Seminole Tribe launches ‘limited’ online sports betting in Florida

gambling on sports
Sport betting and gambling by wildpixel via iStock for WMNF News.

By Dara Kam ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — After scoring a major legal victory and as another court battle looms, the Seminole Tribe on Tuesday quietly relaunched a sports-betting app allowing a limited group of gamblers to place wagers anywhere in Florida.

The tribe’s revamped Hard Rock Bet app, for now, is available to a group of players who have ties to the Seminoles’ gambling operations.

It’s the second time in two years the Seminoles have rolled out an app allowing people in Florida to place mobile sports wagers throughout the state.

Under Tuesday’s launch, people who used a 2021 app in Florida or who have points from the tribe’s “Unity by Hard Rock” loyalty program for casino gamblers can get “early access” to the app. Others can sign up to get on a waiting list, according to the Hard Rock Bet website.

As they did in 2021, the Seminoles released the app Tuesday with no fanfare or announcement.

The quiet launch appears to be a way for the Seminoles to check out the stability of the app before a major release.

“The Seminole Tribe is offering limited access to existing Florida customers to test its Hard Rock Bet platform,” Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the tribe, said in an email.

The move came a week after tribal leaders announced a plan to add sports betting to their casino operations in December. The decisions came after the tribe got a go-ahead from the U.S. Supreme Court in a long-running legal battle about sports betting.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Seminole Tribe of Florida Chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr. in 2021 signed a 30-year gambling deal that included giving the tribe control over sports betting throughout Florida. The 2021 deal, known as a compact, 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 Seminoles 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, which was ratified by lawmakers.

With a population of more than 23 million and millions of tourists flooding into the state each year, Florida could be one of the most lucrative locales for sports betting in the nation.

But the sports-betting plan was put on hold amid legal wrangling that included a federal lawsuit filed by two pari-mutuel companies challenging the deal. The U.S. Supreme Court last month refused to block the deal.

The focus of the litigation was on a “hub-and-spoke” plan in the compact that would allow 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.”​​

Pari-mutuel companies West Flagler Associates and Bonita-Fort Myers Corp. argued that the sports-betting provision violated the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act because it authorized gambling off of tribal lands.

A federal judge in November 2021 sided with the companies and blocked the deal. But a Washington, D.C.-based appellate court scrapped the ruling, leading to a Supreme Court appeal. The Supreme Court on Oct. 25 allowed the deal to move forward.

The legal skirmishes aren’t over, however.

The pari-mutuel companies and an owner, Isadore Havenick, in September filed a separate lawsuit at the Florida Supreme Court alleging that the sports betting arrangement violates a constitutional amendment requiring statewide voter approval of gambling expansions.

The Florida Supreme Court has not said whether it will take up the case.

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