TALLAHASSEE — Florida voters won’t have a chance to decide whether to legalize sports betting after supporters of a proposed constitutional amendment backed by major online gambling companies FanDuel and DraftKings acknowledged Friday they lack the required signatures to make it on the 2022 ballot.
Florida Education Champions, a political committee sponsoring the sports-betting measure, had until Feb. 1 to submit nearly 900,000 valid signatures to place the proposal on the November ballot. The measure called for authorizing sports betting at professional sports venues, pari-mutuel facilities and on online platforms statewide.
As of Friday, the committee had submitted 472,927 valid signatures, according to the state Division of Elections website.
Supporters blamed an outbreak late last year of the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus for missing the mark.
“While pursuing our mission to add sports betting to the ballot we ran into some serious challenges, but most of all the COVID surge decimated our operations and ability to collect in-person signatures,” committee spokeswoman Christina Johnson said in a prepared statement Friday. “We want to thank our local supervisors of elections and staff members for their diligent work in verifying petitions.”
It’s unclear whether backers of the proposal will launch another effort for the 2024 ballot. Under state law, petition signatures are only valid for one election cycle, meaning the group would have to start from scratch.
“We will be considering all options in the months ahead to ensure that Floridians have the opportunity to bring safe and legal sports betting to the state, along with hundreds of millions of dollars annually to support public education,” Johnson’s statement said.
The proposal would have steered tax revenues from sports betting toward what is known as the Educational Enhancement Trust Fund to supplement public school dollars.
DraftKings pumped $22.7 million into the initiative, which was launched last summer, and FanDuel contributed nearly $14.5 million.
The effort to place the sports-betting measure on the ballot came after Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe reached a multibillion-dollar agreement that sought to put the tribe in control of sports betting throughout the state. DeSantis and Seminole Tribe of Florida Chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr. signed the deal, known as a compact, in April and the Legislature authorized it during a May special session.
Owners of the pari-mutuels Magic City Casino in Miami-Dade County and Bonita Springs Poker Room in Southwest Florida filed a lawsuit challenging the compact, alleging that it violates a federal law known as the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, or IGRA. U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich in November found that the sports-betting provision violated IGRA and invalidated the entire compact, a decision that has been appealed.
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The Florida Education Champions sports-betting initiative was one of two gambling-related measures proposed for the November ballot. The other measure, bankrolled largely by Las Vegas Sands Corp., would allow existing pari-mutuel operators in North Florida to offer casino-style games.
Supporters of that proposal are clashing with the Seminole Tribe, which operates the only Las Vegas-style casinos in the state. As of Friday, the committee sponsoring the casino proposal had submitted 730,076 signatures, about 160,000 shy of the required 891,589 signatures needed for placement on the 2022 ballot.
With a population of more than 21 million residents and tens of millions of visitors each year, Florida is viewed as one of the most fertile untapped online sports-betting grounds in the nation.
The compact that lawmakers approved in May included a “hub-and-spoke” plan that was designed to allow gamblers throughout the state to place bets online, with the bets run through computer servers on Seminole Tribe property. The compact said bets made anywhere in Florida “using a mobile app or other electronic device, shall be deemed to be exclusively conducted by the tribe.”
But while the compact plans for sports betting to occur at the location of the tribe’s servers, Friedrich’s ruling said “this court cannot accept that fiction.”
Amid the legal wrangling, the Seminoles rolled out a mobile sports-betting app, but the action was short-lived. After Friedrich’s ruling, the Seminoles quickly asked the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to block the ruling from taking effect.
But after a three-judge panel of the appellate court rejected the tribe’s request, the Seminoles stopped accepting wagers and deposits on the Hard Rock SportsBook mobile app.
The U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees tribal gambling, last week took the first step in appealing Friedrich’s ruling. Appeals by the department and the tribe have been consolidated.
BY DARA KAM