Shatel: With sports betting possibly coming to Iowa, casinos are going all in (top)

Harrah's Casino is one of many Iowa casinos waiting to see if Gov. Kim Reynolds signs the bill that would legalize sports gambling and betting on fantasy spots websites.

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Samir Mowad walks into Harrah’s Casino and surveys the Tag Lounge. This will be the sports book.

It’s Friday afternoon, about 3:30, and Tag, a small bar tucked into the corner of the casino, is full. There’s a wall made up of 16 55-inch TVs, and they make up three giant screens, showing auto racing, golf and baseball live action.

Some of the patrons are playing the video gambling games at the bar and some are watching the sports and nursing their early happy hour drinks. It’s not a lively scene.

Of course, that could change come the fall.

By September, the Tag Lounge could be a full-fledged sports book, where customers flock on a Saturday afternoon to watch every college football game and wager on how many yards Adrian Martinez will throw for in the second half.

Or maybe the NFL is their thing, and they’re here on Sunday. Maybe they’re here to watch and bet on the games. Maybe they’re here because every game is on and they might not feel like betting, but if they do, it’s rather convenient.

Or maybe they don’t have the money for that trip to Vegas for the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, but they can meet the boys at Council Bluffs instead.

For the sports betting underground in our area, the possibilities are endless.

And right now, they are still just possibilities.

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Last Monday night, Iowa lawmakers passed a bill that would legalize sports gambling and betting on fantasy sports websites.

Mowad, the senior vice president and general manager of Harrah’s and Horseshoe casinos in Council Bluffs, expected that to happen on Friday. But late Friday afternoon, Mowad said the Iowa legislature closed its session — meaning Reynolds has 30 days to sign the bill.

That’s 30 days when a lot of politics could come into play.

“The governor and her caucus have been supportive of it,” Mowad said. “But now that the bill is (public), some of the groups that got left out (of receiving a cut of the revenues) may start to lobby against it.”

Mowad wouldn’t offer any predictions. But there’s an air of confidence throughout the state of Iowa that sports books are on their way. Plans are being made.

At Prairie Meadows casino and race track, on the east edge of Des Moines, they’ve already transformed the fourth-floor horse simulcast area into a Vegas-style sports book and bar. They’re just waiting on a signature.

Another Iowa establishment, the Grand Falls Casino and Golf Resort just east of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is planning to start taking sports bets as soon as the governor gives the green light.

Here in Council Bluffs, Mowad said Harrah’s will expand the Tag Lounge. Over at Horseshoe, they will build a new facility that will become a sports book.

The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission will have to come up with rules for sports betting. Mowad said they’ll adopt the rules and hope to open sports betting between Sept. 1 and mid-October.

Pretty good timing, huh?

My first question to Mowad was this: Will betting be allowed on the local teams — Iowa, Iowa State and Nebraska? The Huskers, because Mowad says the majority of the revenue at the two casinos comes from Nebraska.

“Yes, you’ll be allowed to bet on those teams,” Mowad said. “But you can’t do any in-game betting on individual players in the state of Iowa. For instance, no prop betting on whether a running back for Iowa will run for more or less than 100 yards. Or something that involves an Iowa State player.

“There are no restrictions on Nebraska players, except for one case, when they are playing an Iowa team. And that happens once a year.”

The world of sports wagering has existed in Nebraska for decades. The guy next to you at the bar could be a bookie. So could your high school coach. National studies show that gamblers come in all shapes and sizes and ages, some that might shock you.

Legalized sports gambling will bring some of it out in the open. But what does that mean? Will the number of sports bettors in our area double? Triple? Or will bettors who prefer to deal with a bookie remain under wraps?

It’s the great unknown about this topic, which may become a visible part of our lives very soon.

“I don’t think everybody is going to dump their bookie and start playing with us the first day it opens,” Mowad said. “Bookies extend credit. And we’re not going to be extending credit at the casino.

“The experience comes in. We plan to create an area where people are going to want to come and hang out. I think it may attract guys just like myself. I love sports, and when I’m in Vegas, I may place a sports bet or two.

“We have no illusions that this is going to replace Las Vegas. Vegas is very unique for a lot of reasons. I used to go there with a group of friends. But now I have two kids. I don’t do that every year like I used to.”

Mowad understands the sports books might draw bigger crowds for special occasions — such as the Super Bowl or NCAA tourney or college football and NFL afternoons. The gamblers who might have to attend a kid’s soccer game, or other events, will still use a bookie.

“It’s unlikely to change their habits,” Mowad said. “The only difference is if we give them a great area to hang out in, they can come and still use their bookie. Even bookies use apps.”

Mowad said his casinos plan to offer online sports betting with a catch: Bettors can’t use the apps unless they’re in Iowa (and they have to sign up for an online account at the casino, to make sure they are of age). The thinking there is, if you’re a Nebraskan crossing the river to use the Harrah’s phone app, you’re probably just going to go to the casino.

Who and how many is the question. Mowad doesn’t pretend to know. But he’s been in enough sports books to know their appeal.

There is certainly incentive for casinos to build sports books. Brad Rhines, senior vice president and chief strategic officer at Prairie Meadows, told the Des Moines Register that the average casino customer is 55 or older. He said sports betting is a “21-34, 21-44 demographic.”

“We don’t think it will be this huge financial boon,” Mowad said. “But we don’t know. As a sports fan, nothing frustrates me more than being in a place where they don’t switch over to other games. If we can create this unbelievable area ...

“Let me put it this way: If I had the best sports bar in five states, there will be enough people sitting in my bar, eating my wings and drinking my beer. They may bet on their own app, and that’s fine, as long as they are eating my food.”

It was just a year ago that none of this seemed possible. And then the Supreme Court opened the door to sports gambling last May. And Iowa legislators just kicked the door open Monday.

Now Iowans are just a governor’s signature away from welcoming more of their Nebraska friends — and their wallets — across the border this fall.

“I’ve learned that when it comes to bills and politics, all bets are off,” Mowad said.

For now.