Florida Supreme Court refuses to block sports betting amid legal fight

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court on Friday rejected a request by two pari-mutuel companies to halt online sports betting offered by the Seminole Tribe while a broader legal battle plays out.

Without explanation, the Supreme Court denied a motion by West Flagler Associates and Bonita-Fort Myers Corp. to “immediately suspend the sports betting provisions” of a law that carried out a 2021 gambling deal between the tribe and the state.

The deal, known as a compact, allowed the tribe to offer online sports betting to people throughout the state.

But the pari-mutuel companies filed a petition in September at the Supreme Court contending that the sports betting part of the compact and the accompanying law violate a 2018 constitutional amendment requiring voter approval of casino gambling.

With the case pending, the tribe on Nov. 7 relaunched a sports betting app. Attorneys for West Flagler Associates and Bonita-Fort Myers Corp. quickly asked the Supreme Court to suspend the sports betting part of the law.

“This exigency has been created by the launch of the Seminole Tribe’s mobile betting application on November 7, 2023, without prior warning,” the attorneys wrote in a 15-page motion.

While the Supreme Court on Friday denied the suspension request, its decision did not resolve the underlying legal issues in the case.

The 2021 deal, which was signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Seminole Tribe of Florida Chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr. and ratified by the Legislature, also allowed the Seminoles to add craps and roulette to their Florida casinos and add three casinos on tribal property in Broward County. In exchange, the tribe agreed to pay the state at least $2.5 billion over the first five years and possibly billions of dollars more over the course of the pact,

The tribe in 2021 briefly launched an app to allow sports wagering throughout the state, but the app was shut down amid a federal lawsuit filed by the pari-mutuel companies. The U.S. Supreme Court last month refused to block the deal in that lawsuit, which is separate from the Florida Supreme Court case.

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the tribe announced Nov. 1 that it would begin allowing sports betting at its casinos in December. It went further Nov. 7 by saying it would also take online sports bets from a limited group of gamblers.

At least in part, it made access available to people who used the 2021 app or who had points from the tribe’s “Unity by Hard Rock” loyalty program for casino gamblers.

The focus of the legal fight is part of the deal aimed at allowing gamblers to place mobile sports wagers anywhere in the state, with bets handled by computer servers on tribal property. The deal said bets “using a mobile app or other electronic device, shall be deemed to be exclusively conducted by the tribe.”

The opponents contend that allowing people off tribal properties to place sports bets would violate the 2018 constitutional amendment requiring voter approval of casino gambling.

West Flagler holds three jai alai licenses, while Bonita-Fort Myers Corp. does business as Bonita Springs Poker Room in Southwest Florida. They contend they could be hurt financially if the tribe is able to offer online sports betting statewide.

By Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida

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