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Niyo: Trio of brick-and-mortar sportsbooks begins 'new era' of betting in Detroit

12th March, 03:43

After a long wait in a line that snaked around a corner, hemmed in by velvet ropes and crowd-control stanchions inside the MGM Grand Detroit casino, and after a much longer wait that Daron Beasley estimates has lasted nearly half his life, the 50-year-old Detroiter had no trouble summing up his feelings Wednesday afternoon.

"Oh, man, it's a relief," he said, smiling broadly, after becoming one of the very first Michigan residents to take part in legalized sports betting in the state.

In his hand, Beasley held a pair of betting slips from his initial wagers on Wednesday's college basketball action: a $10 parlay and $16 round-robin bet that'd be worth nearly $350 if he cashed both.

Hours later, with the sports world seemingly shutting down in response to the coronavirus pandemic, all bets were off -- figuratively speaking -- about just where the action will come from for eager gamblers here.

But in his mind, Beasley felt as if he'd already hit the jackpot, emptying an online gambling account he'd used for more than a decade -- through the Panama-based BetOnline -- and planning to be a daily customer now at the trio of sportsbooks open for business in downtown Detroit. MGM Grand and Greektown casinos began taking sports bets Wednesday, while the MotorCity Casino will follow suit Thursday morning with a sportsbook operated by FanDuel.

"Once I win, I can get my money right then and there, instead of waiting on some offshore book to send me money," explained Beasley, an avid baseball fan who says he's been betting on sports since 1997. "And this adds a little excitement to my life."

On Wednesday, before the NBA suspended its season and other sports leagues and governing bodies finished weighing their options, Beasley's was far from the only excited voice in the crowd.

Gamblers gathered outside the casino's newly-renovated $6.5 million BETMGM Sports Lounge, outfitted with 60 HD TV screens, a full bar with tabletop video poker machines, lounge seating as well as a half-dozen betting windows and 15 self-service betting kiosks. And yes, with dispensers of Purell hand sanitizer ready and waiting, though it's probably a safe bet you won't find a more risk-averse population than in a casino sportsbook.

Gregory Ponders, 62, of Detroit, placed a pair of $10 bets -- one of them on the Los Angeles Lakers to win the NBA title -- and then joked, "I'm about to have a heart attack. I'm so excited, I'm sweating!"

Nearby stood the lawmaker who'd labored for nearly five years to make this day happen. Brandt Iden, a third-term Republican state representative from the Kalamazoo area, has spent most of his time in office spearheading the legislative push to allow sports betting and expand online gaming in Michigan.

"This, for me, is a legacy project," said Iden, whose effort has spanned 220 state reps, two governors and one veto -- a stunning lame-duck TKO that then-Gov. Rick Snyder delivered just after Christmas in 2018.

"But we're here today, and that's the most important thing," added Iden, one of a handful of celebrity VIPs who stepped to the MGM betting windows first -- he bet $100 for a chance to win $350 if Michigan State wins the Big Ten Tournament -- following a ribbon-cutting ceremony. "This is not just about the economic impact for the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan. This is also about protecting consumers. This is to ensure that people don't have to go to their bookies anymore -- they're not gonna get their legs broken for not paying their bills. This is about legal, safe, fun sports betting."

Michigan became the 20th state in the country to legalize sports wagering in December, and Wednesday became the 16th state to start taking bets, nearly 22 months after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA) and effectively lifted the federal law prohibiting sports betting.

The Michigan Gaming Control Board approved temporary licenses for Detroit's three casinos to begin operating their brick-and-mortar sportsbooks this week -- just in time for March Madness -- but mobile betting options are still several months away. Iden says he hopes that will happen by the end of the year, or early 2021 in time for the Super Bowl. And whenever it does happen, that'll account for the bulk of a yearly handle that officials hoped would approach $200 million and, according to the Michigan Department of Treasury, add an estimated $19 million in annual revenue for the state.

Those numbers figure to take a serious hit now, of course, with the sports world threatening to go dark for the foreseeable future. Still, the bottom line is this was hailed as progress.

"Michigan is a sports-mad state," said Matt Prevost, a University of Michigan alum who is now the chief marketing officer for Roar Digital, a joint venture between MGM Resorts and GVC Holdings, the British-based sports betting giant. "And frankly here in Detroit, we're in the middle of a renaissance of sorts. You have four (pro sports) teams within four blocks of one another, in close proximity to this casino. It couldn't be a better venue, couldn't be a better state for us to compete. ...

"Initially, there are a lot of customers who feel more comfortable in an in-person setting. But over time, you'll see 80-90 percent of the business will go toward mobile."

For now, though, David Tsai, president and CEO of MGM Detroit, was anticipating as many as a few thousand daily wagers at the sportsbook, which has been packed on recent nights -- even without the in-house betting option -- for everything from a Michigan-Michigan State basketball game to an Ultimate Fighting Championship card. Lots of bettors Wednesday were jumping on the Tigers' over-under win total (56 1/2) for the upcoming season.

"Sports betting isn't just a gambling activity," Tsai said. "It's part of the sports entertainment experience."

And it's one reason Louis Theros, MGM Grand's vice president and general counsel, sounded a bit relieved Wednesday as well, following months of questions from regular customers.

"It has been palpable in here," Theros said. "My office is upstairs by the hotel, but I walk the floor multiple times a day and as soon as someone would see my badge, holy mackerel, it was non-stop, 'When's it coming? When will it start?'"

Wednesday, that all came to an end, just as what Tsai described as a "new era" in Detroit began in earnest.

"And based upon that line I'm seeing over there," laughed Iden, motioning over to where Beasley and others stood patiently waiting for the green light, "it's even more than I anticipated."