Seminole Tribe Strengthens Grip on Florida Gambling Empire
It’s more of an ethos than a slogan. It’s also a mission statement.
“The Unconquered,” the Seminole Tribe of Florida calls itself.
There should be no confusion about the ambition of this small Native American tribe whose ancestors found refuge in a place so inhospitable that the American government left it alone after three vicious wars. It’s emerged as a global gambling and hospitality juggernaut that contorts politicians and power brokers in the world that has since evolved outside those Everglades.
“The only Tribe in America who never signed a peace treaty,” says their website.
Quite the opposite, the Seminoles seem to have dictated terms to the state of Florida again as they and the state discussed an expansion of gambling. The demeanor of several Florida Senators while discussing and eventually approving a new Compact with them, 38-1, on Tuesday indicated such. Even after one of the chief negotiators of the Compact, Rep. Randy Fine, admitted he didn’t believe the sports betting portion of the deal would survive legal scrutin y, the House ratified, 97-17.
Florida Special session culminates sports betting end game – maybe
A multinational corporation with Native sovereignty, owner of the iconic Hard Rock International hotel and resort brand, the Seminoles wield a virtual monopoly in a legal Florida gambling market that – through shrewdness and patience – could become even more lucrative. And more exclusive.
When the Florida Legislature began the Special Session on May 17, the Seminoles were positioned as the biggest potential beneficiary if the contentious campaign to bring legal sports betting to Florida passes political, legal and federal muster.
They’ll likely also do very well if some of the more hotly contested parts don’t.
But if waiting for terms that Gov. Ron DeSantis inserted into a new 30-year compact passes all hurdles, the Seminoles’ intransigence will have been worthwhile.
“If they were a business, you would hold them up as a business that is very good at playing the long game,” Robert Jarvis, a law professor specializing in gambling at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale told Playin USA. “They have become very astute at lobbying the legislature, at making political contributions, and when you’re running a multi-billion-dollar-a-year enterprise, you have the ability to get outsized influence. So they have played it extremely well.”
What the Seminoles get in the new Compact with Florida
Seminole Gaming, the company that operates the gambling empire for the Tribe, would be afforded:
- Control over mobile sports betting and the option to license state pari-mutuel operators to offer wagers through the Tribe’s servers, a Seminole spokesperson confirmed to Legal Sports Report. Or, the Seminoles could shut out the flagging horse racing operators because of language in the Compact, stiff-arm national competitors like FanDuel or DraftKings and turn the mobile sports betting market into another monopoly by paying more to the state. And if it all falls apart because of a federal challenge, the Seminoles could simply offer retail sports betting at their six Florida casinos and again wall off everyone else.
- The right to add craps and roulette to complete its Vegas-style offerings.
- The right to expand with up to three more facilities at its Hollywood property, even though a 2018 state amendment states that voters must approve expansion of gambling in the state.
PlayFL estimates a Florida sports betting economy could generate between $8-12 billion annually. The American Gaming Association estimates $7 billion in offshore wagering yearly. A Seminole spokesperson confirmed to Legal Sports Report that
“We truly believe that this is the best deal for everybody. It’s not in favor of the Tribe or the state. It’s in favor of both parties, because this is a long-lasting team,” Seminole Tribe Chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr. said at the signing.
Some of the state’s most ardent pro-gambling legislators disagree, among them Rep. Jeffrey Brandes, who has introduced numerous sports betting bills. He told the Tampa Bay Times:
“I think this was the easiest deal we could have gotten, but it is not the best deal. I think this is the Tribe’s dream deal. This is not Florida’s dream deal.”
John Pappas, CEO of Corridor Consulting said the specter of another Seminole monopoly is the hub of the problem.
“I think there’s a consensus that not only are consumers going to be limited here, but the state ultimately could be limited because of the revenue potential is diminished greatly under a single-brand model or a single-platform model,” he said, “and particularly if the Tribe does exercise that option where they could gain full exclusivity without even having brand partners with the pari mutuels.
“That would be troubling for consumers, for sure.”
Spokesman Gary Bitner told USA TODAY Network-Florida in a statement that the Tribe “always respects the opinions of others, but strongly believes the new gaming compact is legal and constitutional at both the state and federal levels, and that it is absolutely in the best interests of all Floridians.”
Seminoles thrive with secrecy and patience
Digging in, waiting, and being ready to exploit opportunity has been a hallmark of being unconquerable for the Seminoles.
As is secrecy and a devout defense of the brand.
In a time when colleges and professional teams have become inclined to eschew potentially racist depictions of Native American mascots, the Seminoles have continued to espouse the mutual benefits of an unofficial relationship with Florida State. Their persona around the state is positive for a massive corporation in an industry some find distasteful. A survey conducted by the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association last week claimed 62% of residents contacted support the new Compact.
The Tribe isn’t required to publicize its finances, but an often-cited Forbes article from 2016 claimed that the Seminoles derive around $5 billion yearly from their global enterprises. They didn’t correct the figure or confirm it because that would provide a benchmark. Conventional wisdom in Florida also contends that the Seminoles’ bonanza of wealth provides each of the 4,100 tribal members with a yearly stipend of around $100,000. The Tribe has never addressed that figure, either.
This from an organization that has vigorously defended its image in the state down when its ancestors first set foot on the peninsula.
According to historical accounts, the Seminoles came into existence as vestiges of the Creek, Yuchis and Yamassee tribes in the 1770s. After as many 3,000 were relocated on the Trail of Tears under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, three wars failed to crush the 300 or so who entered the Everglades as the United States sued for peace.
Official Seminole history has the Tribe in Florida for “thousands of years” and claims that the invading Spanish met their ancestors, including the Miccosukees, a small offshoot band that owns and operates the other (Class II) tribal casino in Florida.
“People always talk about the Western frontier. I mean, that was nothing compared to what was happening with these three very bloody Seminole Wars,” Jarvis said. “Ultimately, the federal troops chased the Seminoles into the Everglades. And when the Seminoles go into the Everglades, the federal troops said ‘We’re not going into the Everglades because there’s alligators there and there’s terrible sawgrass that will slice you to ribbons. And so we give up, we’re going home and we figure that all the Seminoles are going to die out in the swamps.’
“But they don’t die in the swamps. They survive. They don’t thrive, but they do survive.”
Seminoles history defines business plan, motivation
The Seminole Tribe of Florida was officially created with the adoption of a constitution on July 21, 1957.
The corporation, what became Seminole Gaming, was arguably born in 1979 when the Seminoles, who had previously subsisted on agriculture and making and selling crafts around their six reservations, opened a high-stakes bingo hall. Florida law enforcement tried to shut it down and lost. The trajectory not only of the Seminoles, but the 244 other tribes that now offer gambling on their land around the United States, was forever changed.
“That’s why we always say that Indian gambling was born on the Seminole reservation with the high stakes bingo hall,” Jarvis said. “Every other tribe then looked at that and saw how much money that was generating.”
“Then you fast forward to the US Supreme Court in 1987 saying, ‘Yes, all Indian tribes can do whatever they want on their reservations because it’s their land. And that, of course, brings us one year forward to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.”
Indian gaming was a $33.2 billion a year industry before COVID-19.
“And it all flows back to the Seminoles,” Jarvis said.
Gambling back in Florida sunshine after a tempestuous session
In a year in which the Florida Legislature passed controversial laws regarding COVID mitigation, the environment, transgender rights, freedom of expression and voting access, gambling remained relatively incognito. Not anymore.
An anti-ratification protest is scheduled for Tallahassee mid-week. Meanwhile, both sides are airing television spots to stoke supporters.
Lawyers, professors and gambling industry analysts have tested the bandwidth of gambling Twitter since details of DeSantis’s deal emerged. They are vociferous in their belief the deal will be picked apart by multiple threads, most immediately because there is no precedent, they say, for a Tribe being allowed to control state-wide sports betting from servers on Tribal la nd. In fact, they claim there is language in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and subsequent court decisions disallowing it.
That particular debate comes down to whether a bet is placed where the bettor is standing with their mobile device, or where the servers that facilitate it are located.
In a video session last week entitled Legislator University (above, 45-minute mark) Seminoles outside legal counsel Joseph Webster assures elected officials that there are eight precedents backing their Compact position. But ‘IGRA’ stipulates that Tribes can only offer gambling “within the limits of any Indian reservation” and subsequent legal challenges supported that language.
Jarvis is among the few dissenters of this belief. He called required approval from the Department of the Interior, National Indian Gaming Commission and Bureau of Indian Affairs for the Compact to become law an inevitable “rubber stamp.”
“DOI and the NIGC and the BIA and the secretary are clearly going to go along with this because their whole mission is to support Indian tribes. And so their whole history is to do whatever the tribes want them to do,” Jarvis said. “And, of course, the optics would look terrible for the first Native American Secretary of the Department of the Interior [Deb Haaland] to scuttle a deal that a tribe as significant and as important as the Seminoles have worked on for so long with a state that for so long has thwarted their ambitions. So that’s a done deal.”
Pappas agreed that “there’s a lot of promise that this administration or this Interior Department has already either blessed this deal in concept, or is just going to kind of look the other way.”
Jarvis said he expected inevitable court challenges to also be unsuccessful in stopping the deal. John Holden, an assistant professor in the Spears Business School at Oklahoma State, disagreed.
“It’s likely it’s not going to fly,” Holden told Playin USA. “I think the best-case scenario is that we get a situation where the Department of Interior basically does what they did to the sports betting compacts from Oklahoma, which was they just chose not to approve them and they just let them become part of the federal register by inaction.”
Is the Desert Rose Bingo case precedent for Florida sports betting?
There are no perfect precedents for what the Seminoles and DeSantis are attempting, but there are numerous in the vicinity. And they don’t seem to heighten the odds of state-wide mobile in Florida under the Compact.
Among them, California v. Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel has been widely utilized as an apt comparison because it addressed the issue of where a bet is made and a has tribal component. In that case, a California district court ruled that the location of the bettor is what matters. Applying that to Florida, a bet not made on tribal land is not legal.
Jarvis, though, said the case has “no applicability” because California had never legalized the gambling activity in question – high-stakes bingo – and sports betting is enshrined in the Florida Compact as the domain of the Seminoles.
“Right away, there is a critical difference between the facts that were going on in Desert Rose and the facts that would be going on in these kind of lawsuits,” Jarvis asserts. “And that fact alone dooms the opponents. Because remember who was bringing the lawsuit in Desert Rose. It was the state of California because the state of California was saying ‘You were violating our state law and that will not happen here.’ If anything, what will happen is the state of Florida will come into court and say, ‘What the Seminoles are doing is perfectly legal under Florida law.’”
Seminoles could alter Tribal gaming nationally again
“I think everyone is [watching developments in Florida],” Pappas said. “I think there is a real interest in what happens here, not just with sports betting, but with the broader question of iGaming.
“There’s a question of if this is an acceptable option for tribes, depending on the vagueness of their existing compacts. Could tribes simply begin offering internet gaming without any additional authorization from the state. I think people are looking at that as, ‘Could that be an outcome here?’”
Before a late change finalized on Monday, the Tribe held the right in the Compact to negotiate for online casino in Florida within 36 months.
Tribes in Colorado and Michigan offer retail sports betting on their property via Compacts and state-wide through mobile through deals with their states that treat them as any other commercial operator. Florida, therefore, would be re-writing the assumptions if not the rules.
“Let’s say they can do this all through the compact and the issue is going to be, well, why did Michigan have to go that route?,” Holden pondered. “Why did Color ado have to go that route? They’ve now got deals that have really undercut some of their previous agreements just to offer mobile sports betting. Because I think the assumption was they had to.”
Florida pari-mutuel and jai alai operators very much need the compact to pass federal scrutiny. Even if the state-wide option is stricken, language in the deal would allow the Seminoles to offer retail sports betting on Tribal lands but retain exclusivity over state-wide betting until 2051. Mobile sports betting in Florida would be back to the drawing board.
Perhaps the state and tribe could work out a commercial deal similar to Colorado and Michigan. But the Seminoles would enter negotiations in an even stronger bargaining position than ever before.
It could be a lengthy, litigious mess. But there is also the growing sense in Tallahassee that DeSantis doesn’t plan to be around for the fallout, with a 2024 run for President seen as a foregone conclusion.
Florida gridlock allowed Seminoles to wait for desired outcome
Tallahassee lobbyists, lawyers and politicians invested in legal sports betting coming to Florida are used to the yearly Lucy-and-the-football game where bills are introduced and perish or the standing governor and the Seminoles cannot formulate an amendable new compact. There had been damage to repair since even before former Gov. Rick Scott failed to enforce the Tribe’s sovereign right to offer banked card games when pari-mutuel outlets began offering them and in response, the Seminoles ceased $350 million yearly revenue share payments in 2019. Courts sided with the Seminoles. And so they waited.
And in essence, Jarvis said, the state is paying for the gridlock its disparate and fractionalized political map wrought. South Florida, he said, is generally pro-gambling, North Florida anti-, and the middle pliant except if faced with countering the will of another member of the state’s entertainment-industrial complex: the Walt Disney Company.
An opportunity was lost, Jarvis said, in 2011 when the state didn’t act on an attempt to allow so-called “resort casinos” built by national players like Genting and Wynn to Miami.
“We would have made much, much more money. So the incompetence of the Florida Legislature should never be overlooked. The intransigence of the Florida Legislature should never be overlooked,” Jarvis said. “[The new Compact]was never a fair fight because you had a very unified, very disciplined Tribe that had expert leadership going against a state that is highly dysfunctional, highly ideological. “The State of Florida is not getting as good a deal as it could have gone if it had opened itself to The Sands and to Wynn. These are the people who built Macau. If they had come to Florida and built a domestic Macau, we would be blowing off the socks of Las Vegas.”
In 2018, the Seminoles and Disney co-funded the publicity campaign for a successful constitution amendment that is supposed to put an expansion of legal gambling in Florida to a state-wide vote. The No Casinos group behind it is understandably displeased with the Seminoles’ latest maneuver.
But that odd Amendment 3 alliance served purposes to both Florida mega blocs: the Seminoles maintained their monopoly and helped firewall the state from global gambling interests like late Sands owner Sheldon Adelson, and Disney was able to deepen its moat around the Magic Kingdom, able to take a moral high ground and casinos away from tourists who might be lured away from its parks.
Disney did not respond to interview requests for this story.
“So, was it a short-term friendship or are they still friends?” Holden wondered. “Did these two break up? Or is this something that they’ve agreed to find closed doors? And they’re both so secretive. Who knows.”
As was DeSantis in making this deal. While state legislators who filed or supported other sports betting bills were ever-present, DeSantis, who reportedly confides primarily in his wife, said little.
With gambling its mainstay, Seminoles reach deep with iGaming
If the Seminole Tribe has a weakness, it’s diversity of portfolio. Though they invest in agriculture and real estate, Jarvis estimates that 95-to-98% of their revenue comes from gaming. The COVID-19 pandemic underscored to Seminole Gaming and its competitors the importance of online casino and sports betting when casinos were shuttered in 2020. In January of this year, the Seminoles launched Hard Rock Digital with the stated goal of expanding those iGaming offerings globally.
A monopoly in a sports tourism mecca with nearly 22 million residents like Florida – many of whom express support for legal sports betting – would constitute a strong start for HRD.
“Does Hard Rock Digital immediately become the third-largest sports betting brand in the country? That’s certainly the type of monopoly that money hasn’t been able to buy,” Holden observed.
Citing the possible dearth of consumer choices, and after watching New York unwind its sports betting rollout to later include mobile, Pappas hopes for a measured approach.
“I think anything that takes a pause and allows for a more competitive market to take shape in the state is a benefit,” he said. “From a macro industry perspective, I think delaying the launch of mobile to insure that there is going to be a truly competitive market is probably a good thing. I know that there’s efforts or consideration of efforts for some sort of a ballot initiative that would bring that about.”
Decades of a methodical approach make the past few weeks of action seem seismic. But the Seminoles seem well-positioned no matter how long the next move takes. This is, after all, the tribe that vowed to “buy Manhattan back one hamburger at a time” after purchasing Hard Rock for $965 million in 2007, that hired global soccer superstar Lionel Messi as a brand ambassador in June. In the process the Seminoles should learn how much state legislators crave the tax revenue from state-wide sports betting or iGaming.
“The Seminoles understand that this is an enormous pie,” Jarvis said. “That’s why they let the pari-mutuels in. But the pari-mutuels have to go through the Seminoles and apparently are not happy about that at all. But it’s like, you’re a vassal state. What did you expect was going to happen?
“So, it’s very funny when you talk to the pari mutuel folks. They want to fight this and it’s like, the war is over. Your side lost.”
Until told otherwise, the Seminoles remain unconquered.