Tucked away in the eastern Upper Peninsula, the Bay Mills Indian Community seems like an unlikely entity to make big moves.
But when open season for online gambling started, the Michigan tribe set its sights on the biggest of targets.
“We said, ‘Let’s go hunting,’” Bay Mills tribal chairman Bryan Newland said last week. “We said, ‘Let’s go out and bag the biggest and best partner that we can who will fit our culture.
“That’s what we did.”
Newland spoke to Victor Rocha of Pechanga.net for a revealing webinar interview, presented by the National Indian Gaming Association.
The conversation was wide-ranging and delved into Michigan’s years-long saga of online gambling implementation.
In fact, last week, Matthew Kredell of PlayMichigan wrote on those broader topics in a story that’s required reading for anyone looking to learn from Michigan’s process.
Bay Mills tribe has ambitious past
Brimley is a long way from Detroit in all ways.
It’s about a five-hour drive up Interstate 75, across the Mackinac Bridge, and a short distance from Canada via Sault Ste. Marie.
The tourism lure all that way Up North is a long shot, though Newland said he hopes the DraftKings name helps foot traffic at Bay Mills and Kings Club Casino, the other nearby Bay Mills property.
But in the gaming business, the Bay Mills tribe is anything but a novice.
In fact, the tribe was the first to launch a casino in the United States when Kings Club opened in 1984.
“We really kind of cleared the path for other tribes to follow here in Michigan,” he said. “We’re very savvy as a tribe and as an organization when it comes to these issues.”
The tribe also has dealt with complex legal issues in the past, including gambling expansion plans and fishing rights.
“Bay Mills is no stranger to risk when it comes to business and when it comes to interpreting our legal authorities,” Newland said. “We pride ourselves on being nimble and kind of at the leading edge.”
Bay Mills surveyed the global online gambling scene
Newland said he was initially surprised with the size, complexity and global nature of the online gambling market.
“I was shocked to see how many of these companies there actually are,” he said.
Companies ranged far and wide, from American mainstays like DraftKings and FanDuel to multinational outfits headquartered in Europe and Australia.
Newland said the partnering process for the online companies and Michigan’s 15 casino operators had its drama, though he wouldn’t divulge inside details.
“You could probably make a Netflix series about it.”
Still, Bay Mills locked in on a well-known American company fairly early in the process.
DraftKings emerges as the desired partner
Newland said, for staying power, it was important for Bay Mills to pair with an industry leader.
“Internet commerce tends to get dominated by a handful of players,” Newland said. “You know, we don’t go to AskJeeves anymore when we want to find something on the internet. Everyone goes to Google.”
Newland joked about hitting the gym and buying flowers, but said the courtship was meticulously planned.
BMIC officials studied the New Jersey online gambling market, also taking a strong interest in William Hill.
“You have to have a good fit,” Newland said. “I’m a fan of the Detroit Lions and I’ve seen these big-time free agents, and they just don’t pan out.
“A lot of times it’s because they don’t fit.”
Bay Mills, DraftKings both willing to gamble, lead
Newland saw a company in DraftKings that was leading the way with risk, bringing its technology platform in-house with SBTech and also recently going public.
“We had a very similar story,” Newland said about the company and his tribe. “They were out there before the law was clear on daily fantasy sports. They were going to do what they thought they could do in their best interest, and let everyone else catch up.
“And their desire to innovate and build the market rather than wait for others, really kind of fit with who we are at Bay Mills. It ended up making the most sense.”
Without a template, the entities put a management contract together and came together. Bay Mills and DraftKings announced their partnership in June.
“It was very tricky in some spots and complex,” Newland said. “We had to borrow in some spots from different models, but ended up making it work for us.”
Some Michigan tribes going on their own
Some of Michigan’s largest tribal casinos have plans to brand their own online gambling apps in-house.
Casinos like Soaring Eagle Casino Resort in Mount Pleasant and FireKeepers Casino in Battle Creek have spent big dollars for decades to market their brands in the region.
Along with Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo, those tribes have partnered with technology companies but not with a global betting brand, building their own product.
Newland said he’s excited by the endeavor and wishes luck to groups like Soaring Eagle’s Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe.
“If we had the resources to that and the wherewithal, that’s something we would’ve looked at a lot longer,” Newland said. “It is far more complicated than I envisioned.”
Building the technology, negotiating rights fees and COVID-19 pandemic logistical issues are among the problems facing those tribes, Newland said. He added going alone simply wasn’t an option for Bay Mills.
“We do not have the resources to build our own mobile platform,” Newland said. “You’ve got to build that brand awareness, and we just didn’t have those resources.
“I really commend our relatives who are doing that because that’s the ultimate exercise in sovereignty is you build your own stuff.
“But for us, the deal with DraftKings fit.”