TAMPA, Fla. – This was the part David Hoenemeyer had been anticipating for more than two years.
A self-described “operations guy” through his four decades in the gambling industry, the Chief Operating Officer of Seminole Gaming understands that his business is becoming increasingly digital. But there was something about the crowd and the pomp and the roulette and craps tables and betting kiosks rolled out for their first action at Seminole Hard Rock & Casino that invigorated him.
The Seminole Tribe of Florida had gained the right to offer these games in a 30-year pact signed with the state and tacitly approved by the Department of the Interior in 2021. But successful litigation brought by Florida parimutuels West Flagler Associates and the Bonita Springs Poker Room voided the deal months later until a reversal by a federal court in June.
Even with appeals still percolating in the United States and Florida supreme courts, Seminole Gaming and their Hard Rock International executives felt secure enough in the position to re-launch mobile sports betting in November and announce plans for the debut of the other games.
Gaming Today spoke with Hoenemeyer at the Tampa casino during the rollout as celebrities and retired athletes traversed the red carpet for the opening ceremony and Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair settled up to the bar.
DH: It’s been a real battle. I was in Las Vegas for the last 25 years, so I know what it’s like to have that full scale, although we didn’t have online when I was there. It was just the brick-and-mortar sports betting.
But I think that we underestimated the value of the craps and roulette piece. There are a lot of customers that that’s their game and that’s what they want to play. And we have some of the biggest players in the world on any level that roulette is their game. That’s it. Especially with the international clientele, the Latin community, Central American, Caribbean, and island folks. So we’re really excited about that.
I’ve been with the company five years now. I cannot tell you how many times out here from customers … “It’s nice and all, but you don’t have the whole picture.” And I would say, ‘Well, yeah, but it’s still a great experience. Come for that.’
Now those same folks are calling me saying, ‘I’ll be there very soon.’ So it’s great to have it all.
And the online piece, as an older guy like myself who’s been in the business as long as I have, people don’t want to be bothered with sportsbooks anymore. It’s all on the phone. Their whole life is on the phone. So just to be able to be sitting on their sofa and making wagers, it’s changed that business dramatically. Dramatically.
Why did Hard Rock re-launch when it did?
DH: We did feel like it was the time. And it’s one of those things where my boss, [Hard Rock International chairman] Jim [Allen], who I’ve known 30-some-odd years, very patient, very measured.
Everything we try to do, we know what we have here. We know what we have in this state is special, and we don’t want to upset that.
We know that the right decision is on our side. I think that’s what’s so great about working with Jim is that he is just so measured in his approach. Takes all the emotion out of the business. As I always like to say: ‘Don’t get too high when you win, or too low when you lose.’
And I think that was our, kind of our North Star through the whole Supreme Court, and then these people are jamming. So don’t worry, we’re good. We’re going to get through. We’re going to make it through the other side. No problem.
Was the Supreme Court decision not to extend the stay crucial?
DH: I think so. That was the pivot. That was the moment. We were having the meetings and we were preparing for December 7th [for launches in South Florida casinos] and December 8th [in Tampa]. That was our target. But we were ready to audible out again.
When we first started having meetings, we talked about mid-September, then it was mid-October. And again, these speed bumps kept happening, but it was like, ‘Don’t worry. Just stay patient. Just stay with it. We’ll be OK.’
A lot of work goes into it. I’m the operating guy. It’s been my life for 40 years. I’m the operating guy, I’m not a marketer. I’m not a finance guy. I’m an operator. This is my juice. There’s a lot of planning that goes into this. A lot of glitz and glamor, but there’s a lot of planning that goes into this stuff. So we wanted to be sure that we had the right date and we knew that we were on the side of right.
Why not launch craps, roulette, and retail earlier because they weren’t contested?
DH: We had those discussions. But we wanted to be sure that we could have the whole package all at once. So that’s why we waited.
But yes, again, as the operations guy, the digital piece is not as much my world. I’m the brick-and-mortar guy. Perhaps roulette, whatever. I was ready to launch. And again, Jim kept saying, ‘We want to do the whole banana. We want to do it all at once.’ It’s not half-ass. It’s get the whole program at once.
Will you build a Vegas-style sportsbook at the Tampa casino?
DH: This property is kind of landlocked. And again, coming from Vegas where we had the cathedrals of sports betting, our real estate here is so valuable, and again the world has changed. This mobile piece … people don’t want that. They just don’t.
Perfect example: Yesterday, we opened our brick-and-mortar in Hollywood [Florida]. It’s a bigger, more elaborate setup there. 20-to-one, it was people going to terminals. This generation, they don’t want to talk to people. Whether it’s that or at a kiosk, they prefer that.
DH: We’ve got a lot of expansion plans we’re talking about that are big-picture things. Maybe doing a hotel in Coconut Creek. We’ve got a big parcel of land in Hollywood, so maybe some expansion there.
We’re kind of landlocked here, but we’ve got some things on the drawing board here as well. This [Tampa] business is a monster. The revenues and the profitability here are legendary. The company will continue to expand, not only outside of Seminole Gaming but Hard Rock International. So we’ve got a deal in place in Athens, Greece. New York City is one we’re in the hunt for. That’s a big pearl.
Why the CitiField project and not Times Square?
DH: That’s the best location. And I don’t say that as a homer. I say that as reality. Nobody wants a casino in Midtown. Not the people there, not the tourists. Nothing.
And it doesn’t make sense. It won’t make money there. You need to be in a place where people can kind of get to. Midtown is just … Worse every time I go. I have two daughters that live there. Every time I go, three days and I’m out. I can’t take, and I grew up there.
We’re doing a place in California in the Bakersfield area, the closest casino to downtown LA, that should be a home run. So that’s exciting too.