In a ruling that could have sweeping consequences for sports operations across the country, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law that banned sports betting, opening the door to another form of gaming in Florida if the Legislature authorizes it.
The 6-3 ruling, in a case brought by the state of New Jersey, found that a 1992 law known as the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), which prohibits states from authorizing and licensing sports gambling, violates the anti-commandeering rule of the U.S. Constitution.
"Congress can regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each State is free to act on its own,'' wrote Justice Samuel Alito in the opinion for the court. The federal law "'regulates state governments' regulation' of their citizens. The Constitution gives Congress no such power."
Florida law currently does not authorize any form of sports betting and the ruling will now increase pressure on state lawmakers to update the gaming laws.
New Jersey and at least three other states — Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Mississippi — are poised to authorize and regulate sports betting at existing casinos, said Geoff Freeman, president of the American Gaming Association. But for sports betting to become legal in Florida, the Legislature, or voters by referendum, would have to authorize it.
The ruling "paves the way to an entirely different landscape — one in which we have not previously operated,'' the National Hockey League said in a statement. The statement said the NHL will "review our current practices and policies and decide whether adjustments are needed," but expected "no immediate impact on existing League rules relating to sports wagering."
It is unclear whether the ruling will automatically open the door to sports betting at tribal casinos, such as the Seminole Tribe's Hard Rock Casinos in Hollywood and Tampa but, Freeman said, the state could authorize it in its gaming compact. Other venues showed enthusiasm for it.
"If it was offered by the state of Florida, we would love to have it," said Alexis Winning, a spokeswoman for St. Petersburg's Derby Lane.
Since the emergence of the Internet, the gaming industry has been at war with the illegal sports betting industry, which has capitalized on the public's desire to bet on everything from football, hockey and soccer to the NCAA's March Madness. As the industry operated underground, its annual revenues exploded to $150 billion, surpassing the $5 billion gambling industry in Las Vegas, Freeman said.
The court ruling will allow legal operators to urge states to work with the gaming industry and sports leagues to regulate the games "to protect consumers, preserve the integrity of the games we love … and generate new revenue for states,'' Freeman said. "We took a great step toward accomplishing that goal."
In Florida, however, the clock is ticking. A proposal before voters on the November ballot, the Voter Control of Gambling amendment, would require a voter referendum before any additional gambling in Florida is allowed.
If voters approve the proposed Amendment 3, sports betting would be off the table until a statewide referendum is passed, said Marc Dunbar, an attorney at Jones Walker in Tallahassee, which represents several gaming interests.
"Florida is uniquely positioned to take advantage of sports betting,'' he said. "This ruling specifically benefits destination states like Florida and could result in a significant boon for the state's tourism economy."
Because the margins from sports betting wagers are narrower than other forms of gaming, it is the ancillary spending from gamblers who flock to hotels and gaming venues where the money is made, he said.
Sports betting allows gamblers to bet on everything from which team is going to win a ball game to which player is going to fumble. Congress passed the law in 1992 to preserve what legislators said was the integrity of the games, allowing only Nevada to continue sports betting.
But John Sowinski, director of No Casinos, said the ruling provides another reason to support the amendment on Florida's ballot.
"The question is, if we have it in the state, should it be authorized by legislators who are influenced by gambling interests or by the voters?" Sowinski said.
No Casinos organized the campaign for Amendment 3 with $16 million in funding, primarily from Disney and the Seminole Tribe. Although the measure doesn't specifically mention sports betting, it does include any gaming that's added "in the future".
Dunbar said the ruling provides another opportunity for the Florida Legislature to update its gaming laws before the November election. Florida legislators considered convening a special session this month to update the laws and the gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe, but they could not reach agreement on the terms of the session and rejected it.
The ruling could breathe new life into legislation pending before Congress that would regulate sports betting at the federal level, which the sports leagues prefer, rather than let each state adopt its own rules, which the gaming industry wants.
Les Bernal, national director of Stop Predatory Gambling, warned that the ruling could exacerbate what his association contends is a dangerous vice that harms people who become addicted to it and will lead to "normalizing" gambling for kids.
"The American people lost $117 billion on state-sanctioned gambling in 2016, causing life-changing financial losses for millions of citizens,'' he said in a statement. "It directly contributes to the lack of mobility out of poverty that traps so many. This serious national problem will be made far worse if the government is allowed to operate and advertise sports betting."
Times staff writer Thomas Bassinger contributed to this story.