Sports betting pace picks up in Detroit

Jeff Hoose was there in Detroit when the FanDuel Sportsbook at Motor City Casino Hotel took its first sports bet in early March.

That morning, former Lions running back and all-time NFL great Barry Sanders walked in to be part of the festivities and be among the first wagerers. That night, Hoose, the Midwest regional manager for FanDuel, was watching basketball players walking off the floor for the final time that spring, as the novel coronavirus pandemic began to take hold in the United States.

Quite a cruel twist of fate, with Michiganders just dipping their toes into the sports wagering water for the first time. And quite an ironic system shock for Hoose, who had spent much of his career deep in the Las Vegas scene at a handful of hotels.

“We had all been working in a candy store, and (the pandemic) was among the first signs of real life coming and humbling us,” Hoose said.

With no approved online sports wagering in the state, the shutdown of action in Detroit went past the restart of American sports in July. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer maintained an extended full closures of Detroit casinos into August, and even on opening, a capacity limit of 15% was put into effect.

Hoose said the first day Motor City reopened for business wasn’t until Aug. 7. The first day of typical sportsbook hours of 9 a.m.-midnight didn’t arrive until earlier this month.

Similar experiences were to be expected at Detroit’s other two city sportsbooks, at the MGM Grand Detroit and the Greektown Casino Hotel. MGM representatives did not respond to Gaming Today for this story, and a spokesperson for Greektown declined comment.

Hoose said all the usual safety and service protocols were in place in Detroit for the first weekend of the NFL season: reduced seating arrangements; plexiglass between staff and guests and also between individual betting kiosks; and masked staff members.

“We were very busy, and we had positive feedback from customers,” he said. “People will still invest, even if they can’t crowd the room. Investors will invest in games even if they can’t be close together watching them.”

As to what sparked the first real sportsbook spike in the state, the answer is obvious — the NFL. Sometimes, though, the simple pleasures are ones worth celebrating.

“After everything was gone for months and months, and having games on TV as something we all took for granted, the return of football and all these sports found new value once they had been away for a while,” Hoose said.

Big Ten return welcomed

Just more than a month after saying its fall football season was off, the Big Ten Conference reversed course last week, unveiling an eight-game, conference-only format that will begin Oct. 24 after league representatives were satisfied in its abilities to monitor COVID-19 testing.

The state of Michigan houses two of the league’s 14 squads. The Iowa Hawkeyes are the most prominent in-state sports draw. But in neither place was the announced return mt with great fanfare.

That’s no surprise near the Great Lakes, with Detroit’s presence in all four major professional leagues taking precedence. To hear those echoes in the Hawkeye State, though, could raise a few more eyebrows.

The ultimate truth, though, resides in a simple principle.

“Having any sort of college football back was the biggest game-changer,” said Hoose, who also oversees multiple sportsbook operations in Iowa. “That had happened, and now the Big Ten (looking to be coming back) is more in that camp. It’s clearly a very good thing, but I’m not sure if it was the single biggest thing.”

And Brad Rhines, the executive vice president and chief strategic officer for Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Des Moines, Iowa, wants to keep optimism tempered until teams to that date four weeks away get on the field without a hitch.

“Given the protocols that must be met, you’re excited that it’s going to start, but you’re also realistic that things might prevent it from going on as well,” he said. “From a life and sports enthusiast standpoint, of course you’re excited in hopes that things can go off as safely and soundly as possible. From that regionality perspective, to see the teams you grew up watching and loving being able to play again is uplifting, too.