Fierce, savvy and shrewd; Seminole Tribe of Florida rarely tastes defeat

Fierce, savvy and shrewd; Seminole Tribe of Florida rarely tastes defeat

  • Howard Stutz, CDC Gaming Reports
June 21, 2018 12:00 AM
  • Howard Stutz, CDC Gaming Reports

Florida’s Seminole Indian tribe is a gaming industry success story.

Not only does the tribe own and operate six of Florida’s seven casinos, the Seminole influence is felt worldwide through its groundbreaking ownership of Hard Rock International, which was acquired for just under $1 billion in 2007.

The tribe has put its stamp on the brand. There are more than 200 Hard Rock Cafés in 60 countries; 23 Hard Rock hotels worldwide; and Hard Rock casino-hotels in seven states, Canada and the Dominican Republic.

Next week, the Seminoles park the Hard Rock logo on Atlantic City’s Boardwalk. A $500 million renovation will transform the former Trump Taj Mahal into Hard Rock Atlantic City, the tribe’s 11th casino.

The Seminoles are fierce competitors, savvy political operators, and shrewd business people, and they don’t like to lose.

I often wonder if author John Grisham had the Seminoles in mind when he wrote The Whistler in 2016. The legal thriller involves a corrupt Florida circuit judge, an investigation by the board of judicial conduct, and a disgraced lawyer whose client blows the whistle on the shenanigans.

The story centers around Tappacoloa Nation, which owns the Treasure Key casino in the Florida panhandle and is controlled by a southern crime syndicate. The mobsters made a fortune developing the area around the tribal land, thanks to favorable rulings by the judge in exchange for bribes.

Grisham mentioned the Seminoles early in the book. But that was the only reference. The book is fiction. Tappacoloa Nation doesn’t exist, and legal gaming is nowhere to be found in the panhandle, a 200-mile strip of land that makes up Northwest Florida.

In fact, the area is quite politically conservative. In 2012, I asked former Florida Governor Jeb Bush about gaming expansion proposals that were centered around Miami and Fort Lauderdale. The efforts were fought by the Seminoles.

Bush said northern Florida lawmakers oppose gaming. “The north will let the heathens in the south have the casinos, and they’ll take the benefits,” he said.

I sometimes wonder what the Seminoles themselves thought of The Whistler, so I posed that question to CDC Gaming Reports contributor Nick Sortal, Florida’s most knowledgeable gaming journalist. Sortal said he read The Whistler, and found a few flaws in accuracy regarding Grisham’s depiction of Florida gaming.

As for the Seminoles, he said, “I don’t think they ever said anything.”

Which brings us to 2018. The Seminoles involvement in this year’s Florida casino referendum is again attracting attention.

The Seminoles, who have comprehensively squashed Florida gaming competition beyond the Miccosukee’s one small tribal casino and a handful of commercial casino racetrack properties, is teaming up with the vehemently anti-gaming Disney Worldwide. The companies are supporting a constitutional amendment, Amendment 3, that would make it harder to expand legal gambling in Florida.

Media outlets reported in May that, a month earlier, the Seminoles and Disney each put $5 million into Voters In Charge, the political action committee behind Amendment 3.

If approved by 60 percent of Florida voters in November, the amendment would change the state’s constitution such that only voters could approve casino expansion, taking power away from state lawmakers and the governor.

According to a Florida campaign-finance website, Disney has put more than $9.5 million into the anti-casino expansion effort. The Seminole Tribe’s contributions currently stand at more than $6.7 million.

It’s sort of an unholy alliance.

The Seminoles, who own large Hard Rock casinos in Tampa and Hollywood (near Fort Lauderdale) and several smaller Seminole-branded casinos, all in the southern part of the state, are fighting passionately fight to keep their virtual monopoly.

Family-friendly Disney, on the other hand, which basically owns the Orlando area through its 39-square-mile Walt Disney World Resort entertainment complex, shudders at the thought of a slot machine anywhere near its Lake Buena Vista headquarters.

Rival gaming companies fighting over legal casino expansion is not unheard of.

In 2010, several casino companies financed a campaign that failed to stop the Cordish Companies from winning voter approval to build Maryland’s largest slot machine parlor. That development is now Maryland Live!, the state’s largest casino.

In a speech at the Global Gaming Expo that year, former Caesars Entertainment CEO Gary Loveman chastised the industry and called the campaign “self-inflicted” damage.

Nobody listened.

Two years later, Penn National Gaming spent more than $40 million to run an anti-casino campaign targeting MGM Resorts International, which was seeking Maryland voter approval for its MGM National Harbor complex – which now directly competes with Penn’s racetrack casinos in Maryland and West Virginia.

The Washington Post said that year the sides spent more than $90 million combined on the election, rivaling the total amount Republicans and Democrats collectively spent in Maryland in the previous 14 years in four hotly contested races for governor.

The Seminoles have had their share of battles over the years. Usually, they’ve emerged unscarred.

Victor Rocha, owner of Pechanga.net and a member of Southern California’s Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, once described the Seminoles as “the 800-pound gorilla” of the Indian gaming universe.

“Everyone views the Seminoles with admiration. They are a very proud people because they are successful, and they have never had a defeat.”

Howard Stutz is the executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He can be reached at hstutz@cdcgamingreports.com. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.