In case you missed any one of the thousand pictures my family has posted about our trips to the Magic Kingdom or our sailing adventures aboard the Dream, Fantasy, and Magic, we are a Disney Family.
That actually means something beyond just holding annual passes. It’s a way of life, perhaps even a way of thinking. To us Walt Disney wasn’t just the man who gave the world Mickey Mouse, he was a pioneer, an explorer.
As much as anyone, save John Gorrie, Uncle Walt is responsible for modern Florida. Tens of millions of tourists flock to the humid center of the state to pay homage to him and Mickey and The Princesses and The Avengers and all of the other intellectual property so powerful that Disney’s stock proved impervious even to a pandemic.
Of course, The Walt Disney Company is one of the most powerful players in state politics. With what it contributes to the state economy, there’s little reason to think it wouldn’t be. In fact, I could make the argument it’s actually a gentle giant in state politics, especially in this emerging era where corporations and their executives take a direct role in framing issues traditionally outside of their silos of influence. For better or worse, Disney isn’t weighing in on the voting rights legislation working its way through the Florida Legislature in the same way Delta did in Georgia or Dell is in Texas.
But one issue on which Disney has often taken a strong position is the expansion of gambling in Florida. Officially and unofficially, The Mouse has blocked almost every attempt to expand gaming in the Sunshine State beyond the Lottery and what is permitted at parimutuels and on tribal properties.
Disney has been especially opposed to the creation of casinos and so-called “destination resorts” in South Florida, fearing not just what transforming Miami Beach into Atlantic City would do to the state’s family-friendly image, but what two or three Bellagios on the beach could do to Disney’s lucrative convention and hotel business.
That kind of expansion is really no longer in the cards.
Voters in 2018 approved Amendment 3, which says the only way casino gambling can be approved is through a statewide initiative placed on the ballot by citizen petition. Such initiatives have, historically, been defeated again and again at the ballot box.
The irony of the current gaming framework in Florida is that the Seminole Tribe of Florida operates some of the largest casinos in the world, with one of them just 45 minutes from the Mickey pylon that marks the west entrance to Disney’s territory. To say that there isn’t casino gambling in Florida is silly.
Unfortunately, that current framework is out of whack and, increasingly, unworkable. All of the players involved — the Tribe, the parimutuel, the state — recognize this. However, because of a disagreement, literally, over whether or not games like Three Card Poker can be played at rundown parimutuel facilities that are forced to race horses (and, with that, subsidize the powerful horse thoroughbred industry) at their tracks in order to deal the lucrative player designated games (PDGs), the Seminole Tribe of Florida and state are no longer playing in the same card room, so to speak.
The House, the Senate, the Governor and the Seminoles are now trying to reach a deal, known as a “compact.” But the talks also include the state’s parimutuel operators and global casino giants willing to drop big bucks on even the possibility of planting roots in Florida.
As negotiations simmer in secret, a Senate committee Monday approved two gambling-related measures unrelated to tribal casinos. But even those efforts could be a long shot.
Senate President Wilton Simpson has taken the reins on a prospective deal with the Seminoles, as he has for the past three years.
Simpson is trying to advance a deal designed to recapture tens of millions of dollars a year that evaporated after the state conceded the hugely popular “designated player” games conducted at many parimutuel card rooms violated a 2010 compact with the Seminoles. That compact, struck by former Gov. Charlie Crist and state lawmakers, gave the tribe “exclusive” rights to operate banked card games, such as blackjack, in exchange for a minimum annual payment of $150 million to the state.
Simpson has worked with the Seminoles to nail down a 30-year compact, but he was unable to convince DeSantis and House leaders to endorse a plan during the past two Legislative Sessions.
Now, according to Mary Ellen Klas of the Miami Herald, negotiations are coming up snake eyes.
DeSantis has made what was likely a final offer: Florida would become the largest state in the nation to legalize sports betting, and the Tribe would control it. The Tribe would not stand in the way if legislators were to allow Miami Beach to become home to a controversial new casino. And the Seminole Tribe would give the state hundreds of millions of dollars in annual payments.
However, by the end of the day Tuesday, the Tribe would reject the Governor’s offer, according to Klas. “The biggest source of conflict: How much of the proceeds from sports betting to split between the Tribe and the parimutuels.”
Under the framework of the rejected offer, DeSantis agreed to give the owners of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino the exclusive right to operate craps and roulette at the Tribe’s seven casinos and to operate as a sports betting hub for booking agents who would be housed at professional sports stadiums and existing casinos, slots facilities and parimutuel poker rooms.
The Tribe would have been allowed to add up to three additional casinos on existing tribal property, leasing its new hotels to casino operators such as Wynn Resorts, Sands and MGM. It would have been able to take a cut out of every sports bet placed. It would agree to drop its objection to having existing parimutuels operate designated-player card games, a hybrid between blackjack and poker which the Tribe considers competition to its blackjack operations.
And the Tribe would not object to legislation allowing Soffer to transfer his casino permit to Miami Beach, a move that has not been drafted in formal legislation and would require lawmakers to preempt local zoning laws.
Typically, the leaders of the Tribe are forward-thinking, if not visionary. They have been able to see where the future of their industry is heading years in advance.
But, in these negotiations, their position seems short-sighted.
The future of gambling, as the Tribe knows well, is electronic and in sports betting. The future is not in cards and dice (just look at the fortune of blackjack for proof of that.)
The opportunity to control and dominate the sports betting industry in Florida would be even more lucrative than the license to print money the Tribe already has by operating casinos. Just think of what’s happening today: ESPN is set to broadcast its first alternate sports betting presentation for an NBA game. The presentation will be a special derived from ESPN’s sports betting show “Daily Wager,” which debuted in 2019. That’s how omnipresent sports betting has become.
The Tribe quibbling over how much of a percentage of the action it has to split with the politically powerful parimutuels is like arguing over the number of slices of pepperoni on a pizza when you own the damn pizzeria!
Gambling will be sports betting.
Just like Disney this last year stopped being about theme parks and cruises and transformed into the second most important, soon to become the most subscribed-to streaming platform.
Yet they are making an assumption I don’t think is entirely based in reality. It clearly believes the issue of gambling expansion in Florida is settled now because of Amendment 3. And while I don’t think Florida voters would approve destination resorts in South Florida, my gut tells me that a clearly worded sports betting initiative could pass. If not in 2022, certainly down the road as Floridians see an increasing number of residents of other states able to wager on the Celtics versus the Lakers and who will score the first touchdown in the Super Bowl.
In fact, if I were the beleaguered parimutuels, already being edged out by the Tribe and part of an increasingly marginalized industry, I’d cobble together $1 million or so from each facility and bankroll a statewide initiative to allow for sports betting — only the tracks would be in charge, not the Tribe. If the campaign cost the parimutuels $50 million, but positioned them to be in charge of a multibillion dollar industry, the initial investment in the campaign would offer the best ROI they’ve ever seen.
As for another sticking point in the deal President Simpson is attempting to cobble together — permitting Jeff Soffer to transfer his casino permit from his Big Easy Casino in Hallandale Beach to his Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach — it’s time to move past antiquated thinking about the impact of the gambling industry.
Miami auto magnate Norman Braman is opposed to the idea and he has deployed a car dealership’s worth of lawyers and lobbyists to oppose Soffer’s plans because he believes adding slot machines to a swanky hotel “opens the door for an environment that is destructive to our community.’’
That’s 1970s thinking that sounds like its out of a Mario Puzo novel, not a real reflection of the current morals of most Americans. To be quite frank, given some of the headlines and photos recently out of Miami Beach, slot machines at the Fontainebleau would be a vast improvement.
The Legislature should ignore the yelling of old men like Braman and Armando Codina to, essentially, get off their lawn.
The House Commerce Committee is slated to hear gambling-related proposals Wednesday. They would create a five-member “Gaming Control Commission” to oversee gambling operations in the state, as well as do away with a requirement that many parimutuel facilities conduct live horse racing or jai alai games to offer card rooms, a process known as “decoupling.”
Hopefully the House will pass these measures and give Simpson additional time to negotiate a deal — and for the Tribe to come to its senses and make a once-in-a-century deal.
Material from Dara Kam of the News Service of Florida was used in this post.