Iowa’s anniversary a happy one

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There’s been enough going on in 2020 in Iowa to have made a year seem like a lifetime, even in perceived flyover country.

The Iowa Caucuses came and went to much political fanfare and not much in the way of results. The coronavirus pandemic has come and lingered to much disruption of everyday lives.

Big Ten Conference football was dead on arrival, and we’re still not sure if Big 12 Conference football will arrive, either. And no one was prepared for a powerful derecho, with Category 4 hurricane-force winds, to arrive and blow through the state earlier this month and destroy crops, homes and livelihoods while causing potentially billions of dollars in damage.

So it’s forgivable, perhaps, that an entertainment-first amenity such as sports wagering celebrated its one-year anniversary in the Hawkeye State on Aug. 15 with a little less fanfare than may have been expected when it launched in August 2019.

All the same, the activity has flourished here in the midst of the swirling storms, with Iowa being the first Midwest state to launch and the overall handle reaching $391 million through July in a state of just 3.16 million people.

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“Despite the challenges and external effects, I don’t think we could be more pleased,” said Brad Rhines, the executive vice president and chief strategic officer for Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino in the Des Moines metro area. “What came out of it was one of the best bills in the union, showing a trust and confidence from a legislative standpoint in the industry.”

The casino partnered with William Hill and used the central Iowa population base to bring in almost $140 million of the state’s total handle. William Hill-partnered properties had roughly $212.5 million in handle overall.

Iowa’s sports wagering law was slanted toward casinos on the surface, with a friendly 6.75% rate, an in-person registration requirement until 2021 and the option of multiple skins for its wagering services that must all have tangible business relationships. Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission administrator Brian Ohorilko said as much of 50% in casino revenues stays with the Iowa facilities as opposed to being farmed out to the national company.

In other words, “it gives Iowa casinos some skin in the game, and they do care how these online sportsbooks are operating and that they are doing anything they can to give customer a good experience,” Ohorilko said.

That experience was borne out between Prairie Meadows and William Hill, which had hit their Year 1 fiscal expectations by the time the pandemic wave hit in early March, albeit not by a rate of more than 90% in mobile wagers. As a whole, the state saw roughly 62% of its wagers completed on mobile devices ($241.4 million). The resumption of American pro sports in July spurred a rebound of a $7.3 million handle for Prairie Meadows and $22.86 million in Iowa, following a virtually dark summer of wagering, with esports presently not approved for betting..

“Broadly speaking, we feel pretty good about Iowa,” said William Hill US CEO Joe Asher. “The business was steadily growing and then we had the COVID impact, but things have bounced pack pretty strongly.”

And the bounce-back is expected to accelerate come January, when the in-person registration requirement for sports wagering in Iowa expires. Ohorilko said several new online wagering platforms have been applying to the state commission for licensing purposes in anticipation of the date. He said he isn’t sure if the number of outside operators will be doubling from its current seven at 18 in-state facilities, but he expects significant growth.

Iowa Gaming Association president and CEO Wes Ehrecke said the increased competition will make consumers the bigger winners in Iowa’s second go-round, especially those who live in more rural areas and are far-flung from a casino in which to register in-person.

“People who enjoy watching and betting on sports will find it easier to have two or three or four accounts to compare odds in different parts of the state,” he said. “You have to anticipate additional sign-ups; that’s part of how effectively a casino’s sportsbook does in their marketing.”

The state’s individual marketing is still mostly favorable, with only Illinois among border states that also have legalized sports wagering, and the Land of Lincoln’s launches have been significantly delayed by the pandemic and some politics alike.

More fields of opportunities remain for a more fruitful, uninterrupted harvest in the coming months.

“Once more people get exposed (to sports wagering) in Iowa,” Ohorilko said, “the more I think they’ll get very intrigued.”

About the Author

Danny Lawhon

Danny Lawhon is based in West Des Moines, Iowa, and has maintained a diverse sports journalism career for more than a decade, including with the Des Moines Register. A native of northwest Missouri, Danny earns his betting money as a professional musician.

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