UFC, Gaming Deal: Is Florida positioning itself as an alternative to Vegas?

by | Apr 26, 2021

They say “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” but Florida turned that slogan on its head last week, positioning itself as a playground for sports fans and promoters while other states remain closed off.

If Governor Ron DeSantis decided to take an early victory lap for his upcoming 2022 gubernatorial re-election race, few could blame him. The Governor is coming off a red-hot weekend that saw him breathe life into the state’s ailing gambling scene, as well as play matchmaker between the largest mixed martial arts promotion and full capacity Jacksonville arena.

DeSantis orchestrated his first maneuver before the weekend, landing an elusive gaming deal with the Florida Seminole Tribe. Announced on the House floor by Speaker Chris Sprowls, DeSantis finalized a landmark 30-year gambling agreement with the Seminoles on Friday — just one week before the 2021 Legislative Session was set to end. The deal is expected to deliver at least $2.5 billion to Florida over the next five years in exchange for giving the Tribe exclusive rights over sports betting in the state, allowing the Tribe to open statewide mobile sports wagering, as well as retail sportsbooks, which would only be offered through their own Hard Rock facilities, as well as through state pari-mutuels.

The Tribe would also be able to add three additional casinos and add craps and roulette gaming exclusively.

Chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr., and other Tribe leaders, joined DeSantis for a ceremonial signing of the deal, known as a “compact.”

“We truly believe that this is the best deal for everybody. It’s not in favor of the tribe or the state. It’s in favor of both parties because this is a long-lasting team,” Osceola said.

DeSantis parleyed Friday’s success into another groundbreaking achievement after the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) held its monthly PPV in front of a packed house at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville. The event, announced back in March by UFC President Dana White, was brokered by DeSantis thanks in part to his willingness to greenlight a previous UFC card in Florida — under strict protocols and behind closed doors — during the height of the pandemic.

With Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry running point, the event was a resounding success, as fight fans across the U.S. flocked to Duval County to regain a sense of normalcy and watch the first live UFC event since the COVID-19 outbreak. The sold-out PPV, which netted a $3.3 million gate (breaking arena record) and is expected to tally an impressive buyrate, didn’t disappoint as the live audience was treated to a star-studded card, featuring three title fights and one newly crowned Women’s Strawweight Champion — “Thug” Rose Namajunas.

As with any magic trick, DeSantis laid the foundation to pull a rabbit out of Florida’s hat, seamlessly engineering Act 1 (Gaming) and Act 2 (UFC’s Return) in a span of 24 hours. And with the final week of the 2021 Legislative Session upon us, is DeSantis’s “Prestige” on the horizon?

Thought to be a Sysphiean Task, the heavy lifting by DeSantis to get gaming inches from the finish line is not only a win for Florida but a catalyst that could crown the state as a betting capital. With the legislature set to reconvene for a special session during the week on May 17 to deal with the future of gaming in Florida, lawmakers have a golden opportunity to put gaming on the table and place DeSantis in rarefied air. But navigating such terrain may prove difficult, as several landmines remain in the way before the state can capitalize on online sports betting.

The deal DeSantis negotiated will likely need to clear three big hurdles: the state legislature; a likely pit stop at the Florida Supreme Court; and a possible terminus with Florida voters who will decide the deal’s final fate. But if it makes it through this gauntlet full of lawyers, lobbyists and voters, Florida will be in a prime position to shake up the betting landscape — thanks in large part to its expansive sports demographic.

Unlike major gambling states, like Nevada and Mississippi, Florida is a sports market utopia. Home to 13 professional teams playing in the five major sports leagues (Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, National Basketball Association, National Football League and National Hockey League), 60 Florida colleges participating in athletics from the NCAA Division I level to NAIA, as well as NASCAR and other motorsports, Florida remains one of the biggest and most diverse sports economies in the country.

According to an economic impact survey for the fiscal year of 2015-2016 by the Florida Sports Industry, sports across the state brought in 16 million visitors, 580,000 jobs, and a $57.4 billion economic footprint. The state is also home to the reigning NFL (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and NHL (Tampa Bay Lightning) champions and hosted SuperBowl 55 and Wrestlemania 37 in Tampa. The Tampa Bay Times recently labeled Florida the post-pandemic sports capital of the world.

Florida also has something that Vegas doesn’t: a horse racing scene.

Domestic horse racing continues to be one of the big attractions for Florida bettors. Horse racing is regulated throughout the state and many of the most popular horse racing tracks, which have only been established in the last thirty years, also include a casino for visitors to enjoy.

But lawmakers are debating non-compact gaming measures that could impact live racing in the state. Two bills (SB 7076/SB 7078) would establish a five-member Gaming Control Commission — something Florida has attempted to implement for years — while another proposal (SB 7080) eyes the decoupling of live racing from state pari-mutuels. Current Florida law requires a certain level of live racing or competition for pari-mutuel wagering to take place.

The trio of legislation will also be ironed out during the special session, but some say the Seminole Tribe may view these bills — especially decoupling — as competition.

With Florida’s live racing scene in limbo, DeSantis may have an ace up his sleeve. If decoupling does erode the “King of Sports,” a blossoming partnership between DeSantis and the UFC could fill the void.

DeSantis and White have a longstanding relationship, with the genesis of that friendship being built last year. Unlike the majority of other sports, the UFC chose not to cut back on its events in 2020, instead, thinking outside the box to find creative ways to broadcast fights without putting its athletes or fans in danger. The UFC was the first major sport to hold an event during the outbreak in May of last year. Many of its prior fights were held in isolated locations with reduced fans, such as the UFC Apex in Las Vegas or Fight Island in Abu Dhabi.

During this time last year, UFC 249 was scheduled to take place on April 18 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York but was postponed shortly after due to the pandemic. The event was eventually rescheduled, with Florida hosting the event on May 9 after DeSantis allowed the UFC to conduct the fights safely away from the public.

That decision by DeSantis is paying dividends for Florida, as White and the UFC called on the Governor again last weekend to host the first packed sporting event since the virus swept through the United States.

Despite media outlets chiding DeSantis and the UFC for allowing fans to attend, others saw it as an important precedent and testament to the Governor’s leadership. White also took note of DeSantis’ generosity during the pre-fight press conference last Thursday, touting Florida as a “leader in getting things open.”

“When this whole COVID thing started, I told you we would be first. I told you we would get through this,” White told reporters at the UFC 261 pre-fight press conference. “But to do that, we had to have a place to go. Florida was the leader in getting things open – bringing back sports. These guys have been very good to us and we couldn’t have gotten it done without the state.”

White even signaled that the trailblazing state could entertain more UFC events as others still have cold feet to allow fans to watch fights in person.

“If we can go to a place where we can sell out an arena, we’ll be there,” White continued, adding that he’s not interested in doing events at half capacity. “If we got to keep coming to Florida every weekend, we’ll do that too.”

Following UFC 261, White was adamant that Florida was a go-to venue for business, telling the press that he “can’t say enough good things” about DeSantis and Curry for their heavy lifting in bringing the card to fruition.

“I think just the whole getting through Covid, doing it safely, being the first one to come back and then doing this tonight with a full, indoor crowd (is a big milestone),” White told reporters at the UFC 261 post-fight press conference. “We Covid-tested this whole week with the athletes and us (staff members and media), I Covid-tested all week and everybody was good and we did it again. It’s time to get back to normal. I know a lot of you guys in the media don’t feel exactly the way I do about a lot of things, but you can’t deny it felt pretty f****** good to be in Florida this week and be normal.”

White also doubled down on his commitment to Florida following UFC 261, noting that he could use Jacksonville and other cities to expand efforts in a state not known for landing marquee UFC fights.

“What we want to do now is move all over Florida and, you know, do a lot of different cities in Florida to repay the governor of the state for everything they’ve done for us,” White said. “This town was booming this weekend. And that was how I wanted to pay Jacksonville back for what they did for me a year ago to help me run my business.”

While the UFC is headquartered in Nevada, the state remains locked down. Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak has announced plans to fully reopen all counties within the state to 100 percent capacity at the start of June, but nothing is set in stone. And given the fallout from the Las Vegas Review-Journal criticizing UFC 261 safety protocols — coupled with his admiration for DeSantis — White could eye Florida as his permanent hotbed.

With nothing set in stone, Florida could balk on sports betting altogether, and White could take his business to a place like Texas, which will also host a full crowd at UFC 262 in May. But as it stands, Florida has the potential to be a citadel for the sporting industry. To legalize sports betting and persuade a promotion like UFC to plant its roots in Florida is tantalizing, and would undoubtedly make the Sunshine State a viable option to Sin City.


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