Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
The odds remain in favor of sports wagering at FireKeepers Casino Hotel despite the postponement of the college football season for conferences like the Big 10 and the Pac-12, says Jim Wise, Vice President of Marketing for FireKeepers.
The cancellation of college football is “clearly going to decrease traffic, but we haven’t been opened for more than three months and have nothing to compare it to, so to say what percentage we might be off is impossible,” Wise says.
The first phase of the on-premises sports wagering began on June 22 in Dacey’s Sports Book and Taphouse on the FireKeepers campus following Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s signing of the Lawful Sports Betting Act in December 2019, making Michigan the 19th
state to legalize sports betting at its tribal casinos.
Whitmer called the legislation to legalize sports betting and internet gambling, “a bipartisan win for the state that will bolster funding for public schools and permanently dedicated funding to help first responders who get cancer from fighting fires.”
The Betting Act allows the Michigan Gaming Control Board to issue sports gambling licenses to tribal casinos. FireKeepers is the first Tribal Casino in the state to apply for and receive a license and begin offering sports wagering.
With so many sports, at the college and professional level, in a holding pattern because of concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19 to players, coaching staffs, and fans, Wise is betting on Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association to give fans of sports wagering ample opportunities to win big. As of now, the baseball season ends on September 30 with playoffs in October. The same is true with the NBA and its playoff schedule.
Wise says the National Football League which is moving forward with its season will pick up some of the slack created by the postponement of college football.
“The MLB, the NBA, and the NHL have generated quite a bit of interest for our sports wagering guests, so from that standpoint it’s been encouraging,” he says. “When you package together the NFL with other sports, there’s certainly going to be a large menu of sports for bettors to pick from. We’re going to have the ability to go well into October whether we have college football or not.”
Wise says casino leadership had been interested in seeing the state pass a gaming bill that would allow FireKeepers to offer on-site and virtual sports gaming.
“We had people asking about it,” he says.
The state of Nevada has had sports wagering for many years. An original decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in May 2018 allowed other states to offer sports wagering on a very limited basis. The Court eventually relaxed the original limitations leaving it up to states to pass their own laws.
A number of states, including Michigan, saw how successful it had been in other states and opted in, Wise says. He says casino properties in Detroit were the first in Michigan to begin offering the betting option but had to close down operations because of the pandemic, which also presented some challenges to FireKeepers in the way employees would be trained in the operation of sports wagering.
“It was actually a huge process to get the software installed and the staff training accomplished during the worst of the pandemic. Everything had to be done through Skype meetings,” Wise says. “We worked remotely throughout the time the casino was closed until we were able to open on-premises.”
As professional sports teams and leagues in the United States were working on plans to begin their seasons to maintain the health and safety of their players in the face of COVID-19, Wise says patrons to Dacey’s were able to place bets on teams playing in the Korean Baseball League. ESPN was broadcasting these games while Major League Baseball in the United States was on hold and he says some guests remain loyal fans of those games and continue to follow them, in addition to their favorite teams stateside.
Wagering also was available on golf tournaments, international soccer leagues, and Mixed Martial Arts which are part of the Ultimate Fighting Championships.
Wise says the benefit of having limited sports was the time it gave his employees to get through the opening and get comfortable with the processes involved in sports wagering.
About one dozen new positions were added to handle the anticipated increase in guest traffic at Dacey’s, a sports bar and restaurant offering bar-type food and more than 40 craft beers while following social distancing guidelines that limit the number of guests at any given time. There also is a number of wide-screen televisions for patrons who can watch their favorite teams while eating and drinking.
Wise says betting windows and self-service betting terminals were added when they knew they would be able to offer sports wagering.
He says with the on-site phase up and running, the focus is now on the virtual service, which will be a plus for patrons who aren’t ready to make in-person visits.
Sports wagering, he says, gives sports fans another way to support their favorite teams and place wagers in a safe atmosphere.
“They love their sports and they have their favorite teams and this is a natural offshoot of that and the general popularity of sports in the U.S.”