Almost 18 months after legalizing sports betting, Iowans get chance to wager on March Madness

Danny Lawhon

| Des Moines Register

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We tested the limits of Iowa’s new sports betting location tracker.

Sports betting is legal in Iowa, but can we place a wager from the South Dakota side of the border?

Erin Bormett, Sioux Falls Argus Leader

For all the hubbub surrounding legalized sports wagering in Iowa over the past 18 months, there’s one not-so-little event that’s been easy to overlook.

The Hawkeye State has nearly crossed the $1 billion threshold in sports wagers placed since August 2019, and that eye-popping total for a state of 3.1 million people has come without one of the biggest cash cows in American athletics.

It’s easy to forget that the state hasn’t experienced the betting joys and pains that come with the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. March Madness was one of the first large-scale sporting events to be scuttled by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, and a full year later, Iowa sportsbook operators are left to wonder how consumers’ first foray into the 68-team, single-elimination tournament will unfold.

In 2019, the American Gaming Association estimated that U.S. residents would bet about $8.5 billion on the men’s tournament. That total was derived despite only a handful of states offering legal betting in the immediate wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 decision to strike down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992. In March 2021, more than 20 states have legalized sports wagering in some form, and the transactional floodgates will open for this year’s brackets.

In Iowa, more operators continue to enter the market following a Jan. 1 rule change that eliminated an in-person registration requirement at a licensed casino in order to legally bet on sports through mobile and internet applications. Canada-based operator theScore is the most recent to launch, doing so in late February. Iowa is the fourth state, behind Colorado, Indiana and New Jersey, in which the combination media and sportsbook provider has put down stakes.

More: How Iowa sports betting is easier for you in 2021

“It was a conscious decision for us to wait for mobile availability, because that’s our strength,” said theScore CEO John Levy in an interview with the Register. “We have seen passionate fans on our (media) app that clearly love college sports, and so the timing for our launch is almost perfect.”

The platform theScore operates is unique in that direct media tie-ins for content can send users straight to their sportsbook account. When reading about a particular game, users can place a bet on the related teams without having to leave the overall app experience, Levy said. The holistic relationship between articles and opportunities for wagering, in addition to speedy app performance, has the company bullish on its long-term chances in Iowa and other states.

“It’s a hook that reaches users in both ways under common branding,” he said. “With our presentation, you can receive a core of personalized information and a solid betting experience all at once.”

As providers such as theScore and others line up with more promotional offers to use their applications during the tournament, brick-and-mortar casinos will be wrestling with just how much to celebrate this initial NCAA Tournament opportunity with betting legalized. Even though COVID-19 case numbers have steadily been declining as vaccine availability ramps up and state restrictions on gatherings are loosened, casinos were taking cautious approaches in their plans to recognize the Big Dance.

Brad Rhines, the executive vice president and chief strategic officer for Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Altoona, told the Register in the lead-up to this year’s Super Bowl game that the property was planning for several possible scenarios in multiple weather conditions. They were doing the same for the NFL championship clash between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, even as restrictions were tighter.

“We toil with those situations every day, what you can do and what you should do without overdoing it,” he said in late January.

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Rhines said that to a certain extent, Prairie Meadows can already optimize action plans it had in place for the 2020 tournament and adapt them to current social distancing protocols. He said the casino and its William Hill sportsbook were prepared for multiple types of gatherings in varying circumstances of reopening.

“I’ve learned working in environments with four seasons that you plan for all of these situations on a year-long basis. We spend each (horse) racing season thinking about it,” Rhines said. “We have a history of operating events inside and outside, and dependent on temperature, weather and climate conditions, we’ll have plans at the ready.”

Prairie Meadows director of marketing Polly Loneman told the Register that although the casino and its William Hill sportsbook will not be hosting formalized events, it encourages customers to visit within their comfort level. Patrons will find multiple food and beverage specials throughout the NCAA Tournament, and the sportsbook is building what it calls “Iowa’s largest bracket,” a 16-foot-by-20-foot display of game results that will be manually updated throughout the multi-week event in Indiana.

“Our commitment is to fun and to doing it safely,” Loneman said. “We’re excited to provide an environment where our customers will be able to watch, wager and win.”

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