Potawatomi Hotel & Casino is set to enter the booming sports gambling business and will, over the coming months, construct a sleek sportsbook on its sprawling Menomonee Valley property to serve bettors looking to wager on the action.
“It’ll be the full package. The vibe will be one where you have people placing bets and watching every shot that counts and screaming on both sides of the fence,” Potawatomi Casinos and Hotels’ CEO Dominic Ortiz said.
Potawatomi’s sportsbook investment comes as competing casinos in surrounding states are taking advantage of legalized betting on sports.
The planned sportsbook will be constructed on the space formerly occupied by the Northern Lights Theater and The Fire Pit Sports Bar & Grill. The Northern Lights Theater hosted is final performance last week with a two-night appearance by Herman’s Hermits starring Peter Noone.
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The shuttering of the theater, which opened in 2000, has come as a major disappointment to concertgoers who for more than two decades have flocked to shows in the intimate and classic space, which had a 500-person capacity. An array of artists has performed there, including recent shows by Waukesha-based BoDeans, Phil Vassar & Deana Carter, Milwaukee-raised Eric Benét, the Smithereens, Nancy Wilson’s Heart, Molly Hatchet and comedians Paul Rodriguez and Bill Engvall. In past years, ageless rocker Rick Springfield has performed sold-out, multi-night residencies and capacity crowds have taken in shows by Poco and Firefall, Jon Waite, Air Supply, LeAnn Rimes and scores of others.
The planned sportsbook is the latest project in an overall major transformation occurring at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, which includes a $100 million renovation of the casino’s upper level that is expected to be completed in phases this coming summer and fall.
Ortiz, who became CEO and general manager in July 2021 and led the property’s continued re-opening efforts after more than a year of partial operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, spoke with Milwaukee Magazine about plans for the sportsbook and other topics. Following is an edited transcript of the conversation:
MilMag: What will be unique about Potawatomi’s sportsbook?
Dominic Ortiz: What we’re really doing is that next-level food combined with this immersive sportsbook entertainment experience. We’re putting up a 120-foot screen with a broadcasting studio on the second level with expanding windows that open up to the sportsbook. And this is in Milwaukee, where we will be the only retail sportsbook in the area for a major sports town. Look, this isn’t about drawing 50 people from down the block. You will have one sportsbook in a major sports town. We’re not just building a little hole-in-the-wall sportsbook or knocking out a corner of the casino and dropping in a few TVs and a kiosk. We’re going all out to create this one-of-a-kind sportsbook with phenomenal food and entertainment and service.
Why is now the right time to do this?
Sports betting has taken off across the United States and is now a core amenity to gaming operations. It certainly makes sense as we see Michigan, wrapped around us on the (Upper Peninsula) and Illinois on the southern border and all the availability of sports betting. It’s important that we stay on top of where the business is going. You have to be able to offer all these new avenues of gaming and sports betting is engaging, it’s fun, it’s exciting and something that we certainly need to make sure that we get ahead of and offer just like we see our competition doing.
What’s the importance of having temporary, on-site sports betting options until construction of the permanent facility is completed? Why not wait?
We wanted to make sure that we could get to market and have that availability. Being able to get to market and offer those amenities so that people don’t have to leave the state to place their bets was a driving force. What we are doing with our temporary sports betting options on the property is making sure we can take those bets and get people engaged and start to build up our business as we get ready for the future of our retail sportsbook.
Will you be drawing a new population to the casino with the sportsbook or is it just another gaming option for existing patrons?
What we have seen in other markets is that sports gaming does engage a savvy demographic. Their mentality is that they know sports and they feel like they can always beat the books and want to come in and engage. That’s a different type of customer than your core slot and table games patrons. We certainly see it engaging a new demographic and bringing them into the casino. We also know that sports betting engages those who follow the sports teams in the city and gives them a reason to stop by and place their bets on their way to Bucks and Brewers games.
Why have you chosen to build the sportsbook on the site where the Northern Lights Theater and The Firepit Sports Bar & Grill had operated?
The Forest County Potawatomi are limited on the amount of trust land that we have in their original homeland here. Gaming has to be on trust land. The Northern Lights Theater, while we absolutely cherish the history and the entertainment and the excitement that we had there, it sits on trust land and we are limited and we wanted to make sure that we have the highest and best use of our real estate. That footprint lent itself for this opportunity. We’ve come to a crossroads and at this point it makes sense that we use our trust land for gaming.
What do you say to the people who have had a long-standing affinity for the Northern Lights Theater and have already been voicing their displeasure with the decision to close it?
Our $100 million expansion upstairs is anchored with a Rock & Brews experiential dining with a stage and bar. We’re going to have a high-level VIP room for all of our loyal rewards guests that will also feature a show kitchen, a stage and a craft bar. We have exciting entertainment that is scheduled to launch the latter half of this year. I think our guests will absolutely love it. As far as the Northern Lights Theater, we know people have shared great experiences there. People also shared great experiences at the Bradley Center but now there’s Fiserv Forum and the Bucks and a world championship. Certainly, we expect that turning this amenity into a phenomenal sportsbook will bring in a new era and be exciting for our guests but bittersweet, if you will. But certainly, entertainment is in our blood and always will be.
Was the Northern Lights Theater profitable?
I’m not able to make a comment on the financial aspects of the theater but the 500 seats limited us. While it was a phenomenal smaller venue to provide a boutique concert experience, I couldn’t bring in next-level, A-list performers in there. I couldn’t afford to do it with 500 seats.
Did plans for new music venues in the Deer District and the nearby Iron District play a part in the decision to close the Northern Lights Theater?
No, I don’t see us competing with them. Our core casino business is what drives what we do here.
Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits, who played the last show at the Northern Lights theater, mentioned on stage how much the casino property has noticeably changed over the years. What is the long-term vision here behind the changes you are making?
It’s pretty simple. We want to be a regional casino destination resort. In order to do that, we have to be able to offer great food, great customer service and a facility that is at or above our competition. All casinos need to keep up with the Jonses and refresh their properties and make sure they have the greatest and latest games and that they are a clean and well-organized and thought-out facility that provides that best type of offerings to be a destination resort. We are the only casino to represent Milwaukee, so as we see competition around us, we want to make sure that our box is at that level. We could sit around here and enjoy our property and just chug along and say the business is doing great but there comes a point in time when you want to win a world championship. You’ve got to look at your organization end to end and pay homage to all of your loyal guests. You just want to make a memorable experience that is truly something that draws regionally and complements what’s going on in the city. We don’t want to fall behind. We want to be up there with the Fiservs of the world and bring excitement at the same time places like the Wisconsin Center is remodeling and expanding and everything you have going on down there. We, too, want to come along and bring the property to that level. We certainly love where we’ve been and where we’re going to continue to bring fun and exciting gaming.
What went into the recent decision to reverse course on the closure of Dream Dance Steakhouse, the high-end restaurant on the property?
As we looked at the master planning of the property, we realized we already had a steakhouse that was recently redesigned and renovated. That steakhouse is going to be there and now we’ve got some of the best in the industry that we’ve partnered with to come in and be advisors on menus and brands and service, so I would say that as we re-engage Dream Dance, we know that we are going to be in this space for a couple of years as we create a master plan for the property. I’d love to have a restaurant on the top of a hotel tower with beautiful windows and a deck and premier location but the property grew so big that Dream Dance ended up in the corner of the casino that is now not the main and vibrant entrance it had been. What we are looking at now for that space is to bring phenomenal food and experience and make sure that our core VIPs get to enjoy that amenity and design it specifically for them. Long term, we’ll figure out where we need to go.
Will the prohibition of smoking, which started during the pandemic, be permanent?
As we look at the property, I think that we could potentially create an area that would allow smoking down the road. I don’t think it’s off the table but certainly on our main floors we like that around our employees we’ve created a better working environment. Certainly, we’ll invest and drive business any which way we can, but I would say long term it’s not off the table.