Court ruling puts the brakes on Seminole sports betting in Florida

A District of Columbia judge has ruled that the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s compact with the state for sports wagering violates the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) and invalidated the agreement.

With the ruling, sports betting in Florida, which would have launched on 1 November 2021, has essentially hit a brick wall.

Last month, the tribe announced partnerships with five pari-mutuel operators for sports betting in Florida.

The compact

The compact between the Seminole Tribe and the state of Florida was agreed upon in April and signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis in May. The compact essentially granted the Seminoles, which own the Hard Rock brand, exclusive rights over online and in-person sports betting in Florida.

The compact was estimated to generate returns of at least $2.5bn for the state over a five-year period and at least $6bn by 2030. The compact would also allow the tribe to offer roulette and craps games at their land-based facilities.

The Department of the Interior, led by Secretary Deb Haaland, allowed the compact to become law earlier this year.

However, the compact was challenged by multiple parties in the state including casino operators West Flagler Associates and Bonita-Fort Myers Corporation in the District of Columbia District Court.

Seminole compact violates IGRA

The lawsuit essentially questioned where online wagering powered by servers located on tribal property could be considered as being on tribal land. According to the legal challenge, this amounted to a violation of Florida’s state constitution, which states that any expansion beyond tribal lands must be approved through a referendum. 

In the case of West Flagler Associates vs. Haaland, Judge Dabney Friedrich ruled on Monday that the compact violated the IGRA and that pending an appeal and a potential stay of the order, sports betting will need to cease in the Sunshine State.

Friedrich said that the “Court will hold that the Compact violates IGRA and grant the West Flagler plaintiffs.

She explained that under the IGRA, all gambling must take place on tribal lands when authorized by state compacts. However, online sports betting takes place statewide under the Seminole compact. 

Friedrich ruled that the compact attempted to “authorize sports betting both on and off Indian lands.”

“In its own words, the Compact authorizes such betting by patrons who are ‘physically located in the State [of Florida] but not on [the Tribe’s] Indian Lands’,” Friedrich noted.

The argument that bets placed via servers located on tribal property could be considered as betting on Indian lands was thrown out. In her judgment, Friedrich said the court “cannot accept that fiction.”

When an agreement authorized an activity only at certain locations, it could not be evaded by “deeming” an activity to occur at that location.

The judge added: “By simultaneously authorizing sports betting on Indian lands and deeming gaming across Florida to occur on those same lands, [the compact] purports to authorize sports betting throughout the State.”

Therefore, it could be considered to have legalized sports betting on and off Florida’s tribal lands, something that violates the IRGA. As a result, Friedrich concluded it should be rejected.

As such, the judge ruled that the compact should be vacated immediately, and the tribe’s previous agreement from 2010 should be reinstated.

Friedrich wrote: “In that respect, this decision restores the legal status of class III gaming in Florida to where it was on August 4, 2021.”