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Courts challenge online sports betting in Florida as gambling expands in the state


Many casinos in Florida have started running sports betting, craps and roulette. Florida is now the largest state offering online sports betting, but some hope the courts will still step in to stop it. The stakes are high for the Seminole tribe. WLRN's Tom Hudson explains all this.

TOM HUDSON, BYLINE: In November, ESPN, the so-called worldwide leader in sports, launched its own sports betting app in 17 states.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We don't want them at 75-1.

HUDSON: But not Florida. Here, the Seminole tribe has the state monopoly on sports betting. It's something the state agreed to a few years ago in exchange for $2.5 billion. This week, the tribe begins rolling craps dice and spinning roulette wheels at its casinos. It's also released its sports betting app for anyone in Florida of legal gambling age.

BRIAN JUVERS: My name is Brian. I'm just letting you guys know about the Hard Rock Bet app. I've been using it since it came back out.

HUDSON: Brian Juvers (ph) belongs to a limited group of people who first got access to the sports betting app in November after a favorable court decision. The tribe called that ruling a historic legal victory, and one that helps create over 1,000 new jobs. And Juvers placed his bets without placing a foot on tribal land.

JUVERS: I had a really good Friday and I had a really not so good Saturday, and Sunday was pretty even. So, so far, I'm up about 200 bucks.

HUDSON: But two gambling companies have been suing in state and federal court, hoping to stop the Seminoles' sports betting app. So far they have not been successful, but they keep appealing. At issue is whether taking bets online violates federal law that allows betting on tribal lands, and whether voters in Florida need to approve online gambling when people are not physically on tribal lands to place their bets. Florida's constitution says gambling outside of tribal lands needs a statewide vote.

DANIEL WALLACH: I think this is where the rubber meets the road.

HUDSON: Daniel Wallach is the founder of Wallach Legal, a law firm focusing on the gambling industry. Location matters here. The state contract with the tribe says since the computer servers accepting the bets are on tribal land, the bet is being made on tribal land. For John Sowinski, that argument is science fiction.

JOHN SOWINSKI: Legislators can make laws, but they can't make up truth. They don't have magic wands that teleport us onto tribal lands.

HUDSON: Sowinski heads up the group No Casinos, an organization against the expansion of gambling in Florida.

SOWINSKI: I don't know of any body of law that exists that attempts sort of this legal fiction.

HUDSON: Sowinski worries if online sports betting is allowed statewide, other games will follow.

WALLACH: Tribes in other states are watching this case very carefully.

HUDSON: This is gambling lawyer Daniel Wallach again.

WALLACH: The real downstream consequence here is that we could be on the verge of digital gaming not only with sports betting but with online casino games.

HUDSON: In the meantime, gamblers have been placing sports bets regardless of where they are in Florida. Gambling in the Sunshine State has been huge for the Seminole tribe. Jessica Cattelino is the author of "High Stakes: Florida Seminole Gaming And Sovereignty."

JESSICA CATTELINO: It has really placed Seminoles on the leading edge of litigation, but also a kind of broader understanding of tribal sovereignty and the political authority of American Indian tribal nations.

HUDSON: The Seminole tribe was the driving force behind Indian gambling in the United States when it opened its first bingo room in 1979. With its efforts to redefine sports betting in the internet age, the tribe remains in the forefront of gambling and its legal issues.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Hudson in Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRAMEWORKS' "SAND AND STONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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