Grand Falls Casino sportsbook opens in Iowa for sports betting
Friday 31st January 2020
On Thursday evening at Grand Falls Casino, Judy Brenner relaxed in a sleek black recliner, with snacks and a drink on a small table in front of her. Her eyes were trained on a gigantic screen displaying a variety of games and scores.
The Sioux Falls resident came to the Larchwood, Iowa, sportsbook at the suggestion of a friend. Never one for slot machines, Brenner spends most of her gambling funds on sports. So she was pleased that an experience she normally has to travel states away for is now right in her own backyard.
"I (used to) have to go to Vegas to do that," she said.
On Thursday, Jan. 30, Grand Falls officially unveiled its brand-new $1.5 million sportsbook, with 80 big-screen televisions, 22 lounging chairs and its own bar and grill, built to make a splash.
"We went all out," said Grand Falls general manager Sharon Haselhoff. "I don't think you're going to find another sportsbook like this between Las Vegas and Atlantic City."
Another Sioux Falls resident, Michael Wallin, was seated at the bar filling out a betting form. He said he visited the casino's temporary sportsbook a few times a week to place bets on sports.
"It keeps me interested in games that I normally wouldn't be interested in," Wallin said of sports betting. "I like the rush of rooting for a team that you would never watch. And then, if it's profitable, it's even more fun."
Sports gambling has proven to be a lucrative venture for the state of Iowa since being legalized in May 2019.
Casinos brought in $19.2 million in net receipts from sports wagering since August, when sportsbooks first went live, according to data from the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission.
Between Iowa's 19 casinos and their various online portals, players put down more than $212 million and casinos paid out nearly $193 million in winnings in the first five months of legalized sports betting in Iowa.
Grand Falls was far from the biggest moneymaker in Iowa. The casino brought in $752,000 in net receipts, according to state gaming commission data, while Des Moines' Prairie Meadows Casino brought in more than $6 million in net receipts.
Unlike some of the larger casinos with internet-based gambling portals, Grand Falls' in-house sports betting -- even before the remodeled sportsbook -- proved to be more popular than its online portal. Sports bettors placed $2.5 million in bets since August online, compared to $3.7 million in-house, according to state data.
Even though Grand Falls already offers online sports betting through Elite Sportsbook, many people prefer to place their bets in person.
"I don't like to do it online," Brenner said. "Never have, never will."
Haselhoff compared it to banking online versus banking with a teller -- it all comes down to personal preference.
"It's providing multiple options to make sure you're covering every type of bettor out there," she said. "It's fun to be in an environment where you're with folks who are cheering for the same thing that you're cheering for."
Because people have to be within Iowa's borders to place bets, Haselhoff said it was important to make their betting experience a great one.
"The retail side here is very important because a lot of our guests come from other places outside the state," she said. "They have to come here, so to have an environment that's inviting (and) comfortable is key."
The $1.5 million that went into building the sportsbook was spent on making it look and feel like a big-city affair.
"We wanted a Vegas-like experience," said Bryan Bennett, chief operating officer at Betfred USA Sports, which is running the sports gaming operation. "If you're going to have a proper retail sportsbook, it needs to feel like what people are used to when they go to Las Vegas."
Most of Grand Falls' customers live on the South Dakota side of the border, and those visiting the sportsbook are likely to be no different. In fact, that was one of the reasons it appealed to Betfred.
"That was obviously very attractive to us," Bennett said. "We anticipate that, just like the casino, the vast majority of our sports bettors are going to be coming from Sioux Falls."
South Dakota has had a complicated relationship with betting.
South Dakotans fretted that the $120 million Iowa casino would draw profits from their state's commercially successful video lottery system. A 2009 report from the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission analyzing Iowa's gaming market addressed that likelihood:
"A new casino in Lyon County would have a significant impact on (video lottery terminal) revenues in southeastern S.D., particularly in the Sioux Falls area, as more of those gaming dollars would be spent at the casino, which would offer a much more appealing facility and overall gaming experience."
After the success in Iowa, there has been talk of legalizing sports gambling in South Dakota once again. In 2018, the Deadwood Gaming Association filed paperwork with the Secretary of State's Office to bring a constitutional amendment that would add sports betting to the list of games already offered in the town's casinos. The proposal ultimately failed.
But Deadwood gaming officials said they would likely put forth a ballot measure on the issue in 2020, and on Thursday, Sen. Bob Ewing filed a bill that would legalize sports betting in Deadwood.
"We believe that people have a right to have their say in sports betting and we want to give them that opportunity," Deadwood Gaming Association executive director Mike Rodman told the Argus Leader last year.
Grand Falls' sportsbook took its first bet on Monday morning, meeting its deadline of opening before this year's Super Bowl, which is scheduled for Sunday.
"We all agreed that we had to be open by Super Bowl Sunday, and we cut it a little close," Bennett said, laughing. "I think it was worth it. I couldn't be happier with the way it turned out."
The American Gaming Association estimates that 26 million Americans will spend $6.8 billion on Super Bowl bets, a 15 percent increase over last year. Of that total, more than 4 million people will place their bets at a brick-and-mortar sportsbook, a 25 percent increase since 2019.
Haselhoff said many of the booths in the sportsbook have already been reserved for the big game, a change from years past.
"We're usually kind of quiet on Super Bowl Sunday because everyone is at home watching the game, but now I think that might change," she said. "It's kind of exciting."
But the Super Bowl isn't the only big event for which Grand Falls is anticipating large crowds.
"We've already had calls for March Madness," Haselhoff said. "Everyone wants their spot."
More: Iowans can bet on sports via app. So, naturally, we tried it from the South Dakota border.