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Romano: Save your money, sports betting won't be in Florida anytime soon

A Supreme Court ruling has paved the way for states to open sports books, such as this one at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, but it's not likely that Florida will go down that road anytime soon. A constitutional amendment in November could put the question of future gambling expansion in the hands of Florida voters. [Bridget Bennett/The New York Times]
A Supreme Court ruling has paved the way for states to open sports books, such as this one at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, but it's not likely that Florida will go down that road anytime soon. A constitutional amendment in November could put the question of future gambling expansion in the hands of Florida voters. [Bridget Bennett/The New York Times]
Published May 18, 2018

It is the middle of the day and the beginning of the off-season at Tampa Bay Downs. That means the action is limited to simulcast wagering, and that means the televisions outnumber the bettors.

The parimutuel industry is long past its heyday in America, and always on the lookout for new sources of economic survival. Once it was remote betting via simulcast, another time it was poker rooms.

Now, the U.S. Supreme Court has offered another potential avenue. Last week, the court ruled that individual states can decide whether to legalize betting on professional and amateur sports.

For gamblers who either had to visit Las Vegas or risk breaking the law with bookmakers or offshore Internet sites, this has the potential of changing the betting landscape. And maybe rescuing racetracks.

"I don't know about the possible downsides, but this industry would boom,'' said Vic Pellegrino, as he sat with his son Vic Jr. surrounded by empty tables at Tampa Bay Downs on Friday. "There are a lot of people who are betting illegally right now, and I would think they would all be happier coming to a place like this with all the TVs, where they don't have to worry about getting ripped off or getting arrested.

"People love the action. That's why Las Vegas is never slow.''

And it's not just racetracks and gamblers who have something at stake here. The state could see it as a tax boost, and the Seminole Tribe could view it as either a source of expansion or competition.

What's unknown is when, or even if, sports betting will be legalized in Florida.

• • •

For now, the best advice is to relax.

While states such as New Jersey and Mississippi appear to be sprinting toward opening sports books by the time the NFL kicks off a new season, there is no way it's happening in Florida anytime soon.

First of all, there's an amendment on the ballot in November that will potentially put any decisions about gambling expansion in the hands of voters. If that amendment passes, the odds for sports betting become more complicated.

Even if the amendment fails, the Legislature has been at an impasse over gambling expansion for several years, and it is highly doubtful lawmakers will immediately embrace something of this size.

Would that be a mistake?

Well, the parimutuel industry wouldn't be happy. A sports book could be a nice lifeline, although the actual impact would depend on how the industry was regulated. For instance, if the state also approved mobile apps for betting, that might cut down on the number of people who show up at a racetrack.

Would a delay cost the state tax revenues?

Yes, but that's money the state has never counted on before. Nobody knows for sure how much illegal sports betting takes place in America, but everyone agrees it's a substantial number.

If Florida decides to get in the sports betting business, it will be able to charge licensing fees to casinos and racetracks and take a cut of the profits. Right now, that money is all handled illegally by bookies.

How much money are we talking about?

Again, that's impossible to say. Nevada gets about 7 percent of gambling revenues in taxes. Pennsylvania is proposing 30 percent for sports betting. So Florida's cut would depend on its tax rate, and also the unknown number of people who are betting on sports already.

Then there is the issue of the Seminole Tribe's compact. The tribe pays the state an enormous amount of money for exclusive rights to a lot of gambling enterprises. If the state allows sports betting at racetracks or on the Internet, the tribe will likely have something to say about it.

While sports books are popular, they account for only a small fraction of money being wagered in Las Vegas. Some estimates put sports betting as low as 2 percent of the profits at casinos.

"It's all guesswork right now, but I imagine Florida will take a wait-and-see approach,'' said Darren Heitner, an attorney and sports agent in South Florida who recently wrote a book on sports and legal issues. "It's not a matter of two years, it's probably more like five years away in Florida.

"I think they'll look at other states and see if there is any increase in illegal activities because of gambling, and weigh that against the potential benefits and revenues.''

The reality is sports betting already exists in Florida. It just operates in the shadows without regulation or benefit to the state.

Adding sports books at casinos or racetracks might technically be an expansion of gambling, but it wouldn't be noticeable or, likely, detrimental in any grand sense. Gamblers are going to find a way to gamble.

Keeping a close eye on it is probably the safe bet.