state’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. The office already oversees cardrooms, racing and slots.

Darren Heitner, a sports law professor and founder of Heitner Legal, falls into the latter crowd.

Heitner supported Brandes’ legalization efforts in an email exchange with PlayFL. But he is “not necessarily on board with his thinking that sports betting should be administered by the Department of Lottery.”

Brandes, meanwhile, has argued that using the lottery means “we’re not giving anybody any more leverage against us in terms of withholding funds if somebody technically breaks the compact.” This refers to gaming disputes with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Florida in better position to legalize sports betting

Despite the difference in opinion, Heitner said in 2021, Florida will be better positioned than in previous years to legalize sports betting.

“I am personally aware that Senator Brandes is not the only legislator in Tallahassee interested in prioritizing a sports betting bill this upcoming session, and I do not know whether Senator Brandes has the best shot of success,” Heitner said.

“I do think that sports betting will have its best chance of passage this coming session, as compared to prior efforts.”

Will voters decide future of Florida sports betting?

Two of sports betting’s biggest antagonists in Florida: the Seminole Tribe and Disney.

The two entities each contributed more than $20 million for lobbying efforts behind much-discussed Amendment 3.

That constitutional amendment allows Florida voters to decide at the polls whether to allow casino gambling expansion in the state. Voter approval, however, is not needed for gambling on tribal property. Such a loophole could help the Seminoles control sports betting.

But questions have arisen since the amendment’s passage.

For example: Has an extra step actually been added for sports betting legalization, requiring voters to approve it anywhere except on tribal land? Many believe that to be the case.

Others believe that since the amendment mentions only casino gambling, with no language about sports betting, it doesn’t impact legalization efforts at all.

Instead, the legislature alone can approve sports betting anywhere in Florida. That’s what Brandes and others are hoping to do.

Role of Seminole Tribe remains prominent

Politicians are undoubtedly aware of the Seminoles’ bargaining power and the tribe’s likely involvement in the legalization of Florida sports betting.

In fact, a previous agreement would have green-lit wagering in Seminole casinos. Gov. Ron Desantis rebuffed that effort.

The office of Senate President Wilton Simpson referenced the Seminoles when speaking with Legal Sports Report in December. A statement noted that the Senate “is not at a point where we are prepared to introduce legislation related to these issues.”

“Discussions continue regarding what is available to us on the private side and also with the Tribe,” the statement continued. Simpson worked closely with the Tribe on the previously failed deal.

But not everyone thinks it needs to be that way.

“I do not believe that the Seminole Tribe needs to play a role with regard to sports betting legalization in Florida, but they may think differently and could spend money in lobbying to convince people otherwise,” Heitner noted.

A change of heart for Disney?

For years, Disney has opposed legalized sports betting. The reasons likely include its family-friendly brand and its allergy to entertainment competition.

But its now-prominent role in sports media, combined with the reality of fan desires in 2020, has moved the goalposts.

Heitner said Disney “seems to have distanced itself from being anti-sports betting” and is “about much more than parks and movies.”

“ESPN is a big source of revenue for the publicly traded company, which is now devoted to adding sports wagering content to ESPN and ESPN+, and sees sports betting as an area of possible growth,” he noted.

The company’s ownership of ESPN — and therefore shows like Daily Wager — is good news for sports betting proponents in Florida.

And it does more than eliminate one of sports betting’s biggest opponents in the state.

Disney’s evolution crystallizes the normalization of sports betting and its financial windfalls. In turn, it makes voting in favor of legalization much easier to swallow for legislators and their constituents.

Photo by AP / Steve Cannon
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