Michigan’s Derek Stevens Is A Rising Casino Star. Will He Bring Circa Sports Back Home?

Written By Danny Lawhon on January 24, 2022
Derek Stevens Michigan Circa Sports Betting 2021

The old Aesopian adage of knowing a person by the company they keep certainly holds true for Derek Stevens.

The thing is, the Las Vegas casino magnate and Michigan native makes a habit of keeping everyone else company.

That’s how much dedication he holds toward his entertainment properties, which in Sin City include The D, the Golden Gate and the Circa, the newest of the bunch.

With Stevens as a constant presence, Circa is booming after opening in late 2020 as the pandemic raged. But will Derek, and his behind-the-scenes brother and co-owner Greg, ever bring Circa home to Michigan?

It’s another million-dollar question for a local boy used to answering them with gusto.

At a Derek Stevens property? You’ll see him soon

During business hours, Stevens is embedded within all aspects of his property. Listening to Circa Sports operations manager Jeffrey Benson describe it is its own whirlwind. From the hotel, to gaming, to food and beverage to the property’s eye-catching sportsbook, Stevens is hands-on.

And in those off-the-clock times, he’s still around.

“If you come on to any of the properties long enough, you’re bound to run into him. He’s hanging out at the bar, buying players drinks, socializing with people and talking business,” Benson told Playinmichigan. “When you look around the (gaming) industry, you don’t see the CEO or the owner on the floor very often. But both employees and guests have such great access to him.

“He’s a modern-day pioneer in terms of carrying the idea of the old-school casino owner into today.”

For Stevens, who called Grosse Pointe home in the early full-time Michigan days, the days at his Las Vegas properties are the greatest kind of long.

“The really cool thing about this business that I came to love is that instead of going home at 6 p.m., I get to go down to the casino floor. I get to do the things I like to do,” he said. “I like having a couple drinks, I like watching sports and I love meeting people.

“I’m always looking at numbers and the team’s always working, but the great thing about it is we all love what we’re doing. That’s the beautiful thing. If you’re on a property 8 hours and you don’t like your job, it’s a long day. If you’re on a property for 16 hours but love what you’re doing, the days fly by. We get to do what we love doing.”

Those loves are entertainment and sports, to be sure. And Circa Sports is a growing brand in the U.S. sports betting scene. What started as a picturesque downtown hotel, sportsbook and swim-up Mecca in downtown Vegas has already expanded into a betting operation that has added licenses in Colorado and Iowa to its growing clientele.

But will any part of that business come back to Stevens’ home roots in the Great Lakes State? That’s the newest multi-million-dollar question.

Circa Sports and Michigan sports betting: Will it be a match?

The step-by-step road to answering the “would Stevens and/or Circa come to Michigan sports betting” question begins with what’s possible and what’s not possible.

The “right now” is that nothing’s possible. Though acquisitions in the industry could trigger opt-outs, Michigan sports betting licenses are all accounted for and only come up for renewals in five-year increments.

But that’s OK with Stevens for now, for multiple reasons. One is that Circa is choosing to be deliberate in determining the markets it enters. The other is the very nature of how Circa is choosing to operate as a sportsbook.

“I think sports betting ought to be done in a manner where there is a lower hold percentage than what’s out there,” Stevens said. “I’m not a huge fan of these ridiculous bonuses where if you bet $100 and if the Knicks score one point, you get $100. I think all that promo stuff is not how I grew up on sports betting. I grew up on betting Yankees -120 and Red Sox +110. Not the stuff where you’re seeing -140s and +110s.”

And that maxim can drive the first part of this puzzle, to a degree. Because it wants to operate as a throwback sort of sportsbook, those low-hold percentages don’t exactly work in a market such as New York (where Circa is not operating), which mandates a tax rate of 51%.

Thus, the recipe for a good state to work involves the Circa business model in a regulatory environment. The next step is to be able to strike a deal with a casino to get an online skin. Circa operates in Nevada and has since expanded to Colorado and Iowa.

Where is Circa Sports looking to expand next online?

Another aspect of Benson’s duties is to help oversee expansion into new markets, and his view of other states is similar to what Stevens described.

“Our team is still very small, and other operators have much bigger marketing budgets, operating budgets and bigger teams. So for us, we’re growing organically, and we feel comfortable and confident with that,” he said. “We’re looking at states with favorable remote funding and remote registration components. As we grow our team and scale, we’ll continue to look at other states accordingly.”

Which brings the discussion back to mission. We’ve established that Circa can’t right now. But Circa could in the future. And yet … would it?

“Obviously, with Michigan ties, I want to get into Michigan. Aside from that, I’d still want to get into Michigan (because of the favorable operators’ market),” Stevens said. “I would also say that I like the fact that we’re not in the initial launch of Michigan … because of what I would consider to be the bloodbath of marketing costs.

“The marketing spend in Michigan as a whole, I think, was way too high, relative to how you’re going to get payback on it. I think the marketing spend in Michigan is also almost offensive to someone who lives in Michigan. You could have the 11 p.m. news on and there are eight 30-second commercials, and sometimes seven of them were for sportsbooks.”

Not now, then, certainly doesn’t mean never.

Why Derek Stevens and a Detroit casino is a bigger stretch

There’s another much shorter adage that simply says “never say never.” And although it holds true for many aspects of one’s livelihood, never might actually be closer to being the case for Stevens’ company ever taking an ownership stake in a Detroit-area or Michigan casino.

The thought could have flittered across wandering minds around the time of the Greektown Casino-Hotel’s 2018 sale to Penn National Gaming. But when asked by Playinmichigan about such possibilities, then or in the future, Stevens more or less said no without saying no.

“We’re very entertainment-oriented. Around people coming out. Around people letting go of their day-to-day concerns or worries for 48 or 72 hours,” he said. “… The key thing for us is to make sure that when people come out, they get blown away and have the time of their life.”

To illustrate that point, Stevens explained the multitude of avenues for entertainment in Las Vegas. He listed off a Canelo Alvarez fight, a Rolling Stones concert, events at the city’s T-Mobile Arena, a Circa-led George Thorogood concert and another concert from Rufus Del Sol.

And that was just one night in November in Sin City.

“So I think the markets are just a little different. I love the businesses I’ve had in Detroit, and I still have a place in Detroit,” Stevens said. “But we’re oriented around multiple-day hotel stays, throwing big events around other big events. … The cool thing about Vegas is that there’s always 100,000 people showing up every day. It’s always someone’s first day in Vegas, and they’re so damn excited.”

Circa Sports: ‘For gamblers and by gamblers’

The people-focused approach filters through the entire Circa Sports team. Benson said part of the Circa attitude involves the little actions making big differences.

The follow-through is apparent when Benson or another employee walks a customer up to the Stadium Swim on the Las Vegas property. Or to the spot at the bar where an off-the-beaten-path game might be on TV away from the sportsbook. Or outside the books, where little touches of Detroit and Michigan dot Stevens’ properties. Michiganders will find an American Coney Island here, and a Saginaw’s (an offshoot of Zingerman’s Deli) there.

“So many people lived in Detroit at one time or another that live in southern California, or Arizona, or even Vegas. And they don’t have a chance to touch (those places),” Stevens explained. “They’re strong brands with loyal customers who don’t have the opportunity to try them. That’s played into our thought process.”

The approach goes outside Nevada, though, too. Look on Twitter, where near-constant replies to players and engagement with sports bettors of all kinds is in play. Or in person, where Circa vice president of operations Mike Palm often travels in Circa’s markets to be part of new customer engagement events.

“I like to think that Circa Sports is for gamblers and by gamblers, and having people (in high-visibility roles) attached to Circa Sports and active allows people to understand who we are and engage with what we’re doing,” Benson said. “Being organic and fun resonates with players, and I think that honesty and transparency is something you don’t always see in the industry.”

And in both day-to-day and person-to-person terms, Stevens is one to lay his cards out in the open.

“The key thing for us,” he said, “is to make sure that when people do anything with (our properties) is that they get blown away and have the time of their life.”

Photo by Associated Press
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Danny Lawhon

Danny has more than a decade of reporting experience in three states, including nearly 10 years with the Des Moines Register in Iowa. He’s covered college and professional sports, the NCAA Tournament and the PGA, LPGA and Champions Tours. Danny has also covered the Michigan gambling industry for Catena Media.

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