Q&A with Michigan State Rep. & Gambling Supporter Brandt Iden

Q&A with Michigan State Rep. & Gambling Supporter Brandt Iden

Michigan State Rep. Brandt Iden has been a key figure in advancing and promoting gambling legislation in his state.

In 2019, he received an American Gambling Award from Gambling.com Group for his efforts “in striking a balance between the competing interests of raising state revenues and creating a successful and enduring gaming industry,” according to the news release.

Iden serves in Michigan’s 61st district in the state House of Representatives and has spearheaded legislative advancements in online sports betting, online casino gaming, online poker and more. He sponsored the main sports betting and online gambling bills that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed into law in December.

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With Michigan aiming for a late fall launch with its online gaming, Gambling.com caught up with Iden to reflect on the process, the safety precautions the state has taken and the future of online gaming within the state.

Gambling.com (GDC): What’s it been like to see the progress over the five to six years that you’ve been working on getting online Michigan gaming going?

Brandt Iden: A couple of things. It’s definitely been a long road, but well worth it all the way. Everybody knows that it’s no secret that I’m a player myself; I’m a gambler and I love it. It’s great entertainment and to be able to finally see this come to fruition is going to be exciting. We obviously hope to launch around Thanksgiving with online. But it hasn’t been just that. The other day, Wednesday of last week, I was in a sportsbook at the casino closest to my house, about a half-hour, and walked in and it’s a great feeling to look around and see what we accomplished. I got my NFL bets in and won on the Raiders, so that’s all good.

GDC: You mentioned being a player yourself, but what are some of the other motivating factors for you to lead the movement of legalizing and launching sports betting and online gaming in Michigan?

BI: Obviously when I started down this road with just the online gaming bill, this was prior to the repeal of PASPA, 4½ almost five years ago. The whole impetus for this was consumer protection. We always knew that players were already playing online, using offshore sites and they were making bets, whether it be blackjack or poker or sports betting, they were already doing it. And a lot of times they weren’t protected.

I’ve had stories of friends that would try to cash out of an account and get a check from a Chinese bank account that they couldn’t cash anywhere, and you know, people got their identity stolen. When you play offshore, there are unscrupulous actors that are going to try to take advantage. That was really where we started. Being a player, I wanted to make sure our players were protected, and I think it’s the government’s job to make sure that we protect our citizens through laws that regulate things, and have consumer protections on them. Gambling is no different.

Secondarily and important for the state is the revenue piece. When that money goes offshore, it’s money we don’t have here, so I think that gaining that opportunity for Michigan to have that revenue was very important.

GDC: It’s a process to legalize and launch online gaming within the state. How would you describe what you lawmakers are doing to protect consumers with all the guidelines and laws being set forth?

BI: We’re in the process of promulgating the online rules right now, but there’s a host of things. The one thing that I always point to is we talk about problem gaming a lot. There’s always a concern that if you open your state to online gaming or whatever form that happens to be, you could potentially have a situation where problem gaming increases. But what I’ve always said is it’s actually safer to play online because of the systems that we have out there today for age verification we can track people’s bets. We know how much they’re betting, when they’re betting.

If I’m a regular player and I’m playing $50 a hand of blackjack, then all of a sudden you see me go $50 to $500 and $500 to $1,000, clearly we can track that and say, ‘Wait a minute, this guy may have a problem with gaming.’ We can monitor that a lot better than we actually can at a casino. So because of technology and the opportunities afforded us today through technology, we can actually monitor people and people’s betting habits better and better protect them from themselves.

GDC: Has the current pandemic sped up the launch process at all?

BI: I will say we’ve been on track since the end of last year. When the legislation passed, our Michigan Gaming Control Board anticipated it was coming. We’ve been working on it for years. The good news is the MGCB is doing a great job in getting us ready to go. Certainly, the pandemic has impacted us in a lot of different ways and we want to make sure because our land-based casinos worked for so long, that if this ever happens again, our online is there to back that up. But I think we were always on track to be done and ready by the end of the year.

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GDC: What has it been like to see the negative stigma around gambling disappear and to see it become more accepted in mainstream society?

BI: I think it’s great. I saw there was a deal recently between an operator and a university out in Colorado. It’s become more accepting, and this is what I’ve always argued. Michigan has been a huge gaming state with 23 tribal casinos and three commercial casinos, a robust lottery and a robust online lottery. With 9.6 million people, we are a robust gambling state and it’s great that people have decided to not put their heads in the sand about it and just accept it as a form of entertainment.

Certainly like all entertainment and everything, whether it’s alcohol, tobacco, whatever we’re talking about, people can always abuse it. People can always, become addicted and we have to monitor that and make sure we put protections through the government and through regulations to protect folks. But it’s great to see that it’s becoming an accepted form of entertainment. I actually think player engagement will become stronger and stronger the more time goes on. The more deals like this that start to occur, the more people see the marketing and see the advertising and see how legal and accepting it has become.

I have friends that aren’t necessarily big sports fanatics. They don’t watch a lot of games, but I’ll take them to Vegas or take them to the sportsbook and I’ll talk about what we’re doing, and even if they get $20 on a team that they like, such as the Detroit Tigers, it’s amazing to see how much more fan engagement they have in the game. They want to watch the game, watch all the plays, and see who’s going to get thrown out at first. They want to be in the game because they feel like they have stake on their team. Even if it’s $10 or $20, it doesn’t matter. You feel like you’re invested and you’re really embracing the game in a whole new way, and I think that’s only going to grow and that’s only going to be good for not only gaming but for the sports industry in general.

GDC: Throughout this process, what kind of public reception have you received across the state?

BI: It’s been very positive and continues to be positive. People are excited and they want us to get up and online as soon as possible. I think because of the pandemic people are still a little hesitant at times to go into places where there are large gatherings of people such as a casino. I think some people are a little leery and they want to place those bets from their couch, and that’s great. As I said, we’ll have in-play betting where they can bet on the next pass, the next touchdown, or the next field goal. I think that’s going to just increase player engagement, so people have been very supportive.

We’ve got a lot of calls into the office of people thanking me for doing this. A lot of people have told me they’ve played offshore for years, and it’s great that they finally don’t have to do that.”

GDC: What do you believe the future impact and outlook is for online gaming within the state?

BI: I think it’s only going to grow. The fiscal agency has revised the numbers for what they believe revenue-wise online gaming and online sports betting will bring in. I think it’s right around the $30-$35 million mark, but I think that’s not even close. I think as this continues to grow as it becomes more accepted, as people start to understand the products that are out there, I think we’re looking at a $100 million-plus industry for the state of Michigan in terms of tax revenue. We’re looking at a major growth in the state, and I just think it’s going to be exciting. Over time, it’s going to be more accepted and more and more people will play, and they’re going to realize how easy it is in a fun, safe environment, and that’s only going to be good for the state. That money will go to our schools and it’ll be good for kids.