November 27, 2022


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Will Florida Become a Vegas State?

Mike Vogel | 5/1/2006
Will Florida become a Vegas state?

On an unseasonably warm March afternoon, a dozen jai alai players spend their 10th day on an informational picket line outside the Dania fronton. Among those toting neon-colored "Save Our Sport" posterboard signs are Jose Ramon Oyarbide and Pedro M. "Iru" Irusta, two Basques from the region of Spain that gave the sport its birth.

Their immediate concern isn't the fading attendance and stagnant wagering that have put jai alai frontons and other pari-mutuel venues -- dog, thoroughbred and harness tracks -- in a steady decline this decade.

Instead, the players are most worried about precisely the measure that is supposed to save them: By July 1, the state should finish the regulations that will open the pari-mutuels in Broward to 6,000 Vegas-style slot machines, the first such legal machines in Florida. The high-revenue slots may boost profits for the frontons and tracks, but it may kill the jai alai players' sport and livelihood in the process, says Oyarbide: "That's our fear."

The introduction of slots is disrupting not just jai alai, but the entire gambling landscape in the state. And limits are rising in what's already a high-stakes industry. Consider: Gambling in Florida from the lottery, pari-mutuels and tribes alone amounts to $5.8 billion, or $335 per capita for all Floridians. Wagering in less-tracked venues pushes the handle higher. Large gambling vessels, for instance, run $20 million to $25 million in annual casino revenue. There are at least 600 bingo sites in Florida and 200 adult arcades -- Chuck E. Cheeses for seniors where prizes can be retailer debit cards.

The introduction of slots is expected to add $450 million to the Florida handle in their first full year of operation.

The upheaval that's now playing out -- the first major change in Florida's gambling landscape in two decades -- began in 2004, when Florida voters by a margin of 1.66 percentage points allowed Miami-Dade and Broward to decide whether their frontons and tracks could operate Vegas slots while sharing tax revenue statewide. In the referenda that followed, with Gov. Jeb Bush arguing against slots, Miami-Dade rejected the machines, while Broward approved.

Some of the fallout from Broward's vote is predictable and immediate. Federal law requires that Indian tribes be able to offer any forms of gambling that are legal in the state, so the tribes will be able to upgrade to Vegas slots at their casinos in Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Collier and Glades.

Other implications of the Broward vote, however, are unclear -- including how far and how fast gambling will expand elsewhere in Florida.

Part of the answer will depend on voters. Next year, for example, the pari-mutuels again will ask Miami-Dade voters to approve Vegas slots. Ken Dunn, president of Miami Gardens' 220-acre Calder Race Course, owned by publicly held Louisville-based Churchill Downs, says Miami-Dade voters "will see the jobs created in Broward" and Miami-Dade residents spending money in Broward and approve slots.

Tags: Politics & Law, Dining & Travel, Southeast, Around Florida, Government/Politics & Law

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