COVID’s effect on Iowa’s gaming industry is still uncertain

The roulette wheel spins in a file photo from July 2006. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

Gambling revenues in Iowa are expected to show an estimated $300 million decline for the just-ended fiscal year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, state gaming regulators said Thursday.

That’s a decrease compared to last year of about 20%.

Last year, casinos alone brought in $1.46 billion in adjusted gross revenues from table games and slots. This year, according to fiscal year-to-date data posted by the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission, casinos brought in less than $1.05 billion. Iowa’s gaming revenues also include sports betting and fantasy sports games and parimutuel racing.

Earlier this week, the state reported a $64.6 million loss of gaming tax revenues just from the period between March 19 and July 2. The ongoing impact of the virus is still uncertain, Iowa Racing and Gaming Administrator Brian Ohorilko said.

“It really is still too early to tell how the market is going to respond purely from an economic standpoint,” Ohorilko said. “… Will people come back to the casinos or will they stay home?”

He said admissions were down in June but spending was up in some casinos, particularly in eastern Iowa. “Those casinos had some of the best months that they’ve had in a long time but I think a lot of that could be attributed to Illinois still being shut down,” Ohorilko said.

He said he believes the casino industry has “responded very well” to the need for COVID-19 mitigation protocols such as reduced hours of operation to give time for deep cleaning. The casinos have also implemented some efficiencies such as new automated processes that he said should help revenues recover faster if the market rebounds.

Horseracing also has seen some hitches. Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Altoona saw a strong weekend after the June 19 season opener but in-person attendance has since softened, Derron Heldt, vice president of racing, said.

However, he said, the handle for off-track betting has doubled after the first 12 days of live racing, compared to the same period last year. Some of that change is likely due to the cancellation of many other sports during the pandemic. “A lot of the horseracing enthusiasts are also sports enthusiasts and I think with the lack of Major League Baseball, NBA basketball and maybe even some soccer … I think those people are looking for something to bet on,” Heldt said.

There have been some other changes that could affect the comparison, he noted, including schedule changes and combined racing days for thoroughbreds and quarterhorses.

The increase in off-track wagering likely won’t make up for a hit in in-person attendance at the track, however, he noted.  That’s because a smaller share of the money wagered stays with the track.

Any losses in horseracing are likely to be felt throughout the state’s economy.  Horseracing is nearly a $200 million industry in Iowa that employs 2,900 people, said Jon Moss, executive director of the Iowa Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association.

A new economic impact study conducted for the horseracing industry shows that a 10% drop in direct horseracing outputs would lead to a $20.3 million drop in Iowa’s economy. Direct outputs include agriculture, animal food manufacturing, insurance, truck transportation and other related industries.

Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission elects leaders

Members of the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission, meeting Thursday in Altoona, re-elected Kristine Kramer of New Hampton as chairman. Kramer, a Democrat, was appointed to the commission in 2012. The new vice chair of the commission is Pennie Gonseth-Cheers, a Democrat from Afton.