BETTING BIG: Marking a year of online gambling in Michigan

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MICHIGAN, USA — The state has been betting big on online casinos, and judging by the numbers, that bet appears to have paid off.

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 apparent success of the offering – in addition to several potential hurdles – came out right off the bat.

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

When it came time to wrap it all up in a virtual version to mimic the look and feel of the real thing, the folks at Gun Lake Casino hedged their bets.

“It’s been kind of a fast and wild race,” vice president and general manager Jose Flores said.

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

“We wanted to make sure that everything was correct within a regulatory framework, that from the point of view of the guests, it was a smooth platform,” explained Flores.

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The platform they designed was finally launched in April 2021.

“We learned a lot,” he said. “We have grown our customer base every month over the past few months.”

The first 12 months of internet gambling was, by all accounts, a statewide starting blockbuster.

“I think it was a huge success…probably a little faster than we thought we could do it,” Michigan Gaming Control Board deputy director David Murley explained via Zoom.

In a single day, January 22 of last year, Michigan gaming officials launched the state’s top ten operators with lightning speed.

By the end of the year, Michigan’s stable of virtual offers had grown to 14, and players were betting big.

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

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

“The numbers have been great,” Murley said. “I think [they] far exceeded what the first estimates would be.”

Between internet gambling and sports betting in 2021, Michigan’s 14 operators shelled out payments that amounted to just under $209 million in taxes and fees to the state, the largest of which part will be directed to the Internet Gaming Fund and from there to the School Aid Fund and the Strategic Fund.

“That money can definitely make a difference,” Murley said.

Beneath the brilliance, between the seams of its success, however, experts recognize a costly setback.

Nine out of ten psychologists cite gambling as one of the most addictive behaviors anyone can engage in.

This is why some point out that the promise of expanded access could take a problematic turn.

The people who handle the phones of the state’s Problem Gambling Hotline are well aware of this.

Ever since the virtual game debuted, their lines have been slammed with calls.

“Players have the ability to continue to participate in gaming activities, where they don’t have to leave their homes, they don’t have to leave their house, their bed, a chair they’re sitting in, that’s is right there”,

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

In the 12 months leading up to launch, the helpline received just over 1,500 gaming-related calls.

Over the next year, however, the data began to show an emerging trend.

Call volumes soared to over 4,400.

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

“To counter that, we’re trying to increase our messaging,” Lucas shared. “Making sure the Michigan public knows what to look for.”

However, some of those calls have come from residents who are simply curious about how online gambling works, which is why Lucas said the next set of numbers may prove more revealing.

Back on the Gun Lake casino floor, fears that easy-to-access apps will undermine their traditional brick-and-mortar counterparts have so far proven mostly unfounded.

“The technology is amazing today,” said Flores. “We believe that our physical casino can certainly co-exist in a world with our online digital casino…another channel through which we can interact with our customers.”

As for the bigger picture, the long term outlook for 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 will see.

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

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