The National Cherry Festival. Petoskey stones. Winter ski trips and summer golf weekends.
Northwest Michigan is known for a lot of things, but sports wagering is not one of them. Not yet, anyway.
And while Las Vegas and Atlantic City aren’t exactly shaking in their boots, the region has recently added the activity in a big way, further expanding the options for vacationing visitors.
Five casinos with sports betting dot the shoreline of Michigan’s Mitten from the tip of the middle finger to the pinkie.
And with the pandemic expected to limit international and air travel, the area could be in for another big year of regional tourism in 2021.
Little River has an old-school sportsbook feel
Starting south near the Lake Michigan shoreline in Manistee, Little River was the first to offer sports betting.
The casino converted its River Rock restaurant to a sportsbook with three betting windows in the corner and 12 sports betting kiosks available 24/7 throughout the casino. There’s also a giant TV screen with 12 comfortable chairs set up theater-style, but socially distanced, in front of it.
Jonnie Sam, who managed table games before, runs the sportsbook. The book was busy on Halloween day for the Michigan vs. Michigan State football game.
There could be more betting options coming to the south of Little River. The tribe is moving forward with plans to open a facility in the Muskegon area.
Turtle Creek, Leelanau Sands were next in the game
Driving about an hour up M-31 will get Michigan residents to Traverse City, the region’s hub and one of the country’s best vacation destinations.
Adding to the amenities, the Grand Traverse Bay Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians opened sports betting in their two casinos in September.
At the flagship Turtle Creek Casino, the Onyx Sports Book by William Hill had a grand opening featuring former Detroit Pistons icon Rick Mahorn.
Onyx has free pool games, a private area that can be reserved, Golden Tee, and an outdoor deck as well.
“We kind of want to make it a sports bar vibe,” said Jonathan Idec, the Onyx sportsbook manager.
“I think the industry is really going to the experience. People going with their friends and family and enjoying the games in an atmosphere, and just having a great time.”
Idec said the odds boosts and promos that will eventually be available on the William Hill online sportsbook will be available on site. Onyx also will have sports trivia nights and happy hour specials.
The tribe also opened sports betting kiosks at its Leelanau Sands casino in Peshawbestown up the Leelanau Peninsula.
Odawa Casino opens doors to Michigan sports betting next
Another hour up the M-31 shoreline will take players to Petoskey and the flagship Odawa Casino.
One week after Turtle Creek launched sports betting, Odawa started taking bets.
The Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians also has sports betting available at its Mackinaw City location.
The sportsbook is staffed depending on sports schedules, though 6 to 10 p.m. is listed for Mondays and Thursdays, and 11 a.m. until 11 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Odawa has a kiosk available 24/7. In addition, the adjoining cashier desk is able to process bets.
The sportsbook manager, who goes by Hurricane Chris, is from Rochester, NY, and has 30 years of experience in the sports betting business.
There are three lounge areas in the sportsbook, which is housed in the old poker room. Odawa has a 19-and-older age requirement at the sportsbook.
Sportsbooks educating sports betting newbies
Part of introducing something new to a region involves education.
It can be intimidating for inexperienced gamblers to step up to a betting counter and make a sports bet. The books have all placed a premium on patience with bettors.
Odawa also created a free Sports Betting University. There, on Thursday nights for a one-hour session at 6 p.m., Hurricane Chris gives a tutorial about sports betting.
At Turtle Creek, Idec said they’ve been near capacity on Friday and Saturday nights.
Idec, who is from New Jersey and worked in Las Vegas for 15 years before moving to Traverse City, started in the business as a ticket writer. He worked most recently behind the scenes at DraftKings as a sportsbook trader managing lines. Idec also worked for Boyd Gaming and SBTech.
Now, the task is getting northwest Michigan up to speed on sports gambling and getting ready for tourists.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunities come next spring, next summer,” Idec said. “Our venue, with sports betting, we’re going to do really, really well.”