When the state of Michigan legalized online gambling back in December of 2019, it quickly became a race for casinos to acquire top-brand online operating platforms.
However, four of the state’s tribes elected to create their own path with a name-brand online casino and sportsbook.
While not among the state’s top revenue drivers, their decision to go it on their own provides other benefits for their tribe.
Name-brand online casino provides more control
Of the 15 casino operators with online licenses, only four have elected to run with their own brand.
- Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi: FireKeepers iCasino & Sportsbook
- Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians: Four Winds Online Casino & Sportsbook
- Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe: Eagle Casino & Sports
- Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi: Play Gun Lake/betParx
The decision to go with your own brand is one that comes over control.
Signing up with a big national brand typically leaves the casino out of the decision making when it comes to presentation, games offered and promotions.
National brands also are able to dictate most of the profits in their favor. While contracts between online operators and casino licensees aren’t available, the casinos and tribe aren’t believed to receive much of a percentage of the overall online profits.
In the case of these four tribes, they take in a much greater amount of profit while also being able to make most of the decisions on their online presentation and offerings.
“For us, we opted to do it ourselves and why we did it ourselves is because when you do it yourself, you do create an opportunity to make more money. So, if you do a market deal with any of the major brands, they are going to take the overwhelming portion of whatever the profits are,” said Jim Wise, the Vice President of Marketing & Sports/Online Gaming for FireKeepers Casino. “If you opt to be more heavily involved yourself, then you do have an opportunity to make more money. That’s kind of our situation. But that also comes with the responsibility of running our sites ourselves, with a couple of exceptions. So, we do everything regarding promotions and marketing and offers and whatnot.”
The national brands also launched in the state with a lot of promotional advertising in hopes of getting the word out. They were willing to take early losses on the bottom line in order for greater gains down the road. Some of these tribes couldn’t afford those losses as their casino revenue is the driving force for tribal resources.
You won’t see a lot of advertising from these three name-brand online casinos, but each has their own loyal customer base.
Gun Lake hovers a little closer to the middle compared to the other books as betParx has recognized national branding.
Largest casinos stick with their own online casino name
There’s no right or wrong answer in this debate as of now. Especially since we don’t know what percentages each casino takes in from their online platform.
“So I think there’s a number of different variables at work, whether you opt to be more heavily involved yourself as we are, or if you take what is termed a ‘market deal’ and kind of hand the entire business off to a third party,” Wise said. “There’s definitely pros and cons to both. There is no clear way to say one is better to do one versus the other. I would argue 100%, that there’s some extraordinary risks (to use your own brand). For some casinos, it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s better for them to turn it over to a brand to run it and take on those risks and responsibilities.”
The four casinos that opted to run their own brand all rank among the top-five largest retail casinos in the state.
Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort is No. 1 with 210,000 square feet. Four Winds New Buffalo is No. 3 at 130,000. Gun Lake Casino is No. 4 with 108,500 square feet, while FireKeepers is No. 5 at 107,000.
How name-brand online revenue ranks in Michigan
While none of the four online operators will pop out in the lifetime revenue numbers, their total take can still rival their competitors.
|Lifetime OC Revenue (Rank)
|Lifetime Online SB Handle
|Lifetime Online SB Revenue
|Four Winds Online Casino
|Eagle Casino & Sports
|Play Gun Lake
By comparison, Bay Mills Resort & Casino in Brimley (17,000 square feet) has a partnership with DraftKings. DraftKings has collected $572.6 million in revenue since launching in Michigan. Each percentage point of that revenue equates to $5.7 million. Bay Mills would have to be getting at least 6 percent of the revenue to approach FireKeepers revenue intake.
Even more notable is Four Winds, which is leading the four brands in terms of online casino revenue. Four Winds has taken in $73.4 million over its lifetime as a Michigan online casino. That ranks 10th amongst all operators.
Now, that’s not to say these three brands take in 100% of the revenue for themselves, but the percentages are far greater for them than partnering with a national brand.
More job opportunities another plus of name-brand online casino
Another advantage of operating your own online platform is it opens the door for further job opportunities within the tribe.
These four tribes are able to have a more hands-on approach and hire people they trust to see day-to-day operations.
“If we were a small casino with exceedingly limited staff, we probably would do a market deal. The fact that we have 2,000 employees and we have some depths of really creative, intelligent folks that we were able to move into these positions, gave us an opportunity we wouldn’t maybe have otherwise,” Wise said.
For Wise, it was important for the online casino to provide a similar feel and experience to what players will find in their Battle Creek retail casino location.
“I do think that, that what was important to us was that our iGaming site was our brand and it looked FireKeepers, felt FireKeepers and did have kind of a brand tie into our brick-and-mortar casino,” Wise said. “We have a big, beautiful property that we attract guests in from a wide range of areas in Michigan. So, we thought it was important to reflect our brand in our iGaming presentation.”
Name-brand online casinos still need outside help
Even with having their own name-brand online platform, a casino like FireKeepers still needs a partnership.
They work with Light & Wonder to operate their online casino and sportsbook with direction from FireKeepers.
“A couple of things our platform provider does provide us that we obviously pay for are services like customer service and some of the financial compliance responsibilities. But, with day-to-day decisions like what games do we add, what games do we subtract, nuances with the platform, we are hands on involved with those. Whereas if we did what was termed a market deal, we really wouldn’t have any of those controls,” Wise said.
Not having a major partnership can come with bumps in the road, especially when it comes to being able to expedite tech issues or implement new updates.
“Sometimes there are things on our site that we are not happy with. But the ability to get them changed does require your partner to provide an upgrade or to provide this change. Sometimes you end up having to wait on that. So, I think that’s probably the most frustrating element is that even though we ‘run it ourselves,’ we don’t from the standpoint of the platform is still the platform and we need that platform provider to make the upgrades that we need for the site to run in the way we want it to run. Sometimes that takes time and sometimes that’s not on the timeline that we would prefer,” Wise said.
Where will name-brand online casinos stand in the future?
It is still likely to be a few years before the smoke clears on what was the best approach for Michigan casinos in regard to online platforms.
The major brands are putting up big numbers, but the four rebel casinos are taking in a much larger piece of the pie without having to put in a lot of advertising dollars.
For the four name-brand platforms, consistency is key. Not just for the business, but the tribe’s wants and needs. The national brands may see bigger gains in stretches, but are also more susceptible to greater losses.
“Like any new industry or new business, there’s a lot of growth and learning in the early years. There are vendors who look strong early on, who will either fade away or get stronger in this development phase that we’re in right now,” Wise said. “We’ll just have to wait and see, but I still think we’re in an early growth stage of the industry. That is something that I’m talking about for providers and partners as well as players and bettors.”