Former State Rep. Brandt Iden placed the first sports bet in the state of Michigan a year ago today. At MGM Grand Detroit, Iden placed a futures bet on the Michigan State Spartans to win the Big Ten Tournament.
Then COVID-19 struck.
Five days after Iden’s first wager, Detroit’s three commercial casinos were shut down until August. Professional sports went on pause, and amateur events such as the NCAA Tournament were canceled. Michigan's sports betting debut was off to an unimaginable inauspicious start.
Still, the outlook remains positive. Sports have returned, with all the major leagues currently playing and the NCAA Tournament scheduled to take place through March and early April. The state also recently launched its mobile sports betting and online casino gaming platforms, making wagering more accessible to its players.
The first domino effect of COVID-19 came hours after Michigan’s sports betting debut. Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the disease, setting in motion the eventual suspension of the NBA season.
The Big East and Big Ten held the opening nights of their conference tournaments in what would be the final day a college basketball game would be completed. Creighton and St. John’s played the first half of their Big East quarterfinal matchup on March 12 before the game was stopped and canceled. It was the last college basketball contest of the season.
By June, leagues across the world made plans to return to play, albeit with no fans. The MLB announced a 60-game season would start on July 23, while the NBA resumed its season in the Orlando bubble. But bettors hoping to wager at any of the Detroit commercial casinos would have to wait until they reopened on Aug. 5. The only place to get action on any of the games taking place was at any of the tribal casinos across the state that had a sportsbook.
Firekeepers Casino in Battle Creek became the first tribal casino to open a sportsbook on June 22. The casino featured a ticket window for players to place their bets and four betting kiosks.
Soon, other tribal casinos followed suit. Island Resort and Casino in Harris became the first to offer sports betting in the Upper Peninsula. The Island partnered with Churchill Downs Incorporated to launch its BetAmerica platform, which has now been renamed to TwinSpires. Sports betting officially debuted in the U.P. on Sept. 10, just in time for the NFL’s season-opener between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans.
“The Green Bay market is a big sports market and we will be the closest to them,” Tony Mancilla, Island Resort and Casino general manager said. “I think it will have a big effect with traffic and people who want to bet on the NFL. It’s exciting in that sense, and for the UP with having the largest market here. A sportsbook is something people have been asking for.”
In just 10 days after the state launched its online sports betting platforms on Jan. 22, Michigan recorded a handle of $115.2 million. By comparison, Tennessee’s handle amounted to $27.4 million in its opening week spanning Nov. 1-8. Colorado reported $25.6 million in total sports handle for the entire month of May.
Of course, Colorado was affected by the pandemic. Only NASCAR and the UFC held regular events during that time. But Tennessee serves as a better comparison since its opening week included an NFL Sunday and a full slate of college football on Saturday. The NFL did not play during Michigan’s 10-day debut.
During that span in January, Michigan recorded $4.4 million in taxes for the state. It’s a significant influx of revenue in just 10 days. Tennessee reported $2.3 million in taxes from its first month of online sports betting in November, while Indiana’s first month in 2019 generated $813,00 in taxes from its retail and mobile sports wagering offerings.
There are currently 11 online operators in the state, with 10 offering both sports betting and online casino gaming. PokerStars is currently the only online poker option for players in Michigan, but BetMGM is set to launch its poker offering in the coming weeks.
After the tumultuous start in the midst of a pandemic, there is now reason for optimism when it comes to Michigan sports betting. Professional sports have returned with safety protocols in place. Vaccines have been administered and stadiums will soon be filled closer to capacity. A sense of normalcy has returned.
But Detroit’s sports teams will still be bad, so not everything for Michigan sports fans is sunshine and roses, yet.