'I'll be here a lot more now': Detroit casinos take their first live sports bets

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Tigers and Lions on the "over." Rory McIlroy to take this week's Players Championship. The Red Wings to actually win a game.

The first live sports bets in Michigan were placed just seconds after 1 p.m. Wednesday, as the state became the 16th in the nation to officially join the parlay party.

Two of Detroit's three casinos, MGM Grand and Greektown, officially opened their sports books to the public on the first day possible — less than a week before the start of the NCAA Tournament, long one of sports' biggest gambling events. MotorCity will begin taking bets Thursday morning.

Sports betting kiosks are fully active at the MGM Grand Casino.

"We've been talking about this kind of gaming legislation for over a decade, and we're happy that now it's finally here for the state of Michigan," said David Tsai, president and chief operating officer of MGM Grand Detroit. "I think it adds a lot. It brings in customers that maybe haven't been here for a while, and it adds great energy for the property."

It certainly did Wednesday, as MGM Grand held a VIP ceremony, complete with local sports dignitaries placing the first wagers.

After the pomp and circumstance was complete, dozens of regular customers flocked to the self-service kiosks and the betting windows to get in on the action. By 1:20 p.m., lines for the windows were dozens deep, if not more. One bettor, on his cell phone, remarked, "It’s like we’re at the (bleeping) airport."

The large crowds seemed unfazed by the global coronavirus outbreak, which finally hit Michigan on Tuesday, and has led Detroit's three casinos to significantly increase their cleaning efforts.

Ricky Dye, 39, of Monroe placed a college-basketball parlay on Southern Utah, Notre Dame, Minnesota, Indiana and Colgate to win.

"I'll be here a lot more now," Dye said.

Same for Sean Johnson, a 36-year-old from Saginaw who plucked down his cash on Oregon State to cover a 4.5-point spread, as well as the "under" on the George Washington/Fordham game.

Like Dye, Johnson was used to having to travel to Las Vegas to place his sports bets.

"Oh, this is really exciting," Johnson said.

More:Lions' Barry Sanders to place first bet at MotorCity's sports book Thursday

The United States Supreme Court in May 2018 opened the doors for all states to have sports gambling, not just Nevada. In December, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation that her predecessor, Rick Snyder, had vetoed.

The Michigan Gaming Control Board has since been working on finalizing the details, including significant regulations. It all was done with an eye on getting sports gambling running in Michigan before "March Madness," which starts next Tuesday.

"Obviously, very important," Tsai said. "It was very important for all parties involved to be open by 'March Madness.' We're happy we were able to do that."

"March Madness," the Super Bowl and, interestingly, occasional presidential elections account for some of the biggest action in the gambling industry.  On Wednesday, NCAA president Mark Emmert announced that because of the coronavirus outbreak, only essential staff and limited family attendance would be permitted at championship events, including the NCAA men's basketball tournament,

On Wednesday at MGM Grand Detroit, several other sports drew interest from the sports celebrities, who made the first bets. The details: Red Wings great Dino Ciccarelli took the Wings to beat the Capitals on Thursday; former Tiger Dave Rozema took the Tigers to win more than 56.5 games in 2020; boxing legend Thomas Hearns took Deontay Wilder to beat Tyson Fury in July; former Piston James Edwards took the Lakers to win the NBA championship; Lions broadcaster and former player Lomas Brown took the Lions to win more than 6.5 games in 2020; and NFL Hall-of-Famer and Detroit native Jerome Bettis took Rory McIlroy to win this week's Players Championship.

"Now, you have an outlet," Bettis said just seconds before punching in his bet, for $20, on one of MGM Grand's 16 self-serve kiosks. "Go Rory!"

Detroit mayor Mike Duggan was scheduled to attend Wednesday's ceremony at MGM Grand, but was a late cancellation.

Placing the ceremonial first bets at Greektown were former Michigan State basketball star Mateen Cleaves, Lions Hall-of-Famer Lem Barney and popular Pistons P.A. announcer John Mason. It wasn't clear what they bet on.

At MotorCity's ceremony at 10 a.m. Thursday, Lions Hall-of-Famer Barry Sanders will place the first bet, followed by a Red Wings watch-party later in the day attended by Darren McCarty and Joey Kocur.

Michigan's Detroit casinos are the first to start live sports betting. For now, only U.S. sports events can be bet on; once the temporary licenses become permanent, likely in the spring, international events will be in play, too.

The state's other 22 casinos, all tribal, will eventually follow suit on sports betting. Some, like Firekeepers in Battle Creek, expected to do so by late spring, and others before the fall football season.

At MGM on Wednesday, Jerome Bettis placed a bet on Rory McIlroy to win this week's Players Championship.

The casinos are projected to earn the state as much as $20 million in taxes annually, and perhaps more important than that, according to one lawmaker, is it brings sports gambling out from the shadows and away from the bookies.

"People aren't going to get their legs broken," state Rep. Brandt Iden (R-Portage), the original sponsor of the bill, said to laughs at Wednesday's ceremony at MGM. "This is about legal, safe, fun sports betting."

Iden said his efforts to get the bill into law spanned more than 200 state legislators, two governors and one veto. He called Wednesday "an exciting day for Detroit."

Sports betting is allowed onsite at Detroit's three casinos. An online component isn't expected until next year.

Detroit's three casinos have been preparing for this day for several months, building or fine-tuning sports bars complete with dozens of big-screen TVs and comfortable seating. MGM Grand has the rebranded BETMGM Sports Lounge (formerly Moneyline Sports Lounge) located just off the hotel lobby; Greektown has The Sportsbook at Greektown Casino-Hotel near Trapper's Bar located on the second floor; and MotorCity will have The FanDuel SportsBook at MotorCity Casino, covering two floors previously occupied by Chromatics Lounge and Spectators bars.

More: Detroit casinos, which draw thousands of customers a day, combating coronavirus fears

In addition to betting windows at each, MGM Grand has 16 kiosks, Greektown 40 and MotorCity 54.

Sports bets can be made 24/7, with the bars holding slightly typical business hours.

MGM Grand in Las Vegas took its first legalized sports wager in 1979, and its properties take in $1 billion in bets per year, a number on the rise with Michigan the latest state to take the action. Michigan's casinos could profit in the hundreds of millions per year.

"It's part of the sports entertainment experience," said MGM's Tsai, noting that while sports betting is supposed to be fun, for some bettors, it's not. Tsai said MGM Grand will continue to work on initiatives with the National Council on Problem Gambling.

Twenty states have legalized sports betting, with 16 now operational, and four others finalizing the process. Prior to Wednesday, the closest sports-betting operation for Detroiters was across the river, at Caesars Windsor, which only took action on parlays, or multiple-game tickets. Now, in Michigan, you can bet on just about anything.

Yes, even on the Lions, Tigers, Red Wings and Pistons to actually win. They're all, of course, going through tough times together these days.

"We’re one of only two cities that has all four major sports in the city, not in the suburbs," said Louis Theros, vice president and general counsel for MGM Grand Detroit. "And you’ve got two very high-end college athletic programs within driving distance.

"So I anticipate it’s gonna be huge, no matter what"


Twitter: @tonypaul1984