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No longer waiting on judges, Seminole Hard Rock opens its sportsbook

After a red carpet ceremony that included the introduction of craps and roulette to Florida, the Seminole Tribe now has in-person sports betting to go with its statewide app.
 
Seminole Tribe Council chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr. tries out the craps table during a ceremony to introduce craps, roulette and sports betting in Florida at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on Friday.
Seminole Tribe Council chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr. tries out the craps table during a ceremony to introduce craps, roulette and sports betting in Florida at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on Friday. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Dec. 9, 2023

TAMPA — Sometimes, even the house is forced to roll the dice.

And so, just days after the two-year anniversary of a court ruling that shut down sports betting and delayed the launch of craps and roulette in Florida, the Seminole Hard Rock Casino & Resort threw itself a party Friday morning that was worthy of the highest of rollers and expectations.

There was a red carpet. There was a magician. There were celebrities, speeches and gawkers watching from the other side of the velvet ropes. There was the first spin of a roulette wheel, and the first toss of the dice. And, yes, there was a big board of odds and attendants ready to take your bets on NFL, NHL, NBA and college football games.

Interestingly, there was no evidence that the tribe was remotely concerned about potential legal challenges still pending in state and federal courts questioning whether a statewide betting app can be construed as wagering on tribal land, as well as other legal questions.

“We could still lose, there’s no doubt about that,” said Jim Allen, CEO of Seminole gaming. “One thing I can tell you, we certainly talk to all of the major players in this space, and it is unanimous. I do not have one of the other big companies that don’t believe in our legal position. Not one. Now, that doesn’t mean a judge won’t rule against us, right?”

Guests, including pro wrestling legend Ric Flair, left, gather around the roulette table.
Guests, including pro wrestling legend Ric Flair, left, gather around the roulette table. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

They operate in the world of odds and edges, and the Seminoles seem confident of their position after the U.S. Supreme Court declined in October to block a federal appeals court ruling that gave the tribe a pathway to relaunch their sports book that had been operational for only 33 days in 2021.

They began with a soft launch of the sports betting app last month for customers who had originally signed up two years ago. And then, with very little warning a few days ago, they made the app available to anyone in the state 21 and over. Just like that, Florida became the largest state in the nation to offer sports betting. Allen said it’s still too early to get a firm grasp on the numbers in Florida, but New York has averaged more than $2 billion in wagering in each of the past two months.

“I can see this place ramping up even more to help the community and the surrounding areas,” said wrestler/actor and Tampa Bay native Hulk Hogan. “I think it’s just a blessing for all of us. Some of the naysayers are pushing back against this, but I think for the economy, the job opportunities, for everything we’ve got going, this is progress. This is moving forward. Momentum is hard to stop whether it’s good or bad, but this is good momentum. I just think the sky is the limit.”

Tampa native Hulk Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, speaks to reporters Friday.
Tampa native Hulk Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, speaks to reporters Friday. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
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That doesn’t mean the tribe is rushing into this in reckless fashion. The whole point of the soft opening of the sports betting app was to give the servers a chance to work out any kinks. Unlike other states that have multiple operators offering a variety of apps — such as FanDuel and DraftKings — Florida has given the Seminoles a virtual monopoly.

That’s led to some criticism that the state left money on the table considering Florida’s potential as a gambling mecca between its population and tourism numbers, but Gov. Ron DeSantis said a constitutional amendment that requires a referendum for any expansion of gambling left him no other choice than to deal with the Seminoles.

While other states take a percentage of wagers in taxes, Florida gets lump sum payments from the Tribe in exchange for exclusivity. The state’s agreement with the Seminoles calls for a minimum of $500 million annually, although Allen said Friday the figure is closer to $650 million.

“When this dispute started over two years ago, we were only paying the state $380-something million but we have doubled the business during that period,” Allen said. “The state is obviously aware so let’s bond the partnership and let’s move forward.”

Marcellus Osceola Jr., chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, left, places a sports bet Friday.
Marcellus Osceola Jr., chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, left, places a sports bet Friday. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

While the tribe had roulette and craps tables front and center on the casino floor on Friday morning, the launch of in-person sports betting was more subdued.

Unlike Las Vegas casinos that devote major real estate with theater-like seating and walls of televisions tuned to ballgames, the Hard Rock sportsbook is tucked in a small corner with 10 self-serve kiosks and a half-dozen cashiers ready to take wagers. With the app handling a huge portion of the betting numbers, Allen said the casino will approach in-person sports betting more conservatively before expanding the footprint.

“We probably won’t spend a lot of additional capital until we resolve all the current legal challenges,” Allen said.

For the retired sports celebrities invited to Friday’s launch, the recent revelation of NFL and MLB and other leagues joining forces with casino operators has been somewhat jarring considering how anti-gambling the sports world had been for so many years.

Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks speaks to reporters Friday.
Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks speaks to reporters Friday. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

“I think it brings a different avenue for people who enjoy the game and hopefully it attracts more people to the game,” said Bucs Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks. “You have the average sports fan that’s always watching and now has a vested interest with odds and betting. You can see the NFL is really trying to capture that with all of these partnerships. The players have to know they can’t be a part of this, but all of the other aspects that sports betting can bring is exciting.”

With red carpet introductions running longer than expected, the mid-morning launch fell slightly behind schedule as potential bettors waited behind the velvet ropes strung together on guitar-shaped poles. Tribal Council chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr. wryly noted the tortuous journey to get here as the speeches got underway.

“I know you’re excited to get started,” he said. “But you’ve waited two and a half years, so what’s another 20 minutes?”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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