Husker fans can now hop across the Missouri River and place sports bets at any of 14 state-regulated casinos in Iowa, including Ameristar, Harrah’s and Horseshoe just over the bridge in Council Bluffs.
But what about the Ponca Tribe’s Prairie Flower Casino in Carter Lake, just a couple of miles north of downtown Omaha?
Current rules don’t permit it, and the tribe couldn’t add a sportsbook unless it makes peace with the State of Iowa. That looks like a long shot, given Iowa is involved in longstanding litigation — along with the City of Council Bluffs and the State of Nebraska — to shut down the casino.
Sports betting was illegal everywhere except Nevada until a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in May 2018 that gave states the right to legalize it. Since then, 17 additional states have passed laws permitting it. Iowa’s law was signed in May, and Aug. 15 was set as the opening day for sports betting.
Currently 14 of 19 state-regulated casinos offer on-site sportsbooks, including the three Bluffs casinos. Seven of them also offer mobile sports betting.
Through the end of August, the sports-betting “handle” — the total value of bets placed — at all the casinos topped $8.5 million. They turned a profit of almost $2.2 million.
Prairie Meadows Racetrack & Casino in Altoona took in the largest share ($3.4 million), two-thirds of it through its mobile betting app.
Ameristar Council Bluffs, though, was the hottest locale in the state for on-site betting, with a two-week handle totaling $1.36 million. Harrah’s and Horseshoe, which share ownership, both opened Aug. 23 and brought in a combined $640,000. These numbers were buoyed by bettors from neighboring Nebraska, which has resisted attempts to expand legal gambling beyond horse racing and Class II games. None of the three have yet added mobile betting apps.
“Football season is the most active time in terms of number of bets and the amount wagered than at any point in the year. This is why states like Iowa and Indiana wanted to get started at the beginning of the football season with sports betting,” said Brendan Bussmann, a former Nebraskan who is now a partner at Las Vegas-based gambling and entertainment consultant Global Market Advisors.
“While we only have two weeks of data and only one day with game day wagering” in the August totals, he said, “Iowa’s numbers will continue to grow over the next few months with college football and the NFL in play.”
Sports betting in Iowa will cool off into late winter and spring, Bussmann said, which is typical with the sports betting cycle. But he said revenue will grow as more casinos add sports betting, including mobile betting apps.
Iowa’s three other tribal casinos — WinnaVegas in Sloan, Blackbird Bend in Onawa, and Meskwaki in Tama — have the Class III license that would allow them to expand and offer a wider variety of games, though none offers sportsbooks yet. The Prairie Flower does not have that license.
“There’s a big stumbling block” for the Prairie Flower, said Kathryn Rand, co-director of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy at the University of North Dakota. “If the relationship with the state is not good, it makes it difficult to establish a compact.”
The rules covering gambling at Indian casinos across the country are dictated by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, which set up shared jurisdiction among federal, state and tribal governments.
Broadly speaking, Rand said, federal and tribal authorities regulate class II gambling (bingo, keno, and pull-tab games), while Class III gambling (which includes roulette, slot machines, blackjack and sports betting) is regulated by individual states.
“It’s a state-by-state determination, and compact by compact,” said Rand, a law professor.
The Poncas were originally granted permission by the National Indian Gaming Commission in 2007 to build a Class II gambling casino in Carter Lake on a site they had purchased eight years earlier. Iowa and Nebraska joined Council Bluffs in a lawsuit against the commission, which reaffirmed its approval for the casino in 2017, and again in April. The case is on appeal.
The tribe took a gamble and opened the Prairie Flower Nov. 1, 2018, with litigation still pending.
Jimmy Centers, a tribal spokesman, said it is “slightly premature” for the tribe to pursue a compact that would allow Class III gambling at Prairie Flower, but “we want to keep having conversations with the state of Iowa.”
The bad feelings run deep, said Keith Miller, a professor of gambling law at Drake University in Des Moines. Council Bluffs and the State of Iowa feel betrayed by a 2002 pledge made by the tribe’s lawyer to use the Carter Lake property for a medical clinic. The tribe says the attorney wasn’t authorized to make that commitment.
“The State of Iowa is probably very disinclined to enter into a compact with the Poncas,” Miller said. “No one likes being made a chump.”
In any case, tribal officials argue, they have the right to change their minds. The Indian Gaming Commission has agreed with them, and the courts so far have backed up the commission.
Across the country, Indian casinos have been slow to join the sports-betting train. So far only a handful have done so.
Rand and Steven Light, co-director with Rand of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy, said many Indian casinos have long-settled compacts with the states where they operate and don’t want to risk renegotiating them over sports betting.
“That’s why we’re seeing hesitancy in some states,” Rand said.
But, said Light, the “hold,” or profit, on sports betting isn’t that high compared with other games.
“Sportsbooks aren’t necessarily inherently profitable,” he said. “But it’s a great way to draw a new customer base, a younger customer base.”
Miller said the other three tribes that operate casinos in Iowa — the Omaha, the Winnebago, and the Sac & Fox — could initiate sports betting if they wished. Nothing in their compacts prevents it, and he doubts the state-regulated gambling operations would object.
“I don’t think the casinos want to spend political capital to keep sports betting out of the (Indian) casinos,” he said.
Michael Tobias, director of live games at the Sac & Fox’s Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel, said the facility doesn’t have a sportsbook yet but expects to add one soon. The casino is about 70 miles northeast of Des Moines. He said the tribe is working with outside partners and is eager to develop a mobile gaming app.
“Yes, it is in the plans. We’re probably a few months out,” Tobias said. “We’re waiting for some things to develop.”
The managers of the Omaha Tribe’s Blackbird Bend Casino in Onawa and the Winnebago Tribe’s WinnaVegas Casino couldn’t be reached to discuss their plans.
Centers would not discuss the Prairie Flower’s plans, either. But he’d like to make peace with Iowa so expansion is at least a possibility.
“It’s time to put the lawsuits behind us,” he said.