April 4 is a date that’s been getting a lot of coverage in the gambling media.
Here at Online Poker Report, you may have seen it the context of the upcoming Ontario online gambling launch. If you’re a sports bettor, it’s an important date as it marks the final game of the March Madness NCAA basketball tournament.
There’s at least one more thing happening that day, though. That’s the opening of the Ascend Sportsbook at Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort in Mount Pleasant, Michgan. The casino is owned and operated by the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe.
“Ascend Sportsbook is the perfect spot,” said Kristina Griffus, Soaring Eagle’s director of iGaming and sports betting operations. “It’s a great place to watch a game and it really has all the elements that make for a great sportsbook. It’s an energetic game-day atmosphere, has plenty of TV’s, and you can’t beat the food and drinks.”
When it opens, Ascent will be Michiganders’ 13th option for retail sports betting. Perhaps more interestingly for OPR readers, it also signals the imminent arrival of the other product mentioned in Griffus’s job description: iGaming.
Eagle Casino & Sports coming later this spring
The sportsbook announcement mentions that the tribal casino’s mobile product is coming “later this spring.”
It also makes mention of the brand, revealing that Soaring Eagle will drop the first half of its name online. The mobile product will be simply Eagle Casino & Sports.
Soaring Eagle is the state’s largest retail casino, which makes it surprising it has taken this long to launch its online product. That may be due in part to its decision to go without a brand partner. Eight of the twelve tribal casinos in the state elected to partner with national brands like Golden Nugget and DraftKings. Only FireKeepers, Four Winds, Gun Lake and Soaring Eagle are going with self-branded products.
On the other hand, neither of those other self-branded apps took quite as long to launch. Four Winds joined the market just a few weeks after it opened. FireKeepers arrived in July last year, followed by Play Gun Lake in August.
Why has Soaring Eagle waited so long?
The market has now been active for well over a year, so it’s been a long wait for Soaring Eagle. More puzzling still is that it has had the technology to launch since May last year, when it signed a deal with the white label supplier GAN.
It may simply have been biding its time to launch right, rather than to launch quickly. The market’s opening was accompanied by a huge amount of promotional spending by larger operators, who are now looking to rein themselves in. Avoiding that rush may mean Soaring Eagle’s own marketing efforts produce more bang per buck, even if it’s late to the game.
GAN has an online poker product, but we wouldn’t expect Soaring Eagle to make use of it. The company powers other US online casinos, including WynnBet in Michigan, but no one has shown interest in using its product to try to compete with the likes of PokerStars and WSOP.
And what of the Hannahville license?
Following the Play Gun Lake launch last summer, the presumption was that Soaring Eagle would be the final operator in the marketplace. That may not be the case anymore.
Michigan’s online gambling laws limits the number of licenses to 15, and Soaring Eagle will indeed be the 15th to launch. However, last month, TwinSpires announced it would be discontinuing its online sports betting and iGaming activities.
At the time, a representative for the Michigan Gaming Control Board confirmed to OPR that this means the license will be available to another brand:
In Michigan, platform licenses can be acquired or change ownership, and operators may sign contracts with another platform.
TwinSpires has been partnered with the Hannahville Indian Community and Island Resort Casino. For now, its online casino and sportsbook are still operational, but it expects to wind down over the coming months. We probably won’t get word of what companies Island is talking to until TwinSpires has turned off the lights for good, but Bally Casino is one likely possibility.
Add to this the fact that Rush Street Interactive has acquired Run It Once Poker and could bring that product to the state (alongside its existing BetRivers product), and it no longer seems likely that Eagle Casino & Sports will be the last new online gambling brand that Michigan sees.