Timing terrible for new locales

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Editor’s note: Danny Lawhon debuts as Gaming Today’s new Midwest Sportsbook Biz columnist. He also covers the industry for the Des Moines Register in Iowa.

First, the goal posts kept moving. Next, the world’s sports leagues kept closing up shop. Over several months, and then in one hyper-accelerated week, the coronavirus has turned the developed world on its head.

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One thought kept crashing through my brain during the dissolution of the global sports betting structure: There is no playbook for a pandemic.

In serious and trivial matters alike, we’re all acting — unfortunately reacting, hopefully overreacting — but acting in ways where nobody knows what comes next. Quite a time for my Gaming Today introduction.

The Midwest made its move from no fans, to no sports, to virtually no open casinos in the past few days along with the rest of the U.S. in response to the outbreak. The ultimate dominoes fell Monday in Iowa, the first of the Midwest states to offer legalized sports wagering back in August. The Hawkeye State’s largest casino, Prairie Meadows, along with its brick-and-mortar, William Hill-operated sportsbook, began a temporary suspension of operations at 5 p.m. local time.

The remaining regulated facilities in the state followed Tuesday because that’s been the next move in this story.

Though first in line to the betting windows, Iowa was far from original in its shuttering of in-person operations. All Illinois casinos had closed down as early as Friday, with Des Plaines’ Rivers Casino, among the state’s most lucrative, done by midday. The company had roughly three dozen sportsbook-specific employees and increased food and beverage service among its staff of 1,500, who will all receive payment during the casino’s two-week suspension of business, said Rush Street Gaming chairman Neil Bluhm.

Same goes for Indiana, whose 14 casinos closed at 6 a.m. Monday and where Midwest sports wagering has been at its highest. More than $187 million in handle was taken in February.

In Michigan, an even more cruel irony awaited, as the MGM Grand Detroit and Greektown Casino were taking their first legal sports bets March 11. MotorCity Casino made a $3 million investment in its 9,000-square foot facility that opened Thursday, only to see the NCAA Tournament canceled less than 24 hours later. The now-closed Michigan casinos may have lost as much in $10 million in handle, according to an estimate from the Detroit Free Press.

Among the worst cuts of all, though, could be Illinois station WCKG-AM in Chicago, which had rebranded itself as “Sportsbook Radio” in time for the betting launch in the Land of Lincoln.

“Nothing like launching sports gambling (in Illinois) and a radio station focused on sports gambling just as sports are canceled,” station managing partner Matt Dubiel tweeted Thursday.

Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission administrator Brian Ohorilko has been in his position since 2004 and within the industry for longer than that. He struggled Monday to find a time of more upheaval in his life, either inside the business or out of it.

“I cannot think of anything quite like this,” he said Monday afternoon. “Obviously, we had big disruptions during 9/11, but this seems to surpass a lot of the decisions the industry needed to make at that point in time. It’s been really just kind of an unbelievable situation.

“We manage it as best we can, with people using the best judgment they can. Everybody feels bad that so many of us are affected by this. But we’ll work through it.”

The “how” of working through it is the next salient question state leaders can ponder as they practice social distancing. With a smaller population and stricter initial betting requirements — Iowans must step foot in a casino and register with that casino before being able to make any online wagers through that house’s mobile partner — this state has taken a more modest $327.2 million in handle and $23.3 million in net receipts since betting went live in mid-August.

Iowa Gaming Association president and CEO Wes Ehrecke acknowledged that the first March Madness would have been the perfect time for a second-half surge in Year 1 bets. Western Iowa casinos in Council Bluffs won’t know the benefits, either, of what this year’s tournament could have brought.

Both the Ameristar ($25.22 million to date in retail-only handle) and Horseshoe ($18.94 million, retail-only) casinos were geographically well-positioned to earn a trove of business for this year’s NCAA Tournament. Situated right across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska, one of this year’s eight first- and second-round sites, both would have cashed in on the region’s travelers ready to wager in areas outside of Las Vegas for perhaps the first time.

Ameristar did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this report, and the Horseshoe declined comment on its March Madness proceedings, referring to a casino statement on coronavirus preparedness.

All the same, both houses are merely left to wonder what their first tournament atmosphere will look like in 2021 without that extra infusion of rabid fandom.

And, no doubt, those days will return to all of our betting lives. But when, exactly? It’s a sobering question, and one that doesn’t leave administrators of a $1.457 billion Iowa gaming industry mincing words.

“We’re at more than a speed bump. This is a roadblock,” Ehrecke said. “But we will get back to something of a new normal. As sports come back on, we won’t know how exciting March Madness can be (in Iowa) until next year, but we’ll continue to grow in the long run — I’m confident in that.”

About the Author
Danny Lawhon

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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