Rising Coronavirus Rates in Florida May Hasten Sports Betting Legislation

Bettors casting wagers remotely, behind the safety of their screens, is both mindful of averting an outbreak and vital for business.

As the world braces to address the emerging coronavirus epidemic, the casino industry and state legislatures are looking for ways to offset potential revenue loss and avoid budget deficits. 

In Florida, the growing threat of coronavirus may be serving as an impetus for faster legislative action regarding sports betting, including mobile wagering. Cases of coronavirus continue to climb across the United States (with confirmed cases of the virus in 32 states and Washington D.C. as of Sunday). Florida counts 19 positive cases of COVID-19, as of Sunday morning, with 278 others in the state currently being monitored for the virus.

The state and Seminole Tribe have been negotiating a sports betting agreement for months. Now the health scare seems to be expediting things. The Seminole Tribe of Florida seeks to serve as the host for mobile sports betting statewide, in addition to introducing online casinos. 

If such an agreement is reached, the Tribe would resume and increase its revenue-sharing payments to the state. The Seminole Tribe ceased making payments to the state’s general revenue fund after their revenue-sharing agreement with Florida expired last May. 

As Seminole Tribe of Florida Chairman Marcellus William Osceola Jr. has underscored, the Tribe could have stopped making payments to the state in 2016, after a federal judge ruled that Florida breached its Tribal-state compact, by allowing non-Indian gaming facilities to offer banked card games (thus violating Tribal exclusivity). The Tribe did continue paying the state for more than two years to give Florida enough time to shut down banked card games at non-Indian facilities. Given the state failed to enforce that exclusivity, and when the Tribe’s revenue-sharing agreement with the state expired in May 2019, the Tribe started withholding its roughly $350 million annual payments. 

Considering the financial pressures of a potential health scare, Florida’s political leaders are further compelled to seek to reach a mutually beneficial agreement with the Tribe as soon as possible. 

Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis — a Republican who was previously hesitant to endorse legalized sports betting — has told reporters that “there’s a good chance” that Florida Senator Bill Galvano can reach an agreement with the Tribe. Galvano, a Republican, was instrumental in the passage of a 2010 compact with the Seminoles, reported the Sun Sentinel

Acknowledging the growing public health crisis, Florida lawmakers are handling 2020-2021 budget negotiations aware of their need to address unforeseen costs of containing the epidemic. Conversations around sports betting — including mobile betting — are ramping up during the state’s legislative session that is set to conclude on March 13th, though it’s expected to run overtime. 

New Jersey and Pennsylvania offer a model for the effectiveness of mobile betting. There, 85 percent of sportsbook revenue stems from mobile bets. Yet given the gap between the NCAA and NFL season, sports betting could cushion the blow of Tribal casino revenue hits and state budget cuts, but it won’t be a savior, as gaming industry Alan Woinski put it on Gambling.com. 

Another gaming analyst and CEO of SpringOwl Asset Management, Jason Ader, has put the situation into perspective with a long-term vision of how online sports betting and gaming builds consumer relationships and serves to incentivize in-person visits to brick-and-mortar casinos in the future. 

“Imagine MGM or Caesars directly targeting their customers right now to play at home, incentivizing them, offering them the opportunity to come to Vegas with discounted rates at some point in the future,” Ader told Gambling.com. They could be “connecting with that customer in an online environment and capturing that wallet and using kind of the data science around online gaming to sort of better market to their consumers. It is the future. The coronavirus really may catalyze in my view, further embracement by the industry for a more national, highly-regulated, but a more national gaming footprint, not just for sports betting, but for online casino and online poker and online bingo, as we see in the UK and throughout the EU.”