Tom Jicha

Tom Jicha grew up in New York City and worked with John Pricci at the short-lived revival of the New York Daily Mirror. Tom moved to Miami in 1972 for a position in the sports department at the now defunct Miami News.

Tom became the TV critic in 1980 and moved to the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 1988. All the while he has kept his hand in sports, including horse racing. He has covered two Super Bowls, a World Series and the Breeders’ Cup at Gulfstream Park.

He's been the Sun Sentinel’s horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Thursday, February 07, 2019

Sports gambling could come to Florida through backdoor

By Tom Jicha

A successful amendment on November's ballot in Florida has made it difficult to impossible for any casino expansion in the state. This has been interpreted to include sports betting. But there are reasons to challenge that. Nowhere on the ballot was sports betting mentioned. State law demands amendments be spelled out clearly to voters. By any reasonable interpretation this was a bill to keep out new casinos. This is how media throughout the state presented it to readers and viewers. I couldn't find one editorial, pro or con, which included mention of sports betting. Moreover, the wording for the bill, which includes no mention of sports betting, was approved in January 2018.The Supreme Court didn't remove legal barriers until May. So there is no reason to conclude that those who constructed the amendment had anything but barring new casinos in mind.

New Jersey handled $34.9 million on the Super Bowl in its first year of legalized sports gambling. Not bad, even if it is about $65 million short of what was predicted.

For the record, the Garden State reported losses of $4.6 million as bettors hammered the Patriots minus 2, 2 ½ points. This figure is slightly misleading. What wasn’t reported was how much the various venues profited from other bets made Sunday, lodging (Atlantic City), food and drinks, etc.

Suffice it to say, it will not be necessary to stage any bake sales to bail out the legal bookmakers. In fact, they probably gained many times $4.6 million in positive publicity. Nothing will bring out future crowds more than “players win, house loses” tales.

What a pity New York, Florida and California are still shut out of sports betting. This is especially true in Florida. Super Bowl LIV will be played at Dolphin Stadium, walking distance from Calder’s casino and eight miles west of Gulfstream, where there is likely to be an alluring weekend of racing.

It’s almost certain Pegasus Day will be moved in 2020 from the bye weekend between the NFL conference championship games and the Super Bowl to the day before the big game to take advantage of the tens of thousands of fans, celebrities and media, who will be in town. The sky is the limit for how much they might bet on the game and, while they are there, racing.

Gulfstream has fallen into a natural connection. Its entertainment area near the top of the stretch where Snoop Dog performed on Pegasus Day is called LIV. The track can boast it must be related to the Super Bowl because they share a common last name. The NFL might bristle but Gulfstream can demonstrate beyond dispute it had LIV first.

Alas, Amendment 3, a misleading referendum bankrolled by Disney and Indian casinos, which passed in November, forbids any expansion of casino gambling in the state and has been interpreted to include sports betting.

A referendum to counteract it, which couldn’t be on the ballot until November 2020 anyway, would need 60 percent approval. Given the money Disney and the Indians would again pour into any such referendum, this is as unlikely as the Pegasus being snowed out.

But there could be a loophole. Isn’t there always?

I scrutinized the amendment and it specifically and repeatedly references “casino gambling.” There is not a word about sports betting.

Moreover, citizens, who signed the petition to get it on the ballot, had no reason to think it had anything to do with sports betting. Amendment 3 was certified to have attained the necessary 766,200 signatures in January 2018. The Supreme Court didn’t overturn the federal law prohibiting sports betting until four months later.

Here is how Amendment 3 was summarized for voters as they cast their ballots.

“This amendment ensures that Florida voters shall have the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling by requiring that in order for casino gambling to be authorized under Florida law, it must be approved by Florida voters.”

It also defines casino gambling. Here, too, there is no mention of sports betting.

“Casino gambling means any of the types of games typically found in casinos and that are within the definition of Class III gaming in the Federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act…This includes, but is not limited to, any house banking game, including but not limited to card games such as baccarat, chemin de fer, blackjack (21), and pai gow (if played as house banking games); any player-banked game that simulates a house banking game, such as California black jack; casino games such as roulette, craps, and keno; any slot machines as defined in 15 U.S.C. 1171(a)(1); and any other game not authorized by Article X, section 15, whether or not defined as a slot machine, in which outcomes are determined by random number generator or are similarly assigned randomly, such as instant or historical racing. As used herein, casino gambling” includes any electronic gambling devices, simulated gambling devices, video lottery devices, internet sweepstakes devices, and any other form of electronic or electromechanical facsimiles of any game of chance, slot machine, or casino-style game, regardless of how such devices are defined under IGRA. As used herein, “casino gambling” does not include pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing, dog racing, or jai alai exhibitions.”

Do you see anything relating to sports gambling? I have never heard sports betting referred to as a casino game nor is it a game of chance.

Newspapers and electronic media referred to it as a control on the expansion of casino gambling, not as a prohibition of sports gambling.

To reiterate, the wording was composed well before the Supreme Court removed the prohibitions on sports betting.

The passage opponents of sports gambling would likely seize upon in any legal challenge are “house banked game,” which sports betting is.

However, Florida has a law that amendments have to be in clear language. It seems any reasonable interpretation of this bill refers to table and slots games “typically found in casinos.” In January 2018, sports betting was not only not typically found in casinos, it wasn’t found at all in any of the state-sanctioned non-Indian casinos outside Nevada.

So a legal challenge might be worth a shot. Maybe the Indians could be coaxed to join in, since Indian casino exclusivity is safeguarded by Amendment 3 and sports betting might help their business.

This is Florida, where well placed political donations can get almost anything done. The state somehow found a way to give Hialeah a casino even though the amendment legalizing casinos in South Florida specifically omitted it.

This is also a state that found a way to sanction barrel racing, the same two jai alai players throwing the pelota around against each other several times a day and two sorry horses cantering down the stretch of Hialeah race track every half-hour sufficient to qualify for a card room and/or casino.

The annual legislative session is about a month away. If any of the legal gambling establishments want to take a shot, now is the time to get their legal briefs and political contributions ready.

The alternative, given the low odds of a successful petition drive, is to forget sports gambling forever.

© Tom Jicha 2019

Written by Tom Jicha

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