Iowa Casinos Hit Hard But There Is Light At The End Of The Tunnel

Posted on May 13, 2020

When it comes to gambling, the house always wins. Unfortunately for Iowa casinos and online sportsbooks, they weren’t ready for the pandemic caused by COVID-19

Iowa opened up sports wagering in August 2019 and immediately had an impressive response from bettors. The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission reported numbers climbing to $60 million in February 2020. In March, that plummeted to $19.6 million. 

While Iowa was one of just five states never officially to set a stay-at-home order, the restrictions on nonessential businesses have had similar economic results. Though Gov. Kim Reynolds has begun the process of reopening certain types of businesses, like restaurants, at 50% capacity and only in counties least impacted by the pandemic, large gathering sites like casinos aren’t on that list at this point. 

“It’s unprecedented times,” said Wes Ehrecke, of the Iowa Gaming Association, to the Quad-City Times. The association is an umbrella group for Iowa’s 19 licensed casinos. “We’re just shut down until it makes sense to reopen a premier entertainment destination. It was very significant for our industry.”

How hard has Iowa casino gambling been hit?

According to the Quad-City Times, the state Racing and Gaming Commission expected continued positive growth with revenue numbers already about 2% higher at the mid-fiscal year mark than all of fiscal 2019. In 2019, Iowa casino gambling’s adjusted gross revenue was $1.457 billion.

After nonessential business closures began in March due to COVID-19, the year-to-year numbers were down about 3%. April was expected to have nearly zero revenue for the industry. 

According to the Quad-City Times, Iowa gamblers have wagered approximately $346.8 million on sports, with both online and in-person wagers since Aug. 15. The state, in turn, has received over $1.7 million in tax revenue.

The revenue numbers were also likely hampered by a law that prevents Iowa bettors from wagering on player selection events like the WNBA and NFL drafts, which were among the few mainstream sports events still taking place this spring. The law is similar to one that does not allow bets on the performances of collegiate athletes

Iowa COVID numbers continue to rise

According to the state’s website on COVID-19, as of May 11, Iowa has 12,912 confirmed cases and 289 deaths. The site also reports 5,618 have recovered from the disease. 

Two days prior, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported the state’s number of COVID-19 deaths at 265, with confirmed cases of the disease coming in at 11,959.

The department’s deputy director, Sarah Reisetter, said on May 8 that the state is expected to see a peak in cases in “two to three weeks.” However, the Des Moines Register noted Reisetter had similar expectations near the end of March.

Iowa casinos will likely weather the storm

Although there is no current projection for when Iowa casinos will be able to reopen to the public — unlike the now-open casinos in and around Deadwood, South Dakota — casinos are reportedly prepared to accommodate new safety regulations and guidelines. 

“We are looking forward to the day that we can get reopened and even if it’s with caveats,” Ehrecke said to The Gazette.

Brian Ohorilko, the administrator for the Racing and Gaming Commission, said the state’s stable gambling industry is in a position to survive the economic downturn. 

“We have 19 casinos in Iowa and we expect that we’ll have 19 casinos when this opens up,” he said to The Gazette. “It’s certainly been very difficult for this industry, but the market here in Iowa has been very stable and predictable outside of this pandemic.”

In the meantime, other options are being weighed, such as the inclusion of esports in the state’s sports betting or daily fantasy sports. At this time, esports is not included in the laws that allow for online sports and daily fantasy wagers in Iowa. Ohorilko and the commission, according to The Gazette, are looking at how other states are handling the inclusion of esports. 

“Esports has continued to evolve in a very popular way and so, as a result, it’s something we’ve been getting questions about: Can we wager on this? And so that is why we want to try to bring it forth for that approval process or at least for the consideration of that,” Ehrecke said in his interview with The Gazette.

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Sam Eggleston

Sam Eggleston is a sports journalist and editor who resides in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. He has worked for a variety of news organizations, including digital media companies SB Nation and Issue Media Group and print newspapers for Gannett, Morris and Ogden.

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