Tampa Bay residents are almost evenly split on the question of expanding casino gambling in the region, but a large majority favor allowing fantasy sports websites to continue operating, a new Tampa Bay Times/10News WTSP poll shows.
The results suggest that those who were polled do not view daily fantasy sports websites such as FanDuel and DraftKings as traditional gambling in the manner of casino slot machines and poker tables.
The poll, which surveyed 605 registered voters in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties and had a margin of error of 4 percentage points, showed 45 percent of those polled favored the expansion of gambling with 44 percent opposed with the rest undecided.
Only 18 percent of those polled favored banning daily fantasy sports websites, which critics argue allow players to post big bets on the performance of real athletes. A majority, 64 percent, favor letting the sites continue either as is or with increased regulation.
Joann Markey, 61, of St. Petersburg said she did not want to see casino gambling expand but had no opinion about the fantasy sports websites, though she said she was leaning toward letting them operate.
"If gambling is going to generate revenue for the state, then it's fine," she said. "What's wrong with that? I don't believe in invading a person's personal space."
David Grantges, 81, also of St. Petersburg opposed the expansion of gambling and would like to see daily fantasy sports banned.
"When I hear about gambling, I think of the mob," he said. "It shouldn't be allowed. If people want to go to Vegas, well that's fine. It hurts poor people more than anybody. Look at the dog track. You don't see a lot of Cadillacs in the parking lot."
The poll showed marked differences of opinion on expanding casino gambling depending on age and sex.
For example, 52 percent of voters from ages 18 to 54 supported the expansion of gambling, the poll shows, compared to 36 percent opposed while 55 percent of those 55 or older opposed expansion. A majority of men — 51 percent — also supported the expansion with 51 percent of women opposing it.
Gambling in Florida has been much in the news in recent months.
Gov. Rick Scott recently signed a compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida that would give it the exclusive right to operate blackjack, craps and roulette at its seven casinos, including one in Tampa, in exchange for revenue-sharing payments to the state for the next 20 years.
The deal, which must be approved by state lawmakers when they convene in Tallahassee starting Jan. 12, would guarantee Florida at least $3 billion over the first seven years, starting in 2017.
Lawmakers also will consider legislation imposing large licensing fees and regulation for websites like FanDuel and DraftKings, which would give the sites permission to operate at a time some other states, such as New York, are shutting them down as illegal internet gambling.
Fantasy sports companies would have to pay $500,000 each to operate in Florida and $100,000 annually. But the proposal would declare the sports sites as games of skill, not gambling. A 1991 opinion by former state Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat, declared that fantasy sports leagues, where contestants pay an entry fee for cash winnings, violated Florida's gambling laws.
The opinion, however, has never been used to bar the fantasy sports sites.
John Sowinski, an Orlando-based public relations consultant and president of the Orlando-based NoCasinos.org, said he was encouraged by the poll results.
"A tie score is hardly a mandate" for expanded gambling, he said. "If anything, that is a mandate to maintain the status quo. . . . The Seminole compact would be one of the biggest expansions of gambling in Florida history. It lacks the kind of mandate one would expect for some significant movement for expansion."
Florida lobbyist Brian Ballard, who works for the Fantasy Sports Trade Association and whose other clients include pro-gambling interests, said he did not find the poll numbers surprising and noted voter support for gambling has been increasing.
He said that if a poll question had asked voters if they supported the expansion of casino gambling after being told how much revenue it generated for the state — the poll did not ask the question in that manner — then they would have overwhelmingly supported doing so.
"It can't hurt a politician to be supportive of gaming in a smart and reasoned way," he said. "Gambling is viewed as a tax on those people" who play "and want to tax themselves."
As for the fantasy sports websites, Ballard said, "It's heartening to see overwhelming support for it. It just shows that people want to be able to play fantasy sports."
Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the Seminole Tribe, said in an emailed statement, "The Tribe's own polling shows statewide opposition to a significant expansion of gambling in Florida, as well as strong support for the Seminole Compact."
Tallahassee lawyer Marc Dunbar, who specializes in gaming law, said the fact that FanDuel and DraftKings were mentioned by poll questioners may have led to a faulty result.
Voters were asked whether they favored banning the sites or letting them operate after they were told "some states have banned fantasy sports websites like FanDuel and DraftKings."
Dunbar said the two companies advertise heavily, and when consumers see those commercials, it tends to reinforce an assumption that they must be operating legally otherwise the ads would not be allowed on the airwaves.
"They assume it's legal because it's being advertised," Dunbar said. "If it wasn't legal, then they think someone would have shut them down. So I don't know that the result really tells you anything. It's a fallacy of everyone's logic."
Had pollsters told voters that some consider the websites as gambling activity, he said, "Then I guarantee you would have gotten a different answer."
To be sure, there does appear to be some public confusion over the daily fantasy sports websites.
On DFS websites, players pay entry fees from $1 to $10,600 to select a "team" of athletes in a variety of sports, usually baseball or football. Participants are ranked based on the real-life performance of their players.
The DFS websites, critics argue, are a far cry from the informal fantasy leagues often played among friends or work colleagues, which often offer just a small prize or more often just bragging rights.
State Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton, who has proposed legislation that would authorize the fantasy sites, appears to lump all the fantasy sites together when arguing that they should be legal.
"One in every seven Floridians plays some sort of fantasy sports," Gaetz said in an interview. "The status of the law today makes these people criminals. My sense is, if 7 million people are doing something, and they aren't hurting anyone, then I'm not sure it should be a crime. I think a substantial number of Floridians don't appreciate the government making decisions on their recreational" behavior. "They don't want to live in a nanny state."
Markey, the St. Petersburg resident who leans toward allowing the fantasy websites to continue, said she viewed the activity as harmless fun among sports fans, much in the same way as workplace pools on the outcome of the Super Bowl or the NCAA tournament.
"People are already doing it," she said, "and they have been for years."
Contact William R. Levesque at email@example.com. Follow @Times_Levesque.