Could gambling’s expansion make South Florida the new Vegas?

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Could gambling’s expansion make South Florida the new Vegas?

Some people have a vision of Florida’s future: a gambling destination second only to Las Vegas, perhaps even rivaling it, where tourists play craps and roulette at the Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, sip cocktails on the beach, and place bets on a Dolphins or Heat game with the swipe of a finger.

Maybe their kids are at Disney World, or at the pool; maybe they’re at home in New York or Massachusetts, somewhere cold.

“If you look at Vegas, their hotels are always packed, their casinos are always packed,” said Mychal Milian, a lodging instructor at Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management. “Now imagine Vegas with a beach.”

Milian also serves as the complex director of operations for the Dania Pointe Marriott Hotels at the Fort Lauderdale Airport, a 10-minute drive from the Hard Rock in Hollywood.

In less than a month, in-person sports betting, craps and roulette will, presumably, begin at all South Florida casinos and elsewhere in the state, though that anticipated launch may hinge on a favorable ruling from the Florida Supreme Court.

The launch is expected to drive tourists and businesses to South Florida and elsewhere in the state, create jobs, and bring in billions of dollars in revenue.

Yet despite the ritzy hotels, sports teams, warm weather and beaches that South Florida has to offer, experts say that legal hurdles and cultural attitudes, some nearly insurmountable, will keep it from becoming Vegas.

One of them is the very agreement that legalizes sports betting and gives the Seminole Tribe a monopoly on the industry for 30 years, at the expense of competition.

“Florida is such a large state, even with one dominant operator, it’s too big of a state to be insignificant. Even in a monopoly situation,” said Daniel Wallach, a national sports gambling law expert and attorney based in Hallandale Beach. “But it’s only scratching the surface of its potential.”

‘People need to see it to believe it’

Two weeks ago, the Seminole Tribe announced the return of in-person sports betting. Last week, the mobile app returned for existing customers, while those who became loyalty members could join an “early-access” waitlist. Already, some of those early-access customers have reported on social media they have placed bets.

But the extent to which in-person sports betting might drive tourists to the area in the short term remains unclear.

Stacy Ritter, president and CEO of Visit Lauderdale, Broward’s tourism promotion arm, declined to speculate, telling the Sun Sentinel that “it’s so new that we are just starting to collect the data and analytics we would need to make a determination.”

In Hollywood, spokespeople said they weren’t aware of tourism plans in relation to the launch.

The uncertainty is compounded by the ongoing legal battles. The Florida Supreme Court is currently considering another motion, filed by the tribe’s opponents, a group of pari-mutuels known collectively as West Flagler Associates, that seeks to suspend sports betting. It isn’t immediately clear whether that motion refers to in-person or just mobile.

Raquel Rodriguez, one of the lawyers representing West Flagler, declined to comment Friday in response to questions about the meaning of the motion.

Any boost to the tourism and hospitality industry may be dampened by uncertainty over the legal situation, experts say.

Peter Ricci, a Florida Atlantic University professor who specializes in hospitality and tourism industry trends, thinks that South Florida will see an uptick heading into the Super Bowl, but most of what he hears from local businesses and hospitality employees is uncertainty rather than excitement.

“What I’ve heard is questions about ‘when is it starting?’” he said. ” … ‘Are they hiring for blackjack dealers? What does this mean? Will they expand the hotel?’ All these questions but nothing specifically pro or con about actual sports betting itself.”

Milian agreed.

“I know it’s come up a few times in Miami and been shot down before,” he said. “Now that it’s finally happening, people need to see it to believe it.”

‘Prettier, better’

Legal experts believe the odds are in favor of sports betting’s return long term, both online and in-person. That could make South Florida, already a prime destination for tourists, gamblers and sports fans, even harder to resist.

Miami is one of 12 cities in the U.S. that has a team in all five major sports, Milian said, and also the only one that has soccer star Lionel Messi. During the summer months, his hotels saw their highest rates when Messi was playing, with many of the visitors coming from Latin America. He thinks those same visitors would come in even greater numbers if legal sports betting became an option.

“Think about the impact the Super Bowl has on the city of Miami,” he added. “Now, if people could bet on these games, we’re going to get so much more tourism because of that.”

The launch of in-person craps and roulette, or “class three” level gaming, is the final step to becoming a “true casino,” Ricci said. With the launch, the actual experience of gambling in South Florida would be “identical” to Las Vegas, at least in the sense that nothing would be missing.

Most agree that, while Vegas wears the crown, Florida’s allure could still make it a second location, surpassing Atlantic City or Biloxi, Mississippi.

“Vegas is too longstanding for anyone to rival it,” Ricci said. ” … But we can definitely rival all the other smaller casino destinations around the U.S. There’s not a lot of them but we’re prettier, better and already have a much better tourism infrastructure.”

The money from that tourism and overall boost to the economy could in turn help fund schools, roads and infrastructure, such as in South Florida’s flood-prone areas. Nationally, sports betting is estimated to total over $41 billion in economic output, according to a study by Oxford Economics, under a scenario in which it is fully legal and available in person and online.

Legal, cultural obstacles

Florida has its own hurdles to contend with, however, and the expansion of the industry will probably come gradually and with a muted effect.

Bill Speros, a senior betting analyst at Gambling.com Group (Nasdaq: GAMB) and a former but longtime sports journalist at the Orlando Sentinel, said that the idea of South Florida becoming Vegas is a “mirage.”

“I just don’t see the will, politically or culturally statewide, for that to happen,” Speros said.

He pointed to initiatives to expand gambling in the state that have already failed. In 2022, the major sportsbooks DraftKings and FanDuel spent millions of dollars to try to put a referendum authorizing sports betting at sports venues and pari-mutuels on the ballot, but it didn’t get enough votes. Both the Seminole Tribe and the anti-casino group No Casino opposed the initiative.

Often the obstacles to the expansion of gambling in Florida have come from businesses with a stake in it.

In Central Florida, Speros said, where Disney reigns, the pro-casino crowd faces a steep uphill battle. The company, one of Florida’s staunchest gambling opponents, forbids casinos on its cruises and helped lobby for the amendment, Amendment 3, that is now being used to challenge the expansion of sports betting before the state Supreme Court.

The Seminole Tribe joined Disney in lobbying for the amendment, which requires 60% of Florida voters to approve any further expansion of gambling in the state, though it makes an exception for the tribe.

The expansion of gambling could pose a threat to Disney’s family-friendly image, though some say that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

“If people come to Florida, what’s to stop them from doing a multi-angle vacation?” Ricci asked. “One day at Busch Gardens, two at Universal, a day at Disney, two days at Hard Rock and the kids go in the pool.”

Some of Disney’s own anti-gambling attitudes have given way to business prospects. The company has also joined the sports betting business; on Tuesday, it will launch its own app, ESPN Bet.

Meanwhile, the legal challengers delaying sports betting in the courts are pari-mutuels who say the compact would take away their business. Under the gaming deal, called a compact, the Seminole Tribe would have complete control over sports betting in Florida, which will likely operate under a single-operator system, said Wallach, with pari-mutuels participating as “spokes to the Seminole’s hub.”

The monopoly would also place limits on the industry. Without competition, sports betting in Florida will “likely yield a lot less bang for the buck,” Wallach said, with fewer incentives for companies to promote themselves and less excitement overall.

While other gambling companies might want a piece of the action, it’s unlikely the compact authorizing the tribe’s monopoly would change in the short-term. The agreement has several “poison pill provisions” that penalize Florida by taking away its share of the revenue if sports betting expands beyond the tribe, Wallach said, either by the Legislature or by voter referendum.

“Florida is the only state of consequence where this is going on,” he said. “No other state of similar or comparable size, or even moderate size, has ever granted a sports-betting monopoly to one entity.”

Ricci is impatient for sports betting to expand and the lawsuits to conclude.

“Enough is enough, they’ve played nice,” he said of the Seminoles. “All these other states are building, building, building, and we’re sitting here arguing in the courts.”

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