Government

Iowa casino revenue inching back

But attendance drop shows gamblers leery

Jean Brown plays on a machine on Rhythm City in Davenport, June 5, 2020. (Jessica Gallagher/Quad-City Times)
Jean Brown plays on a machine on Rhythm City in Davenport, June 5, 2020. (Jessica Gallagher/Quad-City Times)

DES MOINES — Up and running but coping with the continuing coronavirus pandemic, Iowa’s 19 state-licensed casinos took in less revenue and saw attendance plummet in July compared with a year ago.

“We’re inching our way back,” said Wes Ehrecke, spokesman for the Iowa Gaming Association, an umbrella group for the casinos.

State officials posted a report Friday showing adjusted gross revenue for July approached $120.4 million after the facilities and many other Iowa businesses were ordered closed from mid-March to June 1 under a gubernatorial emergency proclamation.

Ehrecke said last month’s $120,377,101 in adjusted gross revenue, according to the state Racing and Gaming Commission, was down nearly 4 percent — or about $5 million — from July 2019. But the 1,175,723 people who passed through Iowa casino turnstiles represented a drop of about a third from the attendance posted a year ago.

That’s understandable, he said, given the COVID-19 restrictions for social distancing has reduced capacity on the casino’s gaming floors, even as many of the facilities’ amenities and entertainment draws are resuming operations and putting thousands of Iowans back to work.

“It’s encouraging. There’s an active group of people coming out to game but still attendance is off,” Ehrecke said, noting some casinos’ revenue is up while others are down due to the uncertainty COVID-19 poses for many Iowans.

“All of the casinos are open and they are gradually working back, but within the caveats of that 50 percent capacity,” he added. “Everybody’s trying to do their best job with all of the protocols.”

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Brian Ohorilko, administrator for the state gaming commission, said some casinos are bouncing back but some are lagging and “it’s too early to tell” how everything will settle out.

Generally, he said “folks are cautiously optimistic” although the attendance decline is troubling.

Ohorilko said many of the operators are marketing to experienced and serious gamblers, given that many of the casual players are staying away due to coronavirus concerns.

Likewise, Iowa’s fledging sports betting operations — which became legal last Aug. 15 — are starting to take flight again as professional baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer and motor sports have resumed.

Ehrecke hailed the fact that nearly $22.9 million was wagered in July with bettors claiming $20.6 million in payouts while the casino sportsbooks collected more than $2.24 million in net revenue.

”That’s encouraging as well,” Ehrecke added, “considering where we were just a couple months ago when there wasn’t anything to wager on.”

Nearly $17.8 million in sports wagering was conducted via online apps (available from 13 of the 18 casinos that offer sports betting) while nearly $5.1 million bets were placed in person at Iowa casinos.

“While MLB and the NBA returned only a few days in the July reporting period, it made a big impact on betting activity in Iowa for the month,” said Max Bichsel, an executive with Gambling.com.

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“July’s sharp increase in handle of nearly 80 percent tells us that betting activity in Iowa is returning to pre-pandemic levels. July saw the highest handle since February and that can be attributed to the return of baseball and basketball at the end of the month,” he said.

“If baseball and basketball continue as planned and the stage is set for the return of football, Iowa’s will easily see an all-time high for August, which was previously set in November 2019 at $59.3 million,” Bichsel noted.

Overall, commission documents indicated the state collected more than $17.2 million in gaming taxes on the July casino adjusted gross revenue and about $152,000 in state tax on sports betting revenue.

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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