DES MOINES — A “perfect storm” of overlapping professional and college sports in September helped drive sports wagering to a record month in Iowa and aid state-licensed casinos trying to re-establish themselves as a viable entertainment option in a COVID-19 pandemic.
Most of that wagering was done online, not in a casino, as attendance has dropped. But Iowa’s casinos are looking at ways they can attract more patrons with options like betting that does not rely on cash changing hands.
Even with the attendance drop off, though, strong sports betting is pushing casinos to be on track for “a good year.”
Bets on college and professional football, as well as pro baseball, basketball, ice hockey, NASCAR, soccer and horse racing pushed last month’s handle to nearly $72.4 million — a monthly record for a gambling activity authorized Aug. 15, 2019, in Iowa.
“You had all six major sports leagues playing games all in one day and that’s never been the case,” said Max Bichsel, vice president of U.S. business for the Gambling.com Group, a marketing company in the sports betting industry.
“It’s been kind of a perfect storm in terms of what people have to wager on, what games are being played — there’s just a large buffet of games that you’re able to wager on at different times of day and different types of sports so it really lends itself very positively to the Iowa sports betting market,” he said, noting that September was abnormal.
Bichsel said he expects strong sports betting in Iowa to continue this month as Big Ten football resumes and more Iowans likely will participate online. The mandate that sports bettors register for an account onsite at a casino before being allowed to wager online ends Jan. 1.
But overall, he expects sport betting to eventually mature and plateau.
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Net receipts from sports betting in September topped $5.1 million on wagering of $50 million over online mobile apps and about $22.4 million in wages placed in person at 18 of the 19 state-licensed casinos that offer the option. Only Casino Queen in Marquette hasn’t begun sports wagering.
For the first quarter of fiscal 2021, Iowans have placed nearly $145.6 million in sports bets that paid out $135.2 million in winnings. The roughly $10.4 million in net receipts generated slightly more than $700,000 in tax revenue for the state.
“There’s no question that people are wagering on college and professional football at a higher clip than what they were at this time last year,” according to Brian Ohorilko, administrator for the state Racing & Gaming Commission.
Meanwhile, the state-licensed casinos operating in Iowa reported adjusted gross revenue of nearly $359 million from July 1 through September — a quarterly total that was down nearly 4 percent from a year ago when the gaming houses opened strong but faded when the coronavirus threat closed them for 11 weeks, said Ohorilko.
Casino gambling operations have generated $65.7 million in state tax revenue in the first three months of the current fiscal year, according to commission documents.
“We were down less than 1 percent year over year from last September,” Ohorilko noted. “Given the fact that attendance still is off 24 percent and all of the other things related to the pandemic, I think most of the operators would have signed up for that in a heartbeat if they knew that they would be relatively flat for the month of September given everything that has occurred.”
The commission administrator noted that some casinos are “performing at a high rate” and some facilities are struggling, but overall the industry appears to be on track for “a good year” in fiscal 2021 if the trend can be sustained.
Monthly casino revenue has hovered close to $120 million, which would mean an annual take topping $1.4 billion. which is in the normal yearly range, he noted, However, casino attendance has been off by more than one-fourth as casual gamblers appear to be staying away from indoor venue due to COVID-19 concerns.
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“We certainly respect that many people are hesitant about going out whether it’s to restaurants or casinos or anyplace, and so the facilities are doing everything they can to follow all the protocols and guidelines,” said Wes Ehrecke of the Iowa Gaming Association, an umbrella group for the licensed casinos in Iowa. He noted monthly admissions slowly have increased since July for a quarterly total of 3,758,237.
“The hope is there’s a continued trend in the right direction but it’s difficult to predict that,” Ehrecke said.
As a way to allay customer concerns, Ohorilko said the commission is working with casino operators in drafting rules to allow “cashless” gaming via digital wallets or electronic wagering accounts that would eliminate the need for chips or cash to change hands. Some casinos also are looking at “e-tables” that are hitting the market, he said.
Ehrecke said the cashless gaming rules probably wouldn’t be in place until January at the earliest, but he viewed them as another way the industry is “evolving to reflect the new COVID-era normal.”
“If you walk into a casino, it’s very different than what it was last year at this time just in how it looks and the health checks that are being conducted at a number of facilities,” Ohorilko said. “Slot machines are spread out and a number of table games are closed and procedures have changed to the point where they do feel a little bit different.”
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