Group asks Florida Supreme Court to halt state’s sports betting deal

The petition argues the state’s agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida violated the state Constitution.
The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, on Thursday, April 22, 2021, at 5223 Orient Road, in Tampa.
The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, on Thursday, April 22, 2021, at 5223 Orient Road, in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sept. 26

TALLAHASSEE — The prospect of legalized sports betting in Florida took another hit on Monday as the owners of one of the state’s oldest pari-mutuel facilities filed a petition with the Florida Supreme Court, asking the court to invalidate the gaming agreement between Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, claiming it illegally expands gambling in the state.

The petition was filed by West Flagler Associates Ltd., Bonita-Fort Myers Corp. and Isadore Havenick, the former owner of Magic City Casino and current owner of Bonita Springs Poker Room near Fort Myers and holder of jai alai permits in Miami. The petition argues that the governor and the Legislature violated the state Constitution when they approved the deal in 2021 to give the tribe the exclusive right to offer off-reservation online and in-person sports betting throughout the state.

The 30-year agreement, known as a compact, allows anyone over the age of 21 anywhere in Florida to use a sports betting app on their phone to place a bet with the tribe, or through Florida pari-mutuels that contract with the tribe for that purpose. The lawsuit argues that because of a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2018, expansion of gambling in Florida cannot occur without voter approval and the sports betting provisions of the compact are unconstitutional unless voters approve it first in a statewide referendum.

To get around the Florida constitutional amendment, the agreement signed by DeSantis required the tribe to operate a so-called “hub-and-spoke” model for sports betting, which moves all online sports bets from players located in Florida but outside of tribal lands through the tribe’s servers.

West Flagler and affiliates call the attempt to bypass the constitutional requirement a “transparent artifice” and they want the court to reject the DeSantis agreement and send the message that “a voter-approved constitutional amendment initiated by a citizens’ petition is the exclusive means by which off-reservation sports betting can be authorized in Florida,” the petition says.

It is the second attempt at invalidating the compact by the pari-mutuel companies. In June, a federal appeals court reversed a November 2021 lower court decision that had ruled that the deal between the governor and the tribe violated federal Indian gaming law. The court ordered the Department of Interior to reinstate the agreement that gave the tribe and its Hard Rock casinos a monopoly on sports betting in Florida.

The federal court left open the possibility, however, that the agreement could be challenged in state courts, which West Flagler is pursuing with its new petition.

Sports betting in Florida remains on hold

Meanwhile, the tribe’s Hard Rock sports betting app remains in limbo.

The tribe had quietly launched the app after the 2021 compact was approved by the federal government but, after West Flagler filed its challenge and the lower court ruled the agreement was illegal, the tribe quietly paused the app.

After the appellate court decision in June, the tribe began making plans to launch it again but has not announced a start date.

West Flagler is now also challenging the federal appellate court ruling, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case and pause the launch of any sports book operation in Florida. It argues that if the decision stands, it will serve as a “blueprint for expanding gaming outside of Indian lands.”

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On Monday, the Department of Interior filed a response to the West Flagler claims, saying the delay is unwarranted and there is nothing for the U.S. Supreme Court to review.

The tribe would not comment on the lawsuits but, sports betting experts said, that with so many legal skirmishes still pending, the Hard Rock operators may want to avoid shuttering the sports betting app for a second time.

Big money at stake for state revenues

The state’s agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida allows the sovereign nation to control sports betting in Florida, add roulette and craps to the tribe’s casino operations, and in return pay the state at least $2.5 billion over the first five years of the deal.

In addition to allowing for the potential operation of sports betting outside of tribal land, the compact also allows both Trump National Doral resort and the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach to obtain casino permits without violating the tribe’s monopoly status.

Since it filed the lawsuit in 2021, West Flagler sold its gambling permit at Magic City Casino to the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, an Alabama-based Native American tribe. West Flagler continues to operate a poker room at Bonita Springs near Fort Myers.