BILLINGS — “We really did not expect to be launching a technology sports product the day before the NBA shut down."
That's how Jennifer McKee, Sports Bet Montana communications manager, remembers the last year's start with a group she knew had a good plan. The product was up and running around the state a week before the biggest sports betting event of the year started in March 2020. But COVID-19 had a different kind of March Madness in mind.
So newly installed kiosks sat there, empty for months.
“When it came back on again, and those businesses were open again, the kinds of leagues you could bet on were very, very strange," McKee said. "I mean, it was Korean Baseball. It was MMA.”
The saving grace? A full NFL season in the fall. In their first full year, Sports Bet Montana took in $28.7 million in total handle, with football accounting for 31 percent of that. Basketball came in a close second at 29 percent, and McKee expects that number to grow after seeing the numbers from the first weekend of this year’s NCAA men’s tournament.
From this past Friday to Sunday, Sports Bet Montana took in just over $735,000 total, with $582,000 of that coming on March Madness games. The total number of bets is an even higher split - 85 percent of the 21,472 wagers were made on NCAA games.
“We really are seeing our number of bettors grow, the number of bets placed grow, more in-game betting and that kind of stuff," McKee said. "You can tell from the activity that people are spending more time in the location.”
That’s what the state was hoping for when it legalized sports gambling in Montana - kiosks to lure customers into establishments where they would ultimately stimulate the economy. And that means more now than anyone ever expected.
“This year, they have earned a total of $1.72 million," said McKee. "And in this strange, strange year, that commission, which during the design phase seemed like was only fair, it could have been the difference between businesses making it and not making it.”
Businesses take in 6 percent of the total handle bet on their kiosks or from people using the Sports Bet Montana app while in their establishments. That’s the only place the app works, and that continues to be customers’ biggest complaint, along with betting lines that yield smaller payouts.
But McKee says there are two reasons why that won’t change anytime soon.
“Our gambling laws are a little bit more conservative, and in some cases a lot more conservative than Las Vegas, and because of the way sports betting is set up, you can’t put a cap on payout, so you see it in the line," McKee explained. "And the other reason is the way we cut the pie. The Vegas pie is cut two ways - the house and the winner. We cut our pie three ways - the retailer, the winner, and the state - so you see that in the line as well.”
Still, all things considered...
“I think that it was a success in the sense that we launched this thing, it got off the ground and it performed the way it was intended to in the face of a huge head wind," McKee said. "We’re seeing very successful sales now. We’re seeing people enjoying it. That’s why the lottery exists at the end of the day, so Montanans have something fun to do.”
Especially during the more expected Madness this March. Find your nearest Sports Bet Montana retailer here.