Staff Columnist

Iowa casinos on a winning streak will make a strong play for sports betting

A man displays his betting slips after placing bets on Super Bowl XLVIII at the Las Vegas Hotel & Casino Superbook in Las Vegas, Nevada January 23, 2014.  REUTERS/Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus.
A man displays his betting slips after placing bets on Super Bowl XLVIII at the Las Vegas Hotel & Casino Superbook in Las Vegas, Nevada January 23, 2014. REUTERS/Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus.

Iowa’s casino cartel may have just hit another jackpot, this time courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court struck down a 1992 federal law outlawing sports betting outside of Vegas. Now, states such as Iowa are free to allow residents to get in on the action.

Naturally, the sultans of sheepshearing who run Iowa’s 19 casinos want to control that dough and tap a younger demographic. What do you think the odds are our Legislature will go along with the plan? And how about our governor, borrower of jets?

Well, since long before Donald Trump coined the claim, the cartel has been winning so often at the Statehouse it really is possible to get tired of all the winning. Low-stakes gambling on excursion boats turned into high-stakes gambling on docked boats. Boats turned into larger casino resorts on dry land. Racetracks that didn’t make enough money from racing became casinos. We now have a $1.4 billion industry.

Lawmakers cracked down on public tobacco puffing, but casinos wanted an exemption. They got it and have somehow kept it. When the Iowa Lottery installed Touch Play gaming terminals around Iowa, casinos joined in the chorus against them. Guess what happened to Touch Play?

Twice when investors sought to put a casino in Cedar Rapids, cartel members decried the possibility of competition and cannibalization. Guess what the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission did with those Cedar Rapids casino proposals?

So if casinos want sports betting, they’ll probably get it. Maybe it matters who wins in this fall’s elections, but I doubt it. Gambling expansion in Iowa has been bipartisan.

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But if I were a legislator from one of the 84 Iowa counties without a casino, or some throwback lawmaker who still cares about fairness, I wouldn’t vote to give the cartel another dime until non-casino counties get a larger share of gambling revenues.

You may recall non-casino counties get a whopping 0.8 percent share of gambling tax dollars. That worked out to about $8.9 million in 2016-17, or roughly $105,000 per county. Organizations seeking a slice of that pie applied for $22.8 million in grants.

Meanwhile, nonprofits in 15 casino counties raked in $53 million for local causes.

We were told repeatedly by casino owners during two failed Cedar Rapids bids their joints would be devastated by the loss of Linn County business to a local venue. And yet, this county and others exporting gamblers get tossed a few scraps. It needs to change, but don’t hold your breath.

And now, we’ll likely be told that it would be inconceivable to allow sports betting anywhere other than a casino. Unless folks around these parts are forced to drive to Riverside, Waterloo or Dubuque to place a wager, the whole delicate Iowa gambling ecosystem will be tossed into peril. Sports betting revenue doesn’t exist yet, but, hey, that doesn’t mean it can’t be cannibalized. I’m sure a market research firm can be found to confirm that assumption.

In any event, it will be good theater, sort of like watching an elite professional team, running on all cylinders and heavily favored. Some will be awed. Others will be hoping for a big upset.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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