Florida legislators have until May 21 to ratify the sports betting compact and draft supporting bills

Promise To Negotiate Online Gambling Removed From Florida Sports Betting Compact

The potential for online casinos in Florida’s future has evaporated as quickly as it appeared.

The Sunshine State is in the process of negotiating a new compact with the Seminole Tribe. The main purpose of the changes is to allow the tribe and its iconic Hard Rock Hotel & Casino to conduct sports betting.

Less than a month ago, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the new compact, but it still needs to be ratified by the legislature. At the time of the governor’s signature, Online Poker Report highlighted a clause that seemed to suggest that further gambling expansion could be on the way. The language in question began:

The State and the Tribe agree to engage in good faith negotiations within thirty-six (36) months after the Effective Date of this Compact to consider an amendment to authorize the Tribe to offer all types of Covered Games online or via mobile devices to players physically located in the state (…)

However, that section has now been removed at the behest of the legislature. It was House Speaker Chris Sprowls who announced the change, but it seems the Senate was also involved.

Sprowls’ comment reads in part:

Some language in the compact could be construed to lead to the backdoor expansion of online gaming. Even the mere possibility of this was unacceptable (…) I appreciate the Tribe and Governor DeSantis understanding the gravity of our concerns and amending the compact to remove any and all references to statewide online casino gaming.

The first of many objections

This redaction comes on the very first day of the Florida Legislature’s special session to ratify the compact. The session began today, May 17 and will continue through May 21. In addition to ratifying the compact, lawmakers will use the time to draft bills to establish the parameters of sports betting in the state.

Though the removal of the iGaming negotiation language is the first big change, it may not be the last. The deal struck between the governor and the Seminoles is one that pleases very few except the tribe itself.

On the one hand, you have the state’s gambling opponents. These, however, would be against the compact no matter what it contained. Social conservatives hold enough sway in Florida politics that nothing gambling-related is ever an easy lift in the state. One such group, called No Casinos is threatening a lawsuit, arguing that sports betting constitutes “casino gambling,” and therefore requires a referendum according to the Florida constitution.

On the other side, major industry forces like DraftKings are lobbying against the compact as well. The terms of the deal grant the Seminoles a near-monopoly. To have access to the state, online brands would need to go through both the Seminoles and a parimutuel facility as middlemen. Among other things, this would mean:

  • Splitting revenue three ways
  • Using Seminole Gaming’s software rather than their own platform, and
  • Sharing their customer database with what would be a competing company in an open market

Naturally, no one wants to do this, but neither do they want to sit out a state as large as Florida. These online companies would therefore prefer to see the effort go back to the drawing board than pass in its current form.

Are online casinos ever coming to Florida?

Given how stacked the odds are against the compact to start with, it’s probably for the best that Gov. DeSantis and the Seminoles were quick to agree to remove the iGaming language. Stopping to fight over that would have all but guaranteed its failure.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Florida will never allow online casinos. It does, however, push the most probable timeline into the far distance.

On its own, the lack of a promise to negotiate is not the same as a commitment not to negotiate. Theoretically, the Governor and tribe could get together again next year and try to hammer out an iGaming compact regardless.

The phrasing employed by Sprowls makes it clear that such an effort wouldn’t go over well, however: “Even the mere possibility of this was unacceptable.”

As we’re currently seeing with the Illinois online casino effort, sports betting can be a good first step towards full online gambling. It gives lawmakers the chance to enjoy the new revenue stream, and to see that legalizing a new gambling product hasn’t caused the sky to fall.

In Florida, however, anti-gambling sentiment seems too strong at the moment for that to work. A shift in the political landscape would need to happen first. If the current legislature feels that even three years from now is too soon to talk about it, Floridans may have to wait a very long time before they get their chance to play a legal hand of blackjack over the internet.

- Alex is a journalist from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. Now site runner for Online Poker Report, he has been writing about poker and the online gambling industry in various capacities since 2014.
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