It took four years and two governors to get his bills signed into law, but internet and sports betting finally became legal in Michigan last December largely because of the efforts of Michigan State Representative Brandt Iden.
Sports betting launched in March of 2020, and advocates enjoyed brief celebrations before the casinos closed. We asked State Rep. Brandt Iden about the long road to legalization, how the pandemic impacted his legislative efforts, and Michigan’s sports betting future when online gaming finally goes live.
Part I of our two-part interview starts below. See Part II here.
How Rep. Iden Became Michigan’s Sports Betting Champion
The bill Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed into law was popularly known as a sports betting legalization bill. However, sports betting’s genesis came from Representative Iden’s interest in bringing internet betting to Michigan. “When I first introduced the bill, remember, it was an internet gaming bill,” said Representative Iden in an interview with Michigan Sharp. He saw an opportunity in New Jersey’s and Pennsylvania’s new internet gaming laws to revitalize gaming in Michigan.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow states to legalize sports betting expanded his bill while he was working on legalizing internet gaming. “Now, in the course of that,” said Iden, “The bill sort of morphed and became just as much about sports betting and mobile sports betting as it did the internet gaming piece.”
Iden believes it’s important to discuss internet betting and sports betting together. Without internet betting, sportsbooks wouldn’t be able to offer apps to bettors across the state. Remote options are important for bettors. It’s more convenient–and safer–to allow bettors to wager at home than at a casino. However, internet gaming also has an important benefit for the state.
“More importantly for the state is the revenue component,” said Iden. “There’s not a tremendous amount of revenue that’s going to be generated from tax dollars from sports betting. Really, a majority of the revenue will come from internet gaming. So, I knew these two really had to go together when we started pursuing it.”
Legislating During The Coronavirus Pandemic
Shortly after retail sports betting went live, Iden witnessed the impact of the coronavirus pandemic first-hand. “I remember I placed the first bet at MGM and 24 hours later, the NCAA basketball tournament was canceled,” Iden said. His ill-fated Spartans bet was just the beginning of a cascading series of new challenges to overcome.
“It was tough at first to be able to say, ‘look at how hard we worked,’ and then now to just have sports totally shut down,” said Iden. “And still to this day, the tribal casinos are open in the state–a majority of them–but our three commercial casinos still are not open, and I think we’re going to feel the effects of this for quite some time.”
Online Sports Betting’s Accelerated Michigan Timeline
Despite a rocky start, Iden said he has reasons for optimism. “The good news I would say is that we’ve been actively pursuing getting both the internet-based games–the Class III games–as well as sports up online as soon as possible,” said Iden.
Internet betting became legal when Gov. Whitmer signed it into law in December 2019. However, the Michigan Gaming Control Board had to write the rules dictating sports betting and internet gaming conduct. Retail sports betting–betting in-person at a casino–was ready to go in March. However, the Michigan Gaming Control Board’s timeline originally estimated sports betting would go live in Spring 2021.
That timeline has since been shortened to Fall 2020. “Michigan Gaming Control Board is saying that we hope to be ready potentially as soon as October, maybe November with being able to go online,” said Iden. If that timeline holds, then bettors will have online betting options after the NFL season begins. That’ll be great news for bettors and the sports betting industry.
How Will Internet Gaming Work In Michigan When It’s Finally Live?
When online options become available, Iden said he anticipates a flood of activity. “The interesting thing we’re going to be able to see is that now all these vendors–FanDuel, DraftKings, PointsBet, FOXBet, PokerStars–will be able to come online at the same time. The market share is sort of going to be up for grabs in the state.”
A rush of new sports betting options will give players an overwhelming number of choices to filter through. Iden has some thoughts on how he thinks bettors will find their desired sportsbooks.
“Obviously players will be drawn to whatever platform they like or perhaps they’ve already used something like DraftKings or FanDuel in the past,” said Iden. “They’re gonna go where they like, where they’re used to playing. But yet at the same time, what’s going to be very unique about this…All these operators are going to be vying for consumers and players. And so, I think you’re going to see a very robust internet market.”
That is a best-case scenario for the Fall. It would be particularly advantageous if online sports betting would coincide with an NFL season–an observation Iden was quick to point out while discussing the accelerated timeline for Michigan online sports betting.
“[The Michigan Gaming Control Board] fast-tracked the rules process, and I do believe it can be done,” said Iden. “Perhaps not prior to the start of the NFL season, but I think if we can be right in the middle of it in October or November, maybe Week Three, Week Four, Five of the NFL season, you’re gonna see some very exciting things happen in the state.”
What If The NFL Delays Its 2020 Season?
Although the NFL is trying to take precautions, they may not be enough to keep the coronavirus from shutting sports down again. Michigan State has already canceled some of its Big Ten games out of concern for the coronavirus. What’s Michigan’s plan if the NFL follows suit?
“I think that there’s gonna be a few other things to bet on, but obviously the excitement that we all know just because NFL typically generates large dollars across the country,” said Iden. Baseball, golf, and soccer are all available for betting and may be available in the fall, too. However, they won’t be as big as the NFL, and that has serious economic consequences for the sports betting industry.
“You know, it certainly will be helpful for the NFL to come online in terms of being able to project any sort of real revenue for the state on sports betting this year,” said Iden. “We’re gonna need to see NFL.”
However, the NFL will have to choose to play with the players’ best interests in mind. It’ll be difficult for sportsbooks, but there will be other sports to bet on. Darts isn’t for everyone, but it’ll be a last resort if the NFL has to push its season again.
Hope For The Future
Even though sports betting launched mid-pandemic, Iden said he believes in the laws he’s championed. He’s optimistic about Michigan’s sports betting industry. Especially if the NFL returns in the fall. However, many hopes for sports betting rest with the Michigan Gaming Control Board. Online sports betting is important for state revenue during normal times, but it’s critical during the pandemic. Once online sports betting is available, there will be much to look forward to.