By Jeff Olson | | 5 mins
Iowa Sports Betting Begins With Long Lines – For Mobile App
ALTOONA, Iowa – Iowa became the 11th U.S. state to offer legal sports gambling at noon CDT Thursday, approximately 200 patrons lining up at Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino betting windows for the opportunity.
The first wager was, of course, a bet on a game more than four weeks away: Iowa State (-4) over Iowa in football on Sept. 14.
That wager was part of the reason for the rush to go live with sports betting in Iowa, and part of the impetus for the states about to follow. College football generally -- and Iowa and Iowa State specifically -- resonate in this part of the country, and Sept. 14 is likely to draw an even bigger crowd than the one that packed the new William Hill sportsbook at the Des Moines-area racino to watch history.
Those who attended Thursday’s ceremony seemed most interested in a mobile app that will allow them to wager anywhere in the state of Iowa. Ninety minutes after the windows opened, the line for the mobile app had been moved into a hallway to clear a path to the sportsbook.
William Hill US also christened sportsbooks at Lakeside Casino, an Affinity Gaming property 55 miles south of Des Moines, and at Eldorado properties in eastern Iowa.
18 Iowa Sportsbooks Expected for Start of Football
More Iowa casinos are in the offing, including an opening later Thursday at an Ameristar property in Council Bluffs, introducing the Omaha metro area to legal sports betting. Two sister Caesars properties in Council Bluffs -- Harrahs and Horseshoe -- are also expected. In all, 18 of Iowa’s 19 casinos are approved for sports betting, and all 18 that have been approved are expected to be operating before the start of the college football season.
“We always knew this was going to be a good location,” said Joe Asher, William Hill’s US CEO. “There’s such a great sports culture in this area. You know that people have been betting on sports here for decades, but they’ve been doing it illegally. Now they can do it legally.”
In particular, those who attended Thursday’s ceremony seemed most interested in a mobile app that will allow them to wager anywhere in the state of Iowa. A line of several dozen players wanting the app formed immediately after the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Ninety minutes after the windows opened, the line for the mobile app had been moved into a hallway to clear a path to the sportsbook. Even then, 40 people remained in line, waiting to fill out the forms and begin wagering on their phones.
Prairie Meadows and William Hill execs expected a crowd for the ceremony -- politicians, local business leaders and such -- but they didn’t necessarily expect local players to show up in the numbers they did.
“We felt like we’d see a good turnout, but I’m not sure we thought it would be this large,” said Brad Rhines, Prairie Meadows’ senior vice president/chief strategic officer. “It reaffirms the fact that people are anxious for it. It’s exciting to have a wager on a game. People are excited about this.”
William Hill Banks on Mobile App
A large chunk of William Hill’s Nevada business comes through mobile apps. Its New Jersey mobile app is a hit, too. Little reason to doubt its move into the Iowa market -- while significantly smaller than Nevada and New Jersey -- will follow the trend.
“It’s just different (than on-site wagering),” Asher said. “You have to make sure the customer is physically present in the state in order to bet, and the regulations from state to state are just a little bit different. There are complexities to both -- the retail sportsbook and the mobile app -- but we feel like both will be successful in Iowa.”
The app was available and operating for Android devices Thursday, a William Hill spokesman said. A version that operates on iOS will be available soon. Judging from the enthusiasm and patience displayed by those waiting in line on a Thursday afternoon in Iowa, it’s expected to be popular.
“The retail piece of the business -- where you walk into a property and place a bet -- is still the largest percentage of bets,” Rhines said. “But the largest percentage of growth comes from the online portion. It’s showing that as an industry we’re getting more and more people accustomed to online wagering.
"While it’s surprising that there are this many people in line, it validates the fact that everything is moving in that direction, especially in the sports world.”
Iowa Leading the Way in Midwest
Since last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn a 1992 federal law that banned sports gambling, state governments have been scrambling to approve and regulate sportsbooks. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the state's bill in May, and the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission approved the Aug. 15 launch last month. Eight other states are considering sports gambling; Indiana is set to go live next month.
“It speaks volumes to how comfortable people are with sports, and in particular with sports wagering,” Rhines said. “I think everyone identifies with sports because their kids play sports or they’ve grown up watching certain teams and rooting for them. That’s a more comfortable form of entertainment for some people than a slot machine or a table game might be.”
Asher said he spoke with a Prairie Meadows patron, who told him stories of a hobby pushed into the shadows by outdated laws.
“He told me he’d been betting on sports since he was a teenager, and now he can bet legally,” Asher said. “Given a choice, most people would prefer to bet in the legal market rather than the black market. That’s what it’s really all about -- bringing it out of the shadows and into the sunlight. This is a high moment.”