ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — During this NFL season, Florida sports fans may finally get the chance to legally bet on their favorite team. That could mean a big windfall of new revenues for the state, but legal hurdles could stand in the way.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl at home, the Tampa Bay Lightning claimed back-to-back Stanley Cups, and the Tampa Bay Rays earned a trip to the World Series.
Professional sports teams have earned our region the nickname “Champa Bay.”
“People are already sports betting”
Sports fans like Rob Coronado have profited by betting on the home teams.
“I do it, you know, without it being legal I guess,” Coronado told us while watching baseball games on a recent afternoon at Ferg’s Sports Bar in St. Petersburg.
He’s far from the only one secretly betting on sports.
When we asked Rob Stamey about it, he admitted every one of his friends bet on sports.
“Why should people have to go behind the scenes or on all these apps to access that?” Stamey asked. “So legalizing the betting on sports will make things easier on all us sports fans.”
Florida State Senator Jeff Brandes sponsored legislation last year calling for legalized sports betting so the state could finally share in some of the profits.
“People are already sports betting. They’ve been sports betting for years in the state of Florida. And again, we’re just creating a legal pathway for them to do that versus what’s going on today, where generally everybody just looks the other way,” Brandes said.
But Sen. Brandes’ law, which would have put sports gambling under control of the Florida Lottery, didn’t pass.
Compact could pay state $6 billion by 2030
Instead, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced in April he had reached a tentative 30-year compact with the Seminole Indian tribe, which operates Hard Rock Casinos.
That deal included offering in-person and online sports betting.
Under the agreement, the Seminole Tribe will pay the state of Florida up to $6 billion by 2030 from the proceeds of sports betting. That’s the equivalent of $277 per Florida resident.
The agreement was approved by the state legislature and went unopposed by the U.S. Department of Interior, which regulates Indian gaming.
But not everyone supported that deal, including Sen. Brandes.
“Essentially we have a monopoly for the Seminole Tribe to provide sports gambling for the state of Florida. I voted against that monopoly. I don’t think it’s the right way to do it. I think we should open it and allow the market to decide where people want to place their bets and not have to go through one channel, which is the tribe of Florida,” Brandes said.
Lawsuit filed, referendum sought
The compact is now being challenged in federal court by two commercial gaming operations in South Florida, who say the compact will harm their businesses and violates the law.
The lawsuit says mobile sports betting shouldn’t have been allowed under the agreement.
“Contrary to the legal fiction created by the 2021 Compact and Implementing Law, a bet is placed both where the bettor and the casino are each located,” the complaint says.
“It could be interpreted that you can only place sports bets on tribal property,” Brandes said.
The state has filed a motion to dismiss, but a judge has not yet ruled on it.
Other companies, including DraftKings and FanDuel, are trying to get in on the Florida sports betting action by sponsoring a ballot initiative that would open up sports betting to other companies.
If it gets on the ballot next year, any expansion would have to be approved by a 60 percent vote.
ABC Action News scheduled an interview with Hard Rock CEO Jim Allen who helped write the Seminole Compact, but his spokesperson later canceled, saying he was too busy to talk.
The Seminole Tribe has recently been running ads on Florida television stations, including ABC Action News, touting the benefits of the agreement.
“People are already gambling. Why not make some money off of it?” said Mark Ferguson, owner of Ferg’s Sports Bar.
Ferguson says he doesn’t care who’s behind it, he thinks legal sports betting will be good for Florida and good for his business.
“People want to watch six or seven games at once and when you have 90 TVs, we’re the perfect spot for it,” he said.
If the lawsuit is dismissed, sports betting could be allowed as early as next month.
If it ends up in court, the issue might not be resolved until next year.
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