Seminole Tribe suspends sports betting app after losing bid for court stay

It may be months before betting is allowed to resume.
The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa is seen in April. The Seminole Tribe’s Hard Rock Sportsbook has stopped its Florida operation as a result of an appellate court ruling.
The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa is seen in April. The Seminole Tribe’s Hard Rock Sportsbook has stopped its Florida operation as a result of an appellate court ruling. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Dec. 4, 2021|Updated Dec. 4, 2021

The Seminole Tribe’s Hard Rock Sportsbook on Saturday announced an immediate suspension of its Florida operation as a result of an appellate court ruling that rejected a request to continue online sports betting as it tries to overturn a lower court decision.

“Due to yesterday’s appellate court decision, the Hard Rock Sportsbook mobile app will temporarily suspend accepting new bets and deposits,’’ the Hard Rock Sportsbook stated on Twitter. “Player information and account funds are safe and secure, and the app will remain online for easy withdrawals via all payment methods.”

Gary Bitner, the tribe’s spokesperson, said in a statement to the Times/Herald on Saturday that “account balances for all current players will be refunded as requested.”

The Hard Rock Sportsbook said that the suspension includes the acceptance of all new bets, new accounts and new deposits, but “all active bets starting before 11 a.m. ET on Dec. 4, 2021 will run and settle based on event outcome per normal.”

Any bets after that time, however, “will be voided and initial bet amounts returned to your app wallet. This includes all future bets.”

“Your funds are safe & secure,’’ the company added. “The app will remain active for easy withdrawals.”

The company added that free bets will not be allowed to be withdrawn, but the Hard Rock Sportsbook “will maintain a lot of free bets in your account, which will be available again if HardRock Sportsbook resumes accepting new bets.”

It may be months, however, before the tribe is allowed to resume its sports book as the legal challenge winds through the court.

Two lawsuits challenging the legality of the compact were brought by West Flagler Associates, the owners of Magic City Casino and Bonita Springs Poker Room, and a group of plaintiffs that includes No Casinos and Miami businessmen Armando Codina and Norman Braman.

After the lawsuits were filed, however, the tribe quietly opened what it called its “early access launch” of its sports book app on Nov. 1 which allowed anyone in Florida over age 21 to place bets and collect online wagers on sporting events via the internet using the Hard Rock Sportsbook app from anywhere in Florida.

Related: Sports betting kicks off in Florida with quiet launch by Seminole Tribe

On Nov. 22, Judge Dabney L. Friedrich of the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia invalidated the 30-year, multibillion-dollar gambling agreement with the state, known as a compact, ruling that it violated federal Indian gaming law.

Under the compact, the tribe agreed to pay the state at least $2.5 billion over the first five years in exchange for being granted a monopoly over sports betting in the state and for being allowed to add roulette and craps to its casino operations.

To get around a state law that prohibits expansion of gambling without voter approval unless it is authorized as tribal gaming, the governor and tribe agreed to give the tribe control of online sports betting throughout the state of Florida by having all wagers go through the tribe’s computer servers. But the court said that provision violated federal Indian gaming law.

Friedrich first rejected a stay, or temporary halt, to her own ruling last week, and on Friday the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled 2-1 that the tribe’s emergency motion for a stay be denied because it “has not satisfied the stringent requirements for a stay pending appeal.”

The tribe had argued that failure to put the ruling on hold will cause “irreparable harm” to the Seminole Tribe’s sovereignty and economic interests. It told the court that stopping sports betting would jeopardize hundreds of jobs for employees and vendors already hired to work on the gaming operations.

Related: Seminole Tribe to appeal Florida sports betting ruling, asks for stay

The tribe has made two $37.5 million revenue-sharing payments to the state under the compact, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and approved by the Florida Legislature in May. It told the court it has also hired hundreds of employees, and spent over $25 million to develop the online sports book.

As it pursued its request for a temporary stay on Friedrich’s ruling, Hard Rock Sportsbook continued to operate the online app.

Meanwhile, West Flagler Associates, the owners of Magic City Casino and the Bonita Springs Poker Room which brought the lawsuit, accused the tribe of being “disingenuous with the court over its alleged irreparable harm.”

“While telling the court that, absent an emergency stay, it ‘stands to lose’ tens of millions in revenue, it is telling its customers (over a week after the district court’s ruling) that its unlawful online sports gaming ‘remains fully open to all players’ and ‘there is no need to worry,’ " lawyers for the plaintiffs wrote.

The appellate court must now schedule a hearing over the merits of the case. The tribe has said that it has the support of the U.S. Department of Justice, which will defend the Department of Interior’s position on the legality of the compact.

“The Seminole Tribe of Florida, the State of Florida and the United States have all taken the position that the 2021 compact is legal,’’ Bitner said.

He said the tribe will work with the U.S. Department of Justice “to aggressively defend the validity of the 2021 compact before the appeals court, which has yet to rule on the merits of the 2021 compact.”