A young, bespectacled, cape and pigtail-wearing elementary student grasps a book in one arm and raises her fist with the other to salute you, maker of parlays, champion of education. Legal sports betting in Florida could be “risk-free,” because no matter a bet’s outcome, the kids will ultimately win.
The potential is very real for a new nine-digit annual infusion of revenue benefiting various educational programs, thanks to a windfall that might be produced through a competitive legal online sports betting marketplace in Florida. But the design and imagery of the new campaign by “Florida Education Champions” to create an open sportsbook market via constitutional amendment, for some, distastefully co-opts children and is a bit disingenuous. Sports betting titans DraftKings and FanDuel are the main contributors to the campaign.
We're off to the races in our campaign to bring more sports betting to Florida and hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to Florida schools! Visit https://t.co/OWDRzVYcpW to request your petition today! pic.twitter.com/Mgx2bXJNL2
— Florida Education Champions (@FloridaEdChamps) June 25, 2021
After all, in most states, legal sports betting cannot be marketed or advertised to anyone under the age of 21. And there is nearly always language forbidding the use of minors in sportsbook advertising.
Yet in sports, politics, and sports betting, winning isn’t everything — it’s the only thing. Wholehearted transparency? Not so much. At least that’s how DraftKings and FanDuel appear to be handicapping the recently launched ballot initiative that they hope voters will decide in their favor in November 2022. Absent such a constitutional amendment, the powerful Seminole Tribe is on course for a virtual monopoly over online sports betting, thanks to its new 30-year gaming compact with the state, which Gov. Ron DeSantis helped broker during tense negotiations in May that spilled over into a special legislative session.
On June 23, Sports Handle broke the news that competing sportsbooks and daily fantasy operators DraftKings and FanDuel, allies when necessity compels, are leading this charge. A day later, the ballot language was available, and official registrations showed that the Political Action Committee acting as the vehicle for the initiative is called “Florida Education Champions.” Its newly launched website and social media channels paint the picture that a vote for sports betting is a vote for kids, as the ballot referendum would require that tax revenue generated through legal sports betting supplement the Educational Enhancement Trust Fund of the Department of Education.
“As in any digital campaign, we will be featuring a variety of photos, including students, parents, teachers, and others who will benefit from the hundreds of millions of dollars generated to supplement Florida’s public education system,” Christina Johnson, a spokesperson for FEC whose extensive executive and legislative experience includes serving as former deputy chief of staff at the Florida Department of State, told Sports Handle.
While the initial messaging and imagery may rub some the wrong way (some images shown below no longer appear on the site), the seemingly odd combination of gambling to benefit education is a longstanding marriage in numerous U.S. jurisdictions, including in Tennessee, where the agency managing the lottery is literally called the Tennessee Education Lottery Corporation, and South Carolina, home to the South Carolina Education Lottery.
“The starting place of every campaign is to convince voters their side is good, right, true, and just — that it will promote some valuable public good,” said Craig Snyder, Indigo Global’s president and CEO and former chief of staff to U.S Sen. Arlen Specter. “Sometimes, the way [campaigns] try to do that is so exaggerated or so unrelated to what they’re really doing, that voters do figure it out and they get angry. And that’s a good prescription for losing. There’s a balance in trying to develop messages for campaigns — between appealing to things you know the voters think are good and right, versus being so over the top about the way you present it that it backfires.”
Truth in advertising?
For a variety of vital reasons, including valuations, DraftKings and FanDuel simply cannot forfeit Florida without a fight.
With the wagon hitched to education, the tandem of sportsbooks will stay on message through Johnson and the Champions group. Voters should expect to hear all about it in the coming months as the group works to collect enough signatures: exactly 222,898 to trigger a required judicial and financial impact review, and eventually 891,589 to get on the ballot.
“Public education has always been a priority of Florida voters, and this amendment authorizes these substantial revenues to go directly to supplement Florida’s Educational Enhancement Trust Fund — without raising taxes,” Johnson told Sports Handle. “In fact, the Florida Education Association (FEA) requested all dollars generated by the [Seminoles’] compact agreement specifically be used for public education. Our amendment simply mandates that it go to the Trust Fund.”
“We’re collecting petitions to place an amendment on the 2022 ballot to bring more sports betting to Florida and bring more funding to our schools!” the PAC’s Twitter bio says. And on the website, in the reverse order, it reads, “Be a Champion for Education and bring more sports betting to Florida.”
Johnson and the PAC are indeed accurately representing what 60%-plus “yes” votes in November 2022 would accomplish: Legal sports betting in Florida would bring somewhere between a lot to a ton of money into state coffers — potentially more than $100 million annually — with no new direct tax on citizens.
“Gambling expansion should ask voters to make determinations based on the merit of it, not solely for how revenue will be used,” said Brianne Doura-Schawohl, vice president of U.S. policy and strategic development at EPIC Risk Management. “It’s not uncommon for [gaming] revenue to fund schools and education efforts. But putting children at the forefront of a campaign involving gambling is poor form and dangerous. State-based lotteries and gambling funds have supported various initiatives since the country’s founding — colonies, the Revolutionary War. But what I’ve seen so far for this campaign, with young students and something as fundamental as education, strikes me as distasteful.”
Education an ideal sell
However much funding may come in, this initiative is betting on education to get voters on board, with a logo featuring an apple flanked by sports balls. It’s proven to be an effective playbook for gambling initiatives, one that’s simpler to execute than if sports betting dollars were dedicated to something seemingly as popular and non-controversial as a public health initiative. As the pandemic has taught us, mask-wearing and vaccination campaigns have become lightning rods for controversy and division. So, education it is. Let’s bet on sports in an open market, and look at these smiling kids.
“Proponents will tell you they are being straight with voters — saying they’re helping people understand the benefit of their vote,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University and a veteran communications director in New Jersey government and public affairs at large. “This is what you’re getting in return for your vote — a new revenue stream for education. They may be doing it in an unsophisticated or maybe coarse way, but they’ll tell you ultimately they want voters to understand where the money is going. But I think there are probably finer-point ways you could do that.”
Of course, the size and impact of those dollars depends on the tax rate applied on betting revenues established by the legislature — which varies wildly among U.S. jurisdictions, from 6.75% to revenue shares of 51% — and how effectively officials allocate the dollars. The language of the initiative explicitly mandates that funds be directed to supplement education.
Still, some folks on the ground in Florida who have long monitored state government are less than optimistic that new funds would be allocated to education wisely or even honestly — or at all. Here’s a portion of Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell’s commentary titled “Want to vote yes on sports betting in Florida? OK, but don’t fall for another ‘Education Lottery’ con”:
But please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t vote for this because you think it will do anything to help public education.
It’s hard to even type those two oxymoronic words without laughing.
Florida runs America’s third largest lottery and yet ranks 44th in education funding, spending less money per pupil than states with no lottery at all.
We have an “Education Lottery” the way vampires have a “vegan diet.”
That’s because Tallahassee lawmakers played a shell game with lottery revenues.
Yes, they spent the proceeds on schools. But they also started spending the money that used to go to schools on other things. So much so that, when the Sentinel crunched the numbers 20 years after voters approved the lottery in 1986, we discovered Florida was actually spending a smaller percentage of its budget on education than it was before the “Education Lottery” came along. There’s no reason to think the next gambling deal would be any different. Florida politicians simply can’t be trusted.
However the funds get used, history has taught us that education remains a premier sword and a shield for gambling expansion. Hey, opponents, you don’t want to support the kids?
“If the claims that one side makes in a campaign are false, or exaggerated, or plain wrong, it’s up to the other side to point that out and persuade the voters that that’s the case,” Snyder said. “It’s not David vs. Goliath here, it’s Goliath vs. Goliath, and they’ll be able to message to the people of Florida why they think their version is better.
“The other advantage of a free country is we’ve got the press, casting it as what’s best here for education. The public will hear that message too, through the press. It’s not a perfect system, but ultimately I think the public will get the information.”
And then there’s the wild card: Regardless of whether the Seminoles’ new 30-year compact granting certain exclusivities over gambling in the state is approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior, it could potentially find grounds to challenge the system and withhold the $500 million the tribe has committed to pay the state annually in connection with rights and obligations gained via the compact, which include the opportunity to build another casino.
Stakes high for sportsbooks, tribes
The effort to collect signatures for the petition got underway almost immediately while, any day or week now, New York State’s gambling regulators will circulate their convoluted request for proposals to become a sportsbook operator. New York is fourth in U.S. population. Florida is third.
The nation’s largest state by population, California, is operating on a similar but opposite track to Florida, where the federally recognized Native American tribes successfully executed a campaign to let voters decide whether or not to amend the state constitution to allow tribes to offer sports betting in person at brick-and-mortar facilities. The framework would exclude online sports betting. That vote will also occur in November 2022.
Meanwhile, Texas, second in population and where only some horse racing and a handful of tribal casinos represent the entire gambling industry, has moved more slowly and remains a big unknown. But professional sports teams there have come out advocating for online sports betting, which offers some promise for a market open enough to allow for legalization. Texas’ state legislature meets only in odd years and did not approve sports betting in 2021, so the next opportunity comes in 2023.
So there remains a possibility that DraftKings and FanDuel could go 0-for-4 online in the highest population states. To miss a collective third of the U.S. population concentrated in those states would be a serious ceiling-lowering event. Meaning the Florida plan may look something like: no retreat, no surrender, leave nothing on the field, empty the tank, fight, fight, fight, insert your sports cliche. Forget conservatism — time to take a risk.
The irony of the vote
Back in 2018, Disney and the Seminole Tribe, which has a stranglehold on legal gambling activity and casinos in Florida, bankrolled more than $20 million each into the “Voters in Charge” campaign that fueled the overwhelming passage of Amendment 3 on the November 2018 ballot by a 71%-29% margin. The amendment requires that any future expansion of casino gambling gains voter approval with a 60% supermajority.
So now DraftKings and FanDuel are doing exactly what the new constitutional amendment calls for: appealing straight to the voters, effectively bypassing the legislature. And that audience may be more receptive than politicians perpetually raising funds for the next campaign, blowing according to the strongest political winds.
While at least one recent poll shows that most Floridians don’t favor an expansion of gambling, legalization of sports betting by itself is viewed favorably by a majority nationally, and people in a rapidly increasing number of markets where sports betting is legal are moving away from illegal channels toward legal options. And, of course, legal sports betting is raising a lot of new money across the nation in the wake of the crushing economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Seminole Tribe spokesperson Gary Bitner declined to comment for this story, but he called attention to Maxwell’s column. Previously, Bitner said this after the ballot initiative was announced:
[The ballot initiative] is a political Hail Mary from out-of-state corporations trying to interfere with the business of the people of Florida. They couldn’t stop Florida’s new Gaming Compact, which passed by an overwhelming 88 percent “yes” vote from Florida’s elected legislators and enjoys 3-1 support from Floridians and guarantees $2.5 billion in revenue sharing. The guarantee is the largest commitment by any gaming company in U.S. history.
If the “Hail Mary” is successful, though, the play could potentially benefit the Seminoles and their ability to access a potential new form of gambling in Florida, too. They could join the party, as the amendment would allow Native American tribes with a gaming compact with the state to conduct online sports betting as well.
“Florida Education Champions included Native American tribes as part of its amendment,” Johnson said. “Should the U.S Dept. of Interior not approve the compact agreement, the Seminoles would be covered under our amendment to allow for online events and sports betting on tribal land.”
Thus, if Interior does reject the online component of the new compact, this would indeed give the Seminoles a pathway to participate in a market online. (The compact was sent to Interior on June 21, and from there, it has 45 days to act on it. If there is no action by the 45th day, the pact is considered approved. In addition to the 45-day review period, compacts must then be published in the Federal Register, would could take up to 90 days.)
The tribe would likely prefer the monopoly that the compact as written would allow, but if that fails, would it take some share of the Florida sports betting pie rather than no pie at all?
The consumer and the road ahead
As for the sports bettors who may also be champions for education, they would no doubt benefit from a broad buffet of sportsbooks and the accompanying bonus offers and competition, rather than the single sportsbook option, a model that has mostly belly-flopped in other jurisdictions.
There are many who question whether Interior will approve the Florida compact. And from the day it was signed in Florida, those in the industry expected legal challenges, the first of which came on July 3 when Miami-based licensed parimutuel facility Magic City Casino and Bonita-Fort Myers Corp., a poker room, filed for injunctive relief in federal court.
Since Sports Handle began researching for this article, some of the images on the Champions’ PAC website have changed. Two of the screencaps appearing above, as indicated in the captions, no longer show on the homepage. That may be purely coincidence, or an early shift in strategy for a newly launched campaign.
“If people make the link between gambling and children, that may very well be offensive to a voter, maybe a completely unintended link,” Rasmussen said. “We may all understand that’s not the intention of the link — the intention is to help voters understand where the revenue and dedication is going. Mixing them up may cause some people to say, ‘We’re gonna side with Disney or the safe side on this one.’”
A one-time odd but shared interest bedfellow with Disney behind Amendment 3 in 2018, the Seminoles may be fending for themselves against the ballot initiative. The Disney-owned ESPN is now heavily invested in legal sports betting; ESPN is actually partnered with DraftKings Sportsbook, which is featured prominently on its platforms. ESPN itself may eventually go whole hog and launch its own Worldwide Leader-branded sportsbook. Certainly the company would prefer to have Florida on the map of possible states where it could operate.
Mickey Mouse aside, any Seminoles’ puritan-rooted pushback against gambling in general may be muted, as the Seminoles’ own business empire is … gambling. The playbook may simply call for assailing DraftKings and FanDuel as out-of-state meddlers. How much will that resonate? Both sportsbooks have proven immensely popular in other jurisdictions for a reason. Bettors bet, and they’re more receptive to betting safely and legally with companies licensed in their jurisdiction, as opposed to through other illegal channels.
“It’s very common for political campaigns to talk to voters in a language they think is going to be most effective and compelling,” Snyder said. “Voters don’t really care whether one company or another company, in-state or out-of-state industry, will get the profit. They care about the public interest. I think all sides in a campaign are going to come out with images and messages that relate to the public interest they’re going to claim is the result of voting their way.”
As the signatures tally up, the Seminoles must consider the tenor of a counter-campaign against the Champions’ theme that puts kids and apples on or near the front lines.
“I can’t quantify how great of a risk it is [putting students at the forefront],” Rasmussen said. “You never know how your message will be received, how two people will take the same message. That’s the nature of communications.”
Communications 101 perhaps. One way or another, this Florida fight will have educational value.