An example of the coronavirus’ impact on the sports gambling industry can be found in Iowa, where two casinos have been forced to delay incoming gaming operations.
WinnaVegas Casino & Resort and Blackbird Bend Casino, both operated by Native American tribes, have already delayed sportsbook openings planned for fall 2020. New timelines have not been established.
The drastic steps come after the state’s governor, Kim Reynolds, revealed a statewide public disaster emergency earlier this month that disallows more than 10 people to gather in a group.
Information provided by the federal government this week indicates such measures are likely to be in place for weeks, possibly until summer. And it’s another setback for an industry that, specifically in Iowa, seemed to be hitting its stride.
Casinos backed into a corner
Before the coronavirus pandemic upended the global economy, WinnaVegas was slated to kick off sports betting in mid-September, while Blackbird had situated itself to start in mid-October, according to the Sioux City Journal.
But those plans came crashing to a halt on March 17 following Reynold’s emergency declaration. It was just under a year ago when Reynolds, a Republican, gave her OK in May 2019 for sports betting to take place in Iowa.
The state got off to a fast start.
Numbers reported by the Des Moines Register showed that Iowa casinos processed around $40 million worth of sports wagers in September 2019, the first full month of legal operations. Net revenue reached nearly $5 million for the 15 of Iowa’s 18 licensed casinos that by that point had begun taking bets.
The state had also seen the arrival of DraftKings’ mobile sports betting app in mid-February, a development showing the positive direction taken by the industry as recently as days before the pandemic took hold.
WinnaVegas and Blackbird Bend had hoped to join that party in coming months. Instead, the waiting game is on.
“It is still in the works, pending additional legal review of the contracts associated with that additional business venture,” Blackbird Bend spokesman Mike Krysl told the Sioux City Journal this week.
“The current suspension of professional and college sports and all of the uncertainty that the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has evoked gives us further pause in the process, of making sure we develop the best possible sports betting options for our guests.”
A WinnaVegas spokesman, Michael Michaud, was more concise.
“We are working with the National Indian Gaming Association to implement sports betting in the future, so there is no timeline as of yet,” noted Michaud in comments reported by the newspaper.
As Midwest awaits peak, expect continued closures
Reynolds has taken a less aggressive approach to the coronavirus than many of the nation’s governors, telling Iowa Public Radio as recently as Tuesday that a stay-at-home order is not needed.
Other Midwest states, like Indiana, have installed stay-at-home orders, even before the arrival of the peak of cases anticipated to hit in Midwestern areas in mid to late April.
Still, Reynolds has been more reserved, saying, “I can’t lock the state down. I can’t lock everybody in their home.”
But what she can do is ensure the closure of non-essential businesses like casinos, many of which shut down voluntarily even before Reynolds declared the public health disaster emergency.
As the state anticipates the surge of positive coronavirus cases, such closures are expected to continue for at least weeks, possibly months. Reynolds indicated Wednesday that she would likely give a new health declaration later in the week.
Sports world remains shutdown
Meanwhile, the idea of thousands packing into a casino and enjoying on-site sports gambling likely involves a summer timeline, at the earliest. Much of the sports gambling industry’s future also relies on the approaches taken by the NCAA and professional sports leagues.
And that’s something no one can predict.
“How slowly must the infection spread, the body count rise, before someone signals the all clear? Who makes the call?,” wrote New York Times sports journalist John Branch in March.
“What if the big leagues resume and another player or coach tests positive for coronavirus? Does the whole apparatus shut down again?”
For many, their livelihood depends on answers to those questions.