When Las Vegas-style slots and blackjack arrived at the Seminole Tribe's Florida casinos in 2008, the tribe's successful gambling empire was poised to become an even bigger powerhouse.
That expectation was right on the money.
Fueled by the tribe's entrance into big-time gaming, total Indian casino revenues in Florida are estimated to have jumped by 19 percent in 2008 — making the Sunshine State the fifth-fastest growth area for tribal gaming nationwide.
The Seminoles boast seven casinos in the state. In addition, the Miccosukee Tribe operates a casino in west Miami-Dade.
Hard numbers showing how much was made by Florida's two Indian tribes are hard to come by because tribal casinos are not legally obligated to make such numbers public.
But the widely respected Indian Gaming Industry Report will release its annual state-by-state estimates Thursday, which says Florida is the fifth-busiest tribal gaming state overall, with more than $1.9 billion in estimated revenues.
The report credits the Seminoles' expanded gambling options as the main force behind Florida's double-digit growth. The Miccosukees have yet to ask the state for Vegas-style slots or other new games.
"Florida's one of the states that experienced some healthy growth, some nice strong growth in 2008," said the report's author, Alan Meister.
In 2007, before the addition of new games, Florida's Indian gaming revenues grew at a much-more-modest 2 percent.
Meister arrives at his estimates by combining state and federal studies, newspaper accounts and other information. He also gets confidential data from Indian tribes across the country.
Nationally, the report estimated Indian casino revenue grew only 1.5 percent. Commercial casinos — a category that includes the hotel resorts that line the Vegas Strip — saw their revenue fall by 7 percent.
Indian casinos continue to become a larger share of the national gaming landscape — accounting for 43 percent of U.S. casino revenue.
And in Florida, the Seminoles are unquestionably the titans of the gambling arena. The Seminoles first introduced Vegas slots in January last year. Banked card games, such as blackjack, were phased in a few months later.
Meister noted the Seminoles' plans to expand or upgrade some of their existing casino locations, which could further boost the tribe's bottom line.
The tribe's desire to expand blackjack to additional casinos — it is only offered in Hollywood, Tampa and Immokalee — has been one of the many sticking points in negotiations between the Seminoles and the state.
The Seminoles and Gov. Charlie Crist agreed to a compact in 2007 that allowed blackjack and other games in exchange for revenue-sharing with the state. That compact was later invalidated by the courts because it lacked the Legislature's approval. Since then, the tribe has continued to spread blackjack games — while sending in the required state payments — as the issue remains under a legal cloud.
In the latest proposed compact, the tribe has agreed to share at least $150 million a year of its annual earnings with the state — and more as its revenues expand — in exchange for the exclusive operation of blackjack and other table games and the ability to run the only slots outside of Miami-Dade and Broward.
Crist has signed off on the deal and now needs legislative approval. But state lawmakers have criticized the $150 million figure as not enough.
Separately, some 300 part-time employees at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa will lose subsidized medical benefits Dec. 31. The tribe pays half of insurance premiums for part-timers only at its casinos in Tampa and Immokalee. Part-timers will be offered a health plan with less coverage at their own expense. More than 3,000 people work at the Tampa property.
Times Staff Writer Steve Huettel contributed to this report.