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The Sunshine Economy

Sports Betting In The Sunshine Economy

John Locher
AP Photo
Fans check out bets for Super Bowl LIII the Westgate Superbook sports book in Las Vegas on Feb. 3, 2019. Twenty states have allowed some form of sports betting since 2018. Florida is not one of them, but gambling supporters are pushing for it.

Daniel Wallach says he is not a sports gambler and hasn't been for decades.

"The one and only time in my life I've wagered on sports was in 1978 when I was in 10th grade," he said.

Wallach practices law in Fort Lauderdale now, but he grew up in New York. It wasn’t just one wager. He remembers being down $5,000 after betting on several losing teams. So, a lot was riding on one final bet on the Portland Trail Blazers against the Golden State Warriors.


"If I lost that bet, my personal safety would have been imperiled and I would have had to have come clean to my parents -- a middle class family."

He was calling Sportsline, a telephone service that, for a dime per call, would deliver a 60-second sports update. On that night in 1978, the Trail Blazers won and beat the spread, giving Wallach the win. 

Wallach has become one of the go-to lawyers arguing for the expansion of legal sports betting since the U.S. Supreme Court opened the way for it almost two years ago.

There was no debate over legalizing sports betting two years ago. Then, the court threw out a 26-year-old federal law that banned sports betting everywhere except for Nevada. Today, 20 states are in some stage of allowing betting on sports. But not Florida, which will serve as host for two straight years to the biggest sports betting event in America -- the Super Bowl.

After playing in Miami this year, it is a long shot that Florida will have legal sports gambling by the time the game kicks off in Tampa in 2021.  However, supporters are sharpening their arguments, hoping to push the line to make it legal to bet on sports.

"The pace of legislation around the country is dizzying," Wallach said.

Gambling expansion opponents are holding on to a 2018 voter-approved constitutional amendment.

"The people of Florida have the final say on this in any other form of casino gambling," said John Sowinski, president of No Casinos.

In 2018, his group was the driving force behind Amendment 3. More than 70 percent of voters okayed adding language to the state constitution granting "voters the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling in the State of Florida."

Credit Charles Krupa / AP Photo
AP Photo
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu places the first legal sports wagering bet on his mobile phone on Dec. 30, 2019. New Hampshire is one of 20 states that has legalized sports betting. Florida is not among those states, though supporters are pushing for it.

"Amendment 3 is very clear," Sowinski said. "Anything that is considered Class 3 gambling under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act is subject to the amendment, which means that the voters are in charge."

As is often the case, the debate over allowing sports betting in Florida may rest on the amendment language voters okayed. The amendment defines casino games as those under the federal classification as Class 3 games. That classification captures a whole range of gambling, including sports bets. 

But Wallach and other supporters of sports betting argue the amendment includes that category plus this phrase: "games typically found in casinos." Wallach said sports betting was not typical in casinos when Florida voters okayed the amendment. "As of November 6, 2018, there were 40 or so states that had legal casinos, and in only six of those states could you say that sports betting could be found in a casino."

The amendment that voters approved added 459 words to the state constitution. It includes a list of examples of the types of gambling that would have to be okayed by voters including baccarat, roulette and craps. Wallach said sports betting is not singled out by name and it differs in an important feature from the games that are mentioned by name.

"All of those games that are listed as included are games of chance that are determined by the flip of a card, the roll of the dice, or a random number generator," Wallach said. "Sports betting is not included within that connective tissue. It's a contest of skill."

The fate of sports betting in Florida right now may rest with the political skill of Florida Senate President Republican Bill Galvano. For years, he has led negotiations over gambling in the state Legislature and he has put sports betting on the agenda for lawmakers this session. He acknowledges it is a narrow opportunity, but one he thinks exists even with the constitutional amendment.


"It is the threading of a needle," he said. "But more importantly as we look at possible changes to the status of gaming in the state of Florida, everything's connected together." 

Those connections are the pari-mutuels, with their horse racing, jai alai, and slot machines, and Indian gaming, especially the Seminole Tribe and its Hard Rock casinos.

Galvano said, "I think if we are going to open up the issue of gaming, I believe it's time for us to have sports betting and to have it properly regulated and to collect revenues for the state."

Galvano led negotiations with the Seminole Tribe over its gaming compact with the state. The part of that deal granting the tribe a monopoly on certain games like blackjack has expired, so the tribe is no longer sending tens of millions of dollars in payments to the state each month.

While Galvano thinks lawmakers could add sports betting without running afoul of Amendment 3, he admitted "the odds are tough" for any bill to make it out of the state Legislature before the scheduled adjournment on March 13.

Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.