‘Gaming Gods Getting Back At Me’ — Iden Looks Back And Ahead For Betting In Michigan

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Even Sisyphus would have winced in empathy.

On March 11, Brandt Iden was at MGM Grand Detroit, ready to help usher the Wolverine State into the sports betting era. The Michigan state representative was scheduled to appear with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan at the flashy new sportsbook with some of the city’s sports luminaries — boxer Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns, Lions broadcaster Lomas Brown, ex-Tigers pitcher Dave Rozema among them — to place ceremonial first bets.

The hope was sports betting would provide a needed boost of tax revenue to the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan, with some estimates for the latter putting the total near $20 million per year. Opening during college basketball’s conference tournament week right before the start of March Madness made perfect sense, given the local appeal of Big Ten powers Michigan State and Michigan to potentially make deep runs, as an attention-grabber.

It also marked the finish line of a challenging marathon for Iden, the driving force to make sports betting legal. Even as early signs of nervousness regarding the eventual COVID-19 pandemic were apparent, people lined up to place their wagers.

“Obviously, it was thrilling,” Iden said, noting he put down a bet for Michigan State to win the Big Ten tournament. “The opening day was a bit surreal because after four and a half years you finally see the fruits of your labor. National sports athletes, icons who were there, those who could participate for Michigan. It was fun and everyone was looking forward to it.

“It’s the gaming gods getting back at me,” he added wryly. “After all the hard work I could stand there, look around, and say, ‘Look at this. We built this. We’ve done something.’ It’s definitely a punch in the gut to not have sports.”

From making picks to mobilizing against a pandemic

Iden, like his peers across Michigan and the country, are now locked in a battle to slow the spread of COVID-19. His state has been among the hardest hit in the country, reporting nearly 30,000 confirmed cases and more than 2,000 deaths as of April 17. The city of Detroit — where Michigan’s three commercial sportsbooks are located — has absorbed the latest in a series of blows that has now lasted beyond a generation, reporting 7,383 confirmed cases and 546 deaths.

As businesses of all types were shuttered, life no longer goes on as normal. The challenge is to now save as many lives as possible.

“Mayor Duggan was supposed to join me at MGM,” Iden said. “The mayor contacted me and said we have an emergency call with the governor (Gretchen Whitmer) to talk COVID, and I knew things were getting serious and needed to be quickly addressed.

“The reality is the administration is focused on too many important essentials for life,” he added. “Access to the grocery store, staying safe, staying at home. Other things take priorities. Gaming doesn’t float to the top, rightfully so.”

Even before the sports world shut down, the potential of sports betting in Detroit was apparent. The Michigan Gaming Control Board reported sports wagering receipts of $105,548 in the five days (four in the case of MotorCity Casino) of action between going live and being closed by order of the governor. Even that small amount resulted in $3,990 in tax revenue for Michigan and $4,876 for Detroit. And since the city casinos pay taxes on a daily basis to City Hall, there is a gaping revenue hole that needs to be filled.

“With those closed, especially in Michigan, the shortfalls in revenue in Detroit and the state will have to be grappled with when government resumes,” Iden said. “When we get back, it’s ‘OK, we’ve lost casino gaming revenue for a month, maybe longer,’ and that depends on a May 1 opening and we don’t know that. We have big budget issues and trying to bring in revenues would be helpful.”

A lament regarding online wagering

Michigan has neither online sports wagering nor online casino gambling, though the expectation when Whitmer signed the expansion into law in December 2019 is that it would arrive at some point early in 2021. While MGCB Executive Director Richard Kalm noted last month rules and regulations are coming together, Iden rued not having the rules promulgated on an emergency basis that could have provided the potential to bring in some revenue.

“There is one thing we talked about the sports betting, the signature piece was iGaming, and it went together with mobile sports betting. That’s been a slower rollout,” the Kalamazoo-based representative said. “In the legislation, it was kicked around we could’ve put it in gaming control to promulgate emergency rules. I wish I would’ve included it.

“There would be no sports, but iGaming, people would be home, and there would be an opportunity to collect revenue. Because that didn’t happen, we likely won’t see it until the end of the year or early next year.”

A final point of pride

Iden’s time in Lansing will end this year since Michigan state representatives are limited to three terms. If there is one part of H4916 he will proudly hang his hat on, it is getting Michigan’s 23 tribal casinos on board for sports betting and online gambling — no small feat given the amount of tribes — and also bringing their online portion of wagering in the state under the regulation of the MGCB.

Iden noted that the sportsbook at Firekeepers Casino in Battle Creek was in line for a late March or early April opening, and the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, and Gun Lake Tribe — among others — have all reached agreements to have retail sportsbooks and online wagering.

“The legislation was unique, time-consuming and fraught with issues,” Iden said. “We’re a state of 10 million people, a very big gaming state with 23 tribal casinos, a state lottery and a state online lottery. And we were able to take significant steps with tribal gaming partners.

“It’s not been seen in Florida or California, and I would argue Michigan would be the model to emulate to try and get it done. It’s not perfect as all legislation is … but I can go to my colleagues who ask, ‘How do you do this with tribes?’ It can be done to find a model that fits and Michigan is a good one.”

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Chris Altruda

Chris Altruda has been a sportswriter with ESPN, The Associated Press, and STATS over more than two decades. He recently expanded into covering sports betting and gambling around the Midwest.

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