BETTING BIG: marking one year of online gambling in Michigan

BETTING BIG: marking one year of online gambling in Michigan

MICHIGAN, USA — The state bet big on internet casinos and by the numbers, that bet appears to have paid off in spades. 

 Virtual gambling and sports betting went live in January of last year statewide.

There's more in store on the virtual front as internet gaming enters year two, but the offering's apparent success--in addition to several potential hurdles--came right out of the gate.

The neon lights, wild colors and constant chirping of eye-catching machines have become instantly recognizable hallmarks of the traditional casino-going experience. 

When it came time to pack all of that into a virtual version to emulate the look and feel of the real thing, the folks at Gun Lake Casino hedged their bets.

"It's kind of been a fast and wild ride," Vice President and General Manager Jose Flores related. 

Flores and the casino's executive staff worked hand-in-hand with developers.

"We wanted to make sure that everything was proper within a regulatory framework, that from a guest viewpoint, it was a smooth platform," Flores explained.  

The platform they crafted ultimately launched in April of 2021. 

"We've learned a lot," he related. "We've grown our customer base every month over the last few months."

The first 12 months of internet gambling were, by all accounts, a blockbuster beginning statewide. 

"I think it was a tremendous success… probably a little faster than we thought we'd be able to do it," David Murley, deputy director of the Michigan Gaming Control Board explained via Zoom. 

In one day, January 22 of last year, Michigan gaming officials launched the state's first ten operators at lightning speed. 

By the end of the year, Michigan's stable of virtual offerings had surged to 14 and gamblers bet big.

According to official estimates from the MGCB, digital casinos pocketed in excess of $1.1 billion in 2021.

Online sports betting, meanwhile, took-in an estimated $292.2-million last year for its share of the $1.4 billion first-year total. 

"The numbers have been great," Murley related. "I think [they] far exceeded what early estimates would be."

Between internet gambling and sports betting in 2021, Michigan's 14 operators shelled-out payments that amounted to just shy of $209-million in taxes and fees to the state, the largest chunk of which will be funneled into the purpose-built Internet Gaming Fund and from there, to the School Aid and Strategic Funds. 

"This money will certainly be able to make a difference," Murley said. 

Beneath the sheen, between the seams of its success, however, experts acknowledge a costly flip side. 

Nine out of ten psychologists name gambling as one of the most addiction-prone behaviors in which anyone can engage. 

It's why some stress the promise of expanded access could take a turn for the problematic. 

The folks manning the phones at the state's Problem Gambling Help Line are well aware.

Since virtual gambling debuted, their lines have been slammed with calls. 

"Gamblers have an opportunity to still engage in gambling activity, where they don't have to leave their home, they don't have to leave their house, their bed, a chair they're sitting on, it's right there,"

Alia Lucas is the administrator of Michigan's Gambling Disorder Treatment and Prevention Program. 

In the 12 months prior to launch, the Help Line took just over 1500 gambling-related calls. 

Over the course of the next year, however, the data began to highlight an emerging pattern.

Call volumes soared to more than 4400. 

Over the same time period, workers provided some 420 treatment referrals, an increase of more than a full third. 

"To counter that, we're trying to increase our messaging," Lucas related. "Making sure the Michigan public is aware of what to look for."

Some of those calls, however came from residents simply curious about how online gambling worked, which is why Lucas indicated the next set of numbers may prove more telling. 

Back on the casino floor at Gun Lake, fears of easy-access apps undercutting their traditional brick and mortar counterparts have, so far, shown to be mostly unfounded.

"Technology's amazing today," Flores said. "We think that our brick and mortar casino can certainly coexist in a world with our online digital casino…. another channel that we can interact with our guests."  

In terms of the big picture, long-term outlook with regard to internet gambling, keep guessing. 

"We'll know more after this year," Murley explained. "Does it fall back to Earth? Does it continue to grow? We'll see."

If you or someone you know struggles with a gambling addiction, you can find resources by clicking here.

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