DES MOINES — Sports betting in Iowa went from $372 million over the last seven months to zero over the last 24 hours after coronavirus fears caused widespread postponements or cancellations of sporting events — including the lucrative NCAA basketball tournament known to create fan madness in March.
Iowa’s state-regulated casinos are evaluating or canceling some concert, promotions or conference gatherings while keeping their doors open for gambling activities in frequently sanitized facilities, officials say, but wagering has gone silent at on-site and online sportsbooks because there’s virtually no major event to bet on.
“I did hear some murmurs of some people wagering on curling and archery and Russian cricket because those are the only things that are available in some markets,” said Max Bichsel, vice president of U.S. business for the Gambling.com Group, a marketing company in the sports betting industry.
For the most part, this week has been like no other in sports history as efforts to contain a global COVID-19 pandemic forced professional and amateur athletic associations to suspend, delay or scrap myriad league, tournament and individual competitions.
Foremost among them was the wildly popular men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments that stretch over three weeks and involve multiple teams. Other casualties included the NBA, NHL, MLB, NASCAR and golf events, along with lesser competitions that were no less popular.
“We’re as disappointed as anyone. We had big plans for March Madness,” said Dan Franz, general manager of the Riverside Casino & Golf Resort, who had planned a two-day “Riverside Ruckus” to coincide with the college basketball tournament.
Franz said he found it “pretty striking” walking through his casino’s sportsbook area Friday morning and seeing blank TV screens that normally show betting lines and odds. The TVs now are showing sports replays during what he hopes is a “temporary stop” for major sporting events.
Franz said his staff at Riverside is working to ensure a clean, sanitized and appealing entertainment and work environment by taking steps to combat any type of flu or virus concern.
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He praised the foresight of lawmakers and state regulators to locate sportsbooks within established casinos that can weather an unexpected financial hit such as what happened this week.
“These are unprecedented, historic times to help contain the spread of the coronavirus,” said Wes Ehrecke of the Iowa Gaming Association, an umbrella group for the 19 licensed casinos in Iowa that offer sports betting at all but one location. “Definitely, it’ll have a significant impact.”
Iowa gamblers had wagered nearly $372.2 million on sports events either online ($190.2 million) and on-site ($137 million) since Aug. 15, when sports betting became legal in Iowa, and Feb. 29. They won about $304 million on those bets. Net receipts totaled more than $23.2 million, and the state collected over $1.6 million in taxes, according to the state Racing and Gaming Commission.
“For the most part, we’re not going to see very much activity for sports betting in the month of March,” commission administrator Brian Ohorilko said, noting the casinos’ focus has rightfully shifted to the health and safety of their customers during an “evolving” situation.
He said he has not heard of any casinos “that are talking about closing down.”
Ohorilko — who last week released economic impact information indicating state-licensed casinos contributed more than $1.1 billion to the Iowa economy ¬— noted the sports wagering is a small portion of the industry’s overall operations and the impact on sports betting is something it will work through.
TOUGH ON IOWA
Bichsel, of the Gambling.com Group, noted the full impact of this halting of sports betting will depend on how short-lived the interruption is and when the competition returns.
“This is a generational occurrence,” he said. “It’s had a devastating effect on sports.”
Bichsel called the situation in Iowa a “perfect storm” — in that casinos that had invested in a new offering and were just gearing up a new customer base heading into one of the premiere multigame, multiday sports events in March Madness when it got waylaid by the coronavirus.
“You’re generating days of constant bets coming in,” he said. “The fact that it spans over a wide range of time, versus something like the Super Bowl that’s only one day — it gives you massive opportunities so it’s definitely important to have had that,” he said. “It’s not something that you can really make up.
“There’s no money coming in, there’s no money coming out. Bettors aren’t winning, bettors aren’t losing. It’s effectively a standstill. Nothing’s happening,” said Bichsel. “It’s just an unreal time for everyone.”
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The lull comes when Iowa bettors were on a roll of sorts. Because the Feb. 2 Super Bowl involved the Kansas City Chiefs, that regional fan base wagered about $6.5 million in Iowa and a number of them “fared very well,” Ehrecke said.
“I believe all, if not a majority, of the books did take a loss on the Super Bowl,” noted Ohorilko.
Overall, he said, the casinos’ “hold” last month was under 2 percent and they lost $614,574 for on-site sports wagering but made nearly $1.37 million via online wagers, according to commission figures.
Last month’s total sports betting handle was $56.9 million, down nearly 2 percent from January.
Ohorilko said he expects the best months for sports betting during the current fiscal year, which ends June 30 happened, will be last September, October and November during the heart of the football season.
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