New Sportsbook At Little River Casino Ready For Return Of MLB, NBA

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When Little River Casino unveiled its River Rock Sportsbook and Grill Friday morning, Table Games and Sportsbook Manager Jonnie Sam described the opening weekend as the calm before the storm.

“We knew it would be a little slower because there’s not a lot of sports going on,” Sam said. “But we’ve been getting bets in on what’s been open — soccer and UFC. We’re also getting a lot of future bets for baseball and basketball.”

Thursday is Opening Day for MLB’s abbreviated 60-game regular season (the Tigers are the projected doormats of their division). Meanwhile, the NBA remains on schedule to resume its COVID-19 pandemic-interrupted season on July 30.

The Manistee-based casino, owned and operated by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, became the third of Michigan’s 23 tribal casinos to offer retail sports betting, and the first in Northern Michigan. “With the coming back of major sports, it was just the perfect time for us to open,” Sam explained, with the five-day cushion of slower sports betting serving as an opportunity for Little River’s sportsbook employees to fine-tune their enterprise.

It let us feel it out a little bit without being horribly overrun,” Sam said. “This was the time to figure out if there’s things that have to be changed or if what we’re doing is right. We’re working on maximizing what’s going to be best for everybody. We have kiosks that are 24/7 and our cage is open 10 a.m. to 12 a.m. Friday through Sunday and then 2 p.m. to midnight on weekdays. We’re trying to feel out if we need to expand that or shorten it.” 

So far, betting trends have reflected the dismal competitive outlook for Detroit’s MLB and NFL franchises. “Due to the long odds, we’ve been getting a lot of futures bets on the Tigers and the Lions,” Sam said. DraftKings, BetRivers, and PointsBet have the Tigers at +40000 to win the World Series, while BetMGM is offering +50000 and FanDuel has +30000. Odds on the Lions to win Super Bowl LV range from +6600 to +10000.

“The odds are so long out there that people are like, ‘Oh, what’s it hurt? I’ll throw a couple bucks on it,’” Sam said.

Partnership with Rush Street Interactive

In anticipation of the rollout of mobile sports betting, Little River has partnered with Chicago-based gaming company Rush Street Interactive. RSI operates the BetRivers platform in states like Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, where online wagering is already underway. When Michigan joins their ranks — the state is expected to greenlight mobile gaming in late 2020 or early 2021 — gamblers as far away as Flint or Mackinac will be able to place bets at Little River’s sportsbook through the BetRivers platform. RSI also provided Little River with six 24-hour electronic kiosks for touchscreen wagering inside the casino.

For Little River and RSI, the collaboration was long in the making. “I started this process probably 18 months ago, when it first started looking like the state was going to allow sports betting,” Sam said. “Then, in March 2019 I started taking interviews from companies to partner with. We met with so many different sportsbook companies and narrowed it down to four. We invited them all back — they gave us their final pitches and with Rush Street it just clicked. I’ve known people who worked for them who were super excited to tell us how great they were to work for and work with.”

Outlook for mobile betting

Once the state permits casinos in Michigan to expand from retail sports betting to mobile, Little Rivers and RSI will roll out a co-branded digital casino offering sports betting along with online slots and table games.

“I personally think online will be a game-changer,” Sam said. “Maybe not so much on internet slots and tables — at least not right away — but down the road that has an opportunity to be huge. And like everywhere else, the online sportsbook is going to be monstrous.” Sam noted that in states where mobile betting has already been implemented, online wagers often account for upwards of 80% of overall sports handle.

“Especially now with the coronavirus, it’s the perfect time to unveil online because if people want to gamble they don’t have to leave their house,” Sam added. “It’s just going to be easier to have people who want to stay safe to gamble from home.” 

Haig Sakouyan, director of business-to-business services for RSI, highlighted the potential financial windfall awaiting the state government — Michigan collects an 8.4% tax on the adjusted gross of legal sports wagers — once mobile betting debuts. “The potential for online gaming in Michigan is very exciting,” Sakouyan told the Traverse City Record-Eagle. “We’ve been impressed with the approach the state has taken towards online gaming in respect to allowing multiple verticals for launch. The tax benefits to the State could be substantial.”

In states that have been slow to embrace mobile gaming, one obstacle has been opposition from brick-and-mortar casinos that were concerned about losing business by providing would-be customers with an alternative to in-person gambling. According to Sam, though, Little River views the expansion to digital platforms as a way to grow the casino’s brand and attract new guests.

“I don’t think we will necessarily lose a ton of business with the online,” he said. “I think it could help us, especially if we use it for marketing promos and stuff that you can redeem on property. It could be a huge positive for our brick and mortars.”

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Rafe Bartholomew

Rafe has worked as an editor and writer at Harper's Magazine, Grantland, Eater, and The Athletic. He is a co-author of the New York Times Bestselling book Basketball: A Love Story and the author of two other books, Pacific Rims and Two and Two.

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