Well, that didn’t take long.
It was just over two weeks ago in Michigan that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the state’s online gambling bill into law. Today, The Stars Group (TSG) announced that it had secured a partnership with the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians Gaming Authority (LTBBOIGA). In doing so, it becomes the first operator to secure access to the state’s online gambling market when it opens.
The deal gives TSG first-skin market access for all verticals in Michigan, including online poker. Naturally, the group still needs to secure a license and regulatory approval from the state. That should be no problem, however, given the company’s extensive experience navigating regulatory red tape in the US and abroad.
The Little Traverse Bay Bands is one of three federally recognized tribes of Odawa people in the state. The LTBBOIGA operates three properties in Michigan, most notably the Odawa Casino Resort near Petoskey. Under the agreement with TSG, it will receive a share of the company’s online revenues in return for providing market access.
In November, PokerStars became the first online poker room to get to market in Pennsylvania. We expect additional rooms to open soon, probably starting with WSOP/888 in partnership with Harrah’s. For the time being, however, TSG holds a temporary monopoly.
That has turned out very well, indeed. PokerStars PA pulled in $3 million in gross revenue in its first month. That’s six times what it made over the same period in New Jersey, where it was the third site to market and has faced stiff competition all along.
It’s no wonder, then, that TSG is trying to move as quickly as possible in Michigan. In all likelihood, securing a partner so soon means it will be first to market there as well. If its eventual Michigan launch goes as well as Pennsylvania did, it could find itself in a dominant position for the legal US online poker market as a whole.
Just hours after the TSG press release went out, a second operator announced its Michigan partnership. The Australian sportsbook PointsBet revealed that it had inked a similar deal with the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, which operates the Northern Waters Casino Resort in Watersmeet.
Though the current deal is for online operations only, PointsBet is also in negotiations with the tribe to operate a retail sportsbook at the casino. The company plans to offer both an online sportsbook and online casino gambling. Though it operates an online sportsbook in New Jersey and Iowa, this will be its first online casino operation in the US. It will not offer poker.
As is the case in New Jersey, PokerStars’ primary competition will likely be WSOP/888, followed by partypoker.
Neither has yet announced its partner in the state, though, in the latter’s case, we can predict it will be the MGM Grand in Detroit due to the existing deal between partypoker’s parent company GVC and MGM. WSOP/888’s partners elsewhere have been casinos owned by WSOP-parent company Caesars. However, neither Caesars nor Eldorado Resorts (which will purchase it this year) own property in Michigan.
One possibility would be the Motor City Hotel and Casino. It’s the only non-tribal casino in the state not affiliated with one of Caesars’ major competitors. Meanwhile, Jim Wise, vice president of marketing for the FireKeepers tribal casino, says it is in negotiations with a sportsbook and may make an announcement this week.
Michigan poker players shouldn’t get too excited about the news quite yet. Nothing is surprising here, and an actual launch is still a long way off. Given the size of the state, it was certain once the bill passed that TSG would be bringing PokerStars and Fox Bet to Michigan.
The choice of partner is interesting but likewise not unexpected.
TSG’s strategy in the US seems to favor partnering with smaller casinos in order to prioritize its brand. In New Jersey, it partnered with Resorts, and in Pennsylvania with Mount Airy. Both are among the smallest land-based operations in their states in terms of floor space and revenue. The same is true of the Odawa Casino Resort.
There’s no official timeline to launch for online gambling in Michigan. Historical precedent tells us it’ll likely be a long wait, however. The PA online gambling bill passed in October 2017, for instance, and the first online casinos didn’t go live until July 2019. It was over two years from the passage of the bill before PokerStars launched.
Even with this rapidly announced partnership, then, it would be optimistic to hope for launch in 2020. Michigan poker players will likely have to wait for some time in 2021 to see the first legal hands dealt online.