Hard Rock Rocked Hard by Courts: What’s Next for Sports Betting in Florida?

MICHAEL PURETZ—Sports betting in Florida is complicated. In April 2021, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a gambling compact with the Seminole Indian Tribe that opened the door for legalized sports betting in the state, giving the Seminoles sole sportsbook operator privileges. At that time, without this compact, sports betting was considered illegal in Florida.

Without a formal announcement, Hard Rock released the Hard Rock Sportsbook to the public on November 1, 2021, which did not last long as the Seminole Tribe suspended all sports betting through its app after a federal appellate court upheld a lower court ruling that found the gaming compact violated the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. 

The tribe argued that there were benefits to allowing Sportsbook to continue even though it could be deemed illegal under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. These benefits included the creation of hundreds of jobs and two $37.5 million revenue-sharing payments made to the state. The tribe further argued that failure to let Sportsbook continue would cause “irreparable harm” to the Seminole Tribe, including the loss of $25 million that was spent developing the app.

Another route to get sports betting legalized in Florida was through the Florida Casino Gaming Expansion Initiative. This initiative would have appeared on Florida’s 2022 midterm election ballot. Passing the initiative would allow the state to generate roughly $350 million in tax revenue, with $247 million expected to be directed to the Florida Department of Education’s Educational Enhancement Trust Fund. It would also circumvent the state’s compact with the Seminoles and expand Florida’s sports betting to more than just the Seminoles.

There was a lot of money spent on both sides of this initiative. Groups in favor included Florida Voters In Charge, a Las Vegas Sands-backed group, and Florida Education Champions, a FanDuel and DraftKings-backed group. FanDuel and DraftKings combined spent more than $37 million supporting the initiative. Against the initiative was Standing Up For Florida, backed by the Seminoles who did not want to see multiple sports betting operators enter the state. The Seminoles spent over $10 million to try to shut down the initiative.

To get on the ballot, the initiative required approximately 892,000 signatures, and leading up to the signature deadline of February 1, 2022, sportsbook operators, such as DraftKings, offered incentives to Floridians to place the initiative on the ballot. High-profile individuals in support of the initiative took to social media to raise awareness, like Barstool CEO Dave Portnoy, who posted a two-minute video on Twitter with details for registered voters to “save sports gambling in Florida.”

However, the petition failed to meet the signature requirements by the deadline receiving approximately 720,000 of the 892,000 signatures needed statewide and only meeting the threshold in five of Florida’s twenty-seven districts. Florida Education Champions’ spokesperson Christina Johnson stated, “[w]hile pursuing our mission to add sports betting to the ballot, we ran into some serious challenges, but most of all, the COVID-19 surge decimated our operations and ability to collect in-person signatures.”

Following this failed attempt, there are now only two routes to legalized sports betting in Florida. First, if the Seminoles, with the help of the Department of the Interior, successfully convince the court to overturn the decision that brought the Hard Rock Sportsbook app to a crumbling halt. Second, if proponents of the Florida Casino Gaming Expansion Initiative can get a similar initiative on the ballot again in 2024. At this time, it is unclear whether the same groups will pursue this measure to open Florida to multiple sportsbook operations.

This fight comes down to maintaining control versus opening the state to free competition in the sports betting arena. The Seminoles want to have exclusive control and rights, while other operators, such as DraftKings and FanDuel, want the opportunity to compete with one another to generate massive revenue for the state. It is unclear who will prevail, but this discourse laid the groundwork for the future of sports betting for Floridians and operators alike.