Nebraskans waiting to bet

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There’s patience, and then there’s whatever you’d call Lynne McNally’s decades of waiting.

The career lawyer and current executive vice president of the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association remembers the disappointment that stretches as far back as 2004, when her state’s voters came within one percentage point of legalizing casino gambling but left that opportunity tantalizingly short.

Whether they be from slot machines or gaming tables or, most recently, sports bets, she’s watched as hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue have crossed the Missouri River and into Iowa’s waiting arms.

But not for much longer, she hopes.

There’s reason for that optimism, too, as the state overwhelmingly approved a trio of initiatives in this month’s general election that open the door to greatly expanded gambling opportunities.

All three initiatives received more than 65% approval at the ballot box. They legalize casino gambling at the state’s six licensed horse racing tracks. They create a seven-member state racing and gaming commission and a $1 million initial license fee. And they’ve set up a 20% tax on casino revenues that would largely bolster the state’s Property Tax Credit Fund.

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“I’ve personally worked on these issues for 20 years. I think what really did it was the passage of time, to be honest,” McNally told Gaming Today. “There was obviously substantial interest in casino gaming (in 2004), just not over 50 percent. People constantly saw that money go across the river, and not a small amount of money. They got tired of it.

“A combination of that, plus casino gaming simply being more generally accepted now, made the difference.”

Almost immediately, McNally said, some of the currently licensed tracks will be working on construction for table gaming and machine-based gaming alike. That will temporarily require some restructuring in space for the state’s simulcast racing customers, who have been participating in a 53-date racing schedule in recent years. The eventual hope at places like Lincoln Race Course and Sportsman’s Park in greater Omaha is that the amount of race dates will eventually double because of the increased revenues, purses and activity.

McNally said the initial expansion is being completed in partnership with WarHorse Gaming, a division of Ho-Chunk Inc., which is managed by the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. Representatives of Ho-Chunk Inc. declined comment for this story when contacted by Gaming Today.

She said multiple outside parties have expressed interest in building new facilities in the state, and she could see gaming expansion as far west as Grand Island, which sits along U.S. Interstate 80 on the road to Denver and the Rocky Mountains.

Will sports wagering be the next campaign for the state’s gambling supporters? Not immediately. McNally said in the wake of the passage of these initiatives. Roughly 90% of the calls she’s taken from constituents has centered on whether this opens up avenues to betting on sports.

“I found that interesting. Of all the questions someone could ask me, I was surprised by the overwhelming nature of that topic,” she said.

The movers and shakers in the state have other immediate priorities, but “it’s an issue we’re examining,” McNally said. But after fighting for this victory for as long as some Nebraskans have, they aren’t blind to the potential. Just as they saw the hundreds of millions in casino dollars cross into Iowa over the years, they’re now seeing how their state is a secondary contributor to the Hawkeye State’s $81.9 million handle in October.

Perhaps patience on the consumer side will eventually be similarly rewarded, as it has for some of Nebraska’s biggest gaming supporters.

Midwest handle up across the board

That $81.9 million in October handle in Iowa is a new monthly high since the state began accepting sports bets in August 2019.

Illinois reported more than $305 million in bets in September, the state reported late last week. The state began accepting sports bets in July and becomes the fastest state to reach that threshold in the modern advent of sports wagering. Only Nevada, Pennsylvania and New Jersey have reported monthly handle figures above $300 million.

Indiana itself set a record in October handle with more than $229 million in wagers placed last month, according to the latest data provided by the Indiana Gaming Commission. Colorado also set a new handle mark in September with $207.7 million wagered. October figures are to be released later this week, and Suzi Karrer, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Revenue, said she heard anecdotally that the state was on a similar track to the September totals.

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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