Husker fans bet big during the first football season with legal sports gambling in Iowa.
The brand-new sportsbooks at Iowa casinos put up big numbers in their first 3½ months of operation, fueled in part by Nebraskans crossing the border to place bets that are illegal in their home state.
More than $152 million worth of bets were placed at the 19 state-regulated casinos across Iowa between Aug. 15 — the date legal sports betting commenced — through the end of November. In gambling parlance, that’s called the “handle.”
The handle is close to what some analysts predicted for the entire first year, said Keith Miller, a professor of gambling law at Drake University in Des Moines.
“It’s a new activity. People are trying it out,” Miller said. “Even if the pace would slow down, it could be a $250 (million) to $300 million (first year) handle.”
The gusher of sports wagers has added more than $1.1 million in tax revenue to Iowa’s state coffers so far.
The three Council Bluffs casinos (Ameristar, Harrah’s and Horseshoe) racked up $26.6 million in sports wagers. Half was bet at Ameristar, and the other half at Harrah’s and Horseshoe, which are both owned and managed by Caesars Entertainment.
Ameristar’s $13.3 million handle was the largest for in-person betting in the state. Paul Czak, Ameristar’s general manager, attributes that in part to the $750,000 spent on upgrading its steakhouse into a full-scale sports bar, plus betting windows and kiosks.
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“It’s in the bars and restaurants, where we made all the investments,” Czak said. “I’m really happy with our numbers.”
Samir Mowad, who manages Harrah’s and Horseshoe, said wagering revenue is about what Caesars projected when the two casinos’ sportsbooks opened. Football weekends have been busy. Weekdays, not so much.
“It’s been good, but not overwhelming,” Mowad said. “In some ways, it’s been exactly what we expected.”
The largest number of bets — by far — were placed on Nebraska football, Mowad said. The team’s disappointing season was a boon for the casinos. Nebraska covered the spread in only three of its 12 games. In the nine others, the house won.
Husker fans bet big during the first football season with legal sports gambling in Iowa.
Czak said the biggest day of the year was when Nebraska and Iowa squared off on the day after Thanksgiving.
“The room was packed the whole day,” he said.
The Bluffs casinos are just across the Missouri River from Omaha, serving a market made up mostly of Nebraskans — who, under state law, must place their bets from within Iowa’s borders even when using a mobile app on their cellphones.
Neither Ameristar nor Harrah’s/Horseshoe has yet developed a mobile app, though both have said they plan to introduce one sometime next year. For now they rely on customers who come in and place bets in person.
As a result, the casinos have built areas catering to casual bettors, who come in to place bets while watching games and grabbing snacks or a meal.
“The sports environment with the book is really helpful,” said Brendan Bussmann, a former Nebraskan who is a partner in Global Market Advisors LLC, a Las Vegas-based gambling and entertainment consultant. “It’s about having fun and spending money on food and beverages.”
Mowad said a casual bettor who comes in to spend a few hours watching games and wagering small amounts is more valuable than a serious bettor who stops by, drops a large wager at a betting kiosk, then leaves.
“Having them stay, eat, drink, hang out, I’m going to make more money,” Mowad said.
Despite the attention paid to sports betting since the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out congressional restrictions on it in May 2018, it is small potatoes compared to the cash brought in from other forms of casino gambling.
In November, for example, the handle on sports betting in Iowa casinos was $59 million. Bettors playing slot machines spent $1.1 billion. An additional $63 million was spent on table games like poker and roulette.
“The casinos view (sports betting) as being an amenity,” Miller said. “It’s a drop in the bucket compared with overall revenue.”
Bussmann said sports betting will certainly grow once more casinos add mobile apps so bettors can place wagers using their smartphones. So far, only six of 19 casinos have them.
He points to Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino, near Des Moines, which had pulled in $56.3 million in sports bets by the end of November, more than one-third of the statewide total. (Ameristar Council Bluffs’ $13.3 million total was second.) More than $50 million of the Prairie Meadows handle was bet via the Internet.
“Prairie Meadows highlights how much mobile makes a difference,” Bussmann said. “As mobile products continue to go online, that revenue is probably going to continue to grow.”
Iowa’s sports betting law requires online bettors to visit a casino in person to set up an account — but only until Jan. 1, 2021. Then Iowans can set up online accounts from home.
“There’s going to be incredible competition,” Miller said. “Six months after that, we’ll have a very good sense of what the market is.”
BROKEN BOW, Nebraska — She had been waiting more than a week for the black ice to melt and the farm roads to clear, but Marlene Kennedy, 84, was unwilling to wait any longer. She changed into snow boots, tucked her heart medication into her purse, and stepped out to the porch. She held onto a railing with one hand and to her daughter with the other, inching down the frozen walkway toward her garage, trying not to think about her husband's slip and fall, which had shattered his hip and eventually forced him into a nursing home more than an hour away.
It had been 10 days since her last visit to see him, the longest they'd been apart in 63 years of marriage. He had Parkinson's disease, which made it impossible for him to talk on the phone. She'd called the nursing staff for daily updates, and they said her husband seemed quiet and was losing his appetite.
"Why is it still so bad out here?" Marlene asked. Her feet skidded on the ice, and she wrapped her arm around her daughter's shoulder as they moved closer to the car.
"Maybe it would be easier in a few hours, once the sun warms up," said her daughter, Deb Kennedy, 51.
"No. I'm at the end of my rope already," Marlene said. "Poor Earl's probably wondering if we left him alone down there."
In the first months after her husband's fall, Marlene had helped Earl Kennedy move into a nursing home three minutes from their house in Broken Bow, a town of 3,000, close enough that she could visit him twice a day. But then that nursing home went bankrupt and closed in May, one of more than 260 rural nursing facilities across the country to shut down for financial reasons in the past three years, sending another family on a desperate search for the basic medical care that is disappearing from rural America.
Marlene tried to get Earl into the only other nursing home in Broken Bow, but that facility had managed to stay solvent in part by limiting the number of residents on Medicaid, as Earl was, because the federal program pays nursing homes in Nebraska about $40 less per day than the cost of providing care. The nursing homes in Ainsworth and Minden had already closed, and the one next to a grain elevator in Callaway had a waiting list. The best option Marlene could find was a shared room in the town of Cozad, more than 50 miles away down remote two-lane roads, and Marlene had been making the trip back and forth several times each week ever since.
This time, Deb had offered to drive her, and they rode away from the single-story house where Marlene and Earl had raised four children, and then past the grocery store where he had stocked shelves for 47 years. They continued beyond the feedlots on the outskirts of town, dense with cattle covering the hillsides. Frozen snow crunched beneath the tires and wind beat against the windows as they drove for miles without seeing another car.
"There's a dip coming up here," Marlene told her daughter, as the road climbed over a frozen creek.
"Where? I don't see it." "Believe me. It's there. I've done this enough to know." She and Earl had rarely traveled outside of Nebraska, and they'd never been on an airplane. Many of their trips together in recent years had been medical trips. They had felt the escalating cost of a life spent in rural America, which in the past decade has lost at least 250 maternity wards, 115 hospitals, 3,500 primary care doctors, 2,000 medical specialists and hundreds of nursing homes.
Marlene and Earl had traveled together to Lincoln for a heart operation, Kearney for an ankle, Grand Island for a hip, Omaha for corneal transplants and then finally to Cozad in the back of a nursing home transport van for what Marlene feared would be Earl's final trip. He was almost 88, and he could no longer walk or eat solid foods. Marlene had already paid for their adjacent cemetery plots in Broken Bow, where Earl had spent his entire adult life, but there was no place left in town where he could live safely until he died.
Deb slowed to pass a tractor. Marlene waved to the driver and then stared out the window, where rolling hills went on for miles.
"You all right?" Deb asked. "You seem quiet."
"This drive always feels long," Marlene said. "You spend your whole life tied up right next to somebody, and then you don't get to be there for the hardest parts. It doesn't seem natural."
"You didn't have a choice," Deb said.
"No, but that doesn't stop me from worrying about him," Marlene said, because that was what she'd been doing for much of the past week and a half as she waited for the weather to improve. She had worried that Earl's bed was pressed too close to the window on subfreezing nights, that the khakis she'd bought for him to wear weren't thick enough, that he was losing too much weight to keep himself warm and that if he wasn't warm he wouldn't be able to sleep. She had worried about what he might be doing if he wasn't sleeping, because his eyesight made it difficult for him to read or watch TV or do much of anything except move back and forth from his bed to his wheelchair, in which case 10 days might have felt to him like forever. She had worried that he felt confused by her absence, or upset, or scared, or even abandoned.
"I'd be with him every day if I could," Marlene said. "He knows that, right?"
"Of course. He knows we all want to be there," Deb said. She drove past a large grain elevator and turned into the town of Cozad, parking in front of a small nursing home. She opened the passenger door and reached down to help her mother out of the car. "I bet you'll feel better once you get a chance to visit with him," she said.
"I don't like being a visitor," Marlene said. "I'm not a visitor to him."
* * *
They walked down a tiled hallway with fluorescent lighting to a small room with an American flag taped beside the door. Marlene stepped into the front half of the room, which for the past 15 years had belonged to Earl's new roommate, Oscar. He waved from his wheelchair, and then Marlene pulled back a curtain to reveal the back half of the room, where Earl was in the same position as she'd last seen him, 10 days earlier. He sat in his wheelchair with his body bent over to the right, wearing a baseball cap on his head and a kerchief to protect his shirt. He faced a TV that wasn't on and a window with a view of snow-covered recycling bins. Marlene put her hand on his shoulder and leaned down to kiss his forehead.
"I missed you, Earl," she said. "I missed you so bad I couldn't stand it."
He smiled at her and nodded. He reached over to his bed and picked up a holiday card he'd received from one of their great-grandchildren. He'd shown it to Marlene on her last visit, and now he handed it to her again.
"Isn't that something," she said, rubbing his back, pulling over a chair until it was pressed right up against his. She set the card down and rested her head against his shoulder.
"I missed you, Earl," she said again. "Did you miss me?"
"Well," he said. His lips tried to form more words, but they wouldn't come. He'd been working with a speech therapist to fight back the advance of Parkinson's and maintain his ability to eat, swallow and speak, but lately Marlene thought he had fewer good days than bad. She leaned in and tried to read his lips, smiling at him, waiting for him to talk as she rubbed his shoulders. His mind was still sharp, and some days his sentences came more easily as time went along. She believed the kind and respectful thing to do was to stay patient and wait through the silence, until after a few moments of watching Earl struggle, she decided the kinder thing was to break it.
"I wanted to come just about every day, but this weather had other ideas," she told him. "You missed me, though, Earl. Didn't you?"
"Well," he said again. He smiled and reached over to wrap his arm around her shoulder.
"Yeah, I knew it," she said. "You missed me. And what all did I miss here?"
"Well, the usual," he said, beginning to find his voice. He pointed out toward the weekly schedule that was posted on the wall: a resident social hour at 8 a.m., three pureed meals in the cafeteria each day, bingo on Wednesdays and Fridays, Bible study on Tuesdays, "Wheel of Fortune" in the community room each night. Five residents had died in the past few weeks, and each time the nursing staff had made up the bed with a red rose and a copy of the same poem on the pillow: "I am home in heaven, dear ones; Oh so happy and so bright!"
"I suppose you didn't miss much," Earl said. "Life in a rest home. We rest."
Marlene laughed. "You never were much of a complainer," she said.
"No," he said. "I guess not." They sat together holding hands as Marlene straightened Earl's hat and smoothed the wrinkles out of his khakis. Sometimes during their visits, she took him into the cafeteria to play board games or read to him aloud from Philippians, but they spent most of their time together in silence.
"I like sitting with you like this," Earl said.
His half of the room was barely large enough to fit a bed, a chair and a handful of mementos. There were photos on the wall of his friends, his grandchildren, and his great-grandchildren, many of whom lived near Broken Bow and were too far away from Cozad to make regular visits. There was a prayer book from the country church where he'd met Marlene in 1954, and a few awards from the grocery store where he'd started out making $60 a week and then stayed on for nearly five decades.
"A life lived right," read one of those employee plaques, which the store had given to him to commemorate his retirement at age
Utah for decades led the nation in birth rate, fueled in large part by traditionally large families among those of the Mormon faith.
Putting it in simple terms, four decades ago, the average woman in Utah gave birth to three children during her lifetime. Across the rest of the country, the average was less than two.
But in what is being seen in Utah as a kind of hell-freezing-over moment, not only is Utah no longer No. 1 in birth rate, but it’s been passed by three states, including Nebraska.
In 2018 figures recently released by the federal government, South Dakota ranked No. 1 in the lifelong birth rate for women of child-rearing age — a statistic often known as the “fertility rate.” North Dakota was second while Nebraska ranked third, with a rate just slightly ahead of Utah’s.
“People in Utah are kind of taken aback by it,” said David Drozd, a demographer with the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research. “That Nebraska would ever be close to Utah’s level of fertility was unthinkable 10 years ago.”
Indeed, Nebraska’s ranking above Utah speaks both to Nebraska’s strong, consistent birth rate in recent decades as well as demographic changes that have sent Utah’s numbers plummeting.
“For us, it really does say something about Nebraska’s ability to keep our births relatively high,” Drozd said.
In Utah, the number of children that a woman would expect to give birth to in a lifetime in 1960 was as high as 4.3. By the early 1980s, it had dropped to 3.1 — still quite high, some 70% over the U.S. rate of 1.8. Nebraska’s at the same point was about 2.
But in the 1980s, Utah’s fertility began a steady decline that has picked up — now having fallen for 11 consecutive years. Demographers in Utah attribute the change in part to increased migration into cities like Salt Lake City. Many of these new arrivals are not part of traditional Mormon culture, which has long embraced large families.
In 2016, Utah’s fertility rate for the first time dropped out of the nation’s top spot, falling to No. 2 behind South Dakota.
Now Utah has dropped to fourth in the latest data, and its rate of 2.03 lifetime births per mother for the first time falls below what’s known as the “replacement rate” — the 2.1 births per mother that’s considered the standard for a generation to replace itself.
Ten years ago, nearly half the states had birth rates exceeding the replacement rate. Now only South Dakota does.
A recent story in the Salt Lake City Tribune noted that no one in Utah ever thought the state’s birth rate could drop so low, saying it was tantamount to “Satan ice-skating in a frozen-over hell.”
Nebraska’s latest birth rate is just a tick above Utah’s at 2.031. For Utah, the 2018 birth rate was an all-time low. Nebraska’s lowest rate came all the way back in 1976.
Nebraska’s near tops-in-the-nation birth rate has been a relatively recent phenomenon. The state’s rate trailed the nation’s in the early 1990s and then began picking up late in that decade, heavily influenced by immigration from Mexico and Central America.
But today’s higher-than-average birth rate in Nebraska cuts across all major ethnic and racial groups and just about any other demographic you can think of.
Nebraska is one of only a handful of states to rank in the top 10 in birth rate for white women, black women and Hispanic women. It also ranks high in births for both women with college degrees and those without, and for women in poverty and those who aren’t.
Nobody knows exactly why women in Nebraska give birth at such high rates. But Drozd said Nebraska’s reputation as a great place for kids and families likely contributes to it.
It’s certainly not unique to hear stories of people rooting their families in Nebraska because of its affordable housing, well-funded schools, safe streets and overall low cost of living. Omaha, Lincoln and Nebraska often make the cut when publications list the nation’s most family-friendly places.
As the calendar rolls up on 2020, Nebraska’s high birth rate will also likely play another significant role, Drozd said: helping Nebraska keep all three of its seats in Congress in the reapportionment following the 2020 Census.
“Nebraska will have parents to thank for keeping the three seats,” he said.