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'This gave me a reason to start watching again': Bettors flock to legal sports gambling in Iowa Quad-Cities

2nd December, 20:06

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Mercury Perkins, 35, of Davenport, looks at his sports wagering voucher while watching a game at Rhythm City Casino, Monday in Davenport.

JESSICA GALLAGHER /

Sportsbook cashier and table game card dealer Aysia Thomas, counts out money at the end of her shift at Rhythm City Casino, Monday in Davenport.

JESSICA GALLAGHER /

Information on sports betting from football pros and college, basketball, hockey, tennis, boxing and NASCAR take place at the Isle of Capri in Bettendorf.

GARY KRAMBECK /

Late in the second quarter, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson went on a run. Momentum was building for the Ravens to blow out the Los Angeles Rams on Monday Night Football.

Jackson's run, which led to a late touchdown strike for Baltimore before halftime, meant Mercury Perkins' bet on the over for the game would likely strike, maybe by Jackson's efforts alone.

Perkins, 35, of Davenport, came to the Elite Sportsbook at Rhythm City Casino in Davenport Monday, as he does frequently on Mondays. He said he comes to the sportsbook, which sits in front of the Draft Day Sports Lounge, several times a week.

Part of that frequency is due to specials like Monday, which had a happy hour from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and 50-cent wings.

And yes, Perkins does have a lucky seat in the Draft Day area. He was sitting in green comfy chairs in the middle of the lounge Monday night alongside his friend Keith Ford, 28, of Eldridge.

Perkins and Ford are two of many Quad-Citians who have jumped aboard legal sports betting since it officially became legal in Iowa in August. Iowa became the 10th state to legalize sports gambling, and it's added a new amenity for the two casinos that offer sports betting in the Quad-Cities, Isle of Capri in Bettendorf and Rhythm City in Davenport.

On Monday night, Ford placed wagers on the Ravens-Rams game going over the Las Vegas-set point total for both teams as well as the Los Angeles Lakers in an NBA game. Perkins went with the Ravens winning by more than four points and the over on the point total.

"Betting small today because I lost $1,400 on Florida-Georgia" a few weeks ago, Perkins said. "I tried to hedge my bet and Georgia ended up getting a two-point conversion and that's just bad news. I'm still upset about that game."

That two-point conversion meant Florida lost by seven points -- Perkins would have won the bet if Georgia had won by six or fewer. One point meant a loss of $1,400.

Still, "I think it's been really good. It's saved on flights to Vegas," Perkins said of sports betting in the Quad-Cities area. "It gets people out that aren't real sports enthusiasts who put a little bit of money down and now they're into it."

Perkins later said, "you get to meet a lot of different people from different backgrounds ... sit down and have drinks and have conversations."

The wagers

The addition of legal sports betting in Iowa hasn't always meant big crowds for pivotal games, such as when Louisiana State University defeated the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa a few weeks ago.

About half of the tables were empty in the Draft Day Sports Lounge at Rhythm City on Monday with the Ravens-Rams Monday Night Football matchup and a slew of college basketball and other events on the variety of televisions donning the walls of the lounge.

Part of why legal sportsbooks aren't packed is because Iowa residents can bet on mobile applications, which are accessible on cell phones after registering in person at an Iowa casino. Additionally, area residents can walk in and place a bet during the week, so if they see a line they like early in the week, they can bet it then rather than waiting -- and running the risk of the line moving -- the day of the game.

In two of the first three months that sports betting has been live, online wagering has made up more than half of all sports wagers in Iowa.

Statewide in August, about $8.5 million was wagered, with approximately $3.67 million coming online, which grew to about $38.5 million in September when about $21.9 million came via internet bets. The total then grew to about $46.5 million in October, with $25.93 million coming via online wagers.

Isle has seen the total amount bet go from about $645,000 (about $264,000 online) in August to about $2.2 million (about $1.54 million online) in September and approximately $2.1 million (about $1.34 million online) in October.

Rhythm City had about $350,000 bet (about $62,000 online) in August, which grew to about $1.26 million (approximately $512,000 online) in September and $1.37 million (nearly $700,000 online) in October.

Wes Ehrecke, president of the Iowa Gaming Association, pointed to those numbers and said it's going to be important to have a balance going forward of in-person wagers and online bets.

"It's an indicator that it's giving the customer what they want and what they prefer, and that they do appreciate that kind of customer service," he said.

Meanwhile, in Illinois, implementation has been slow.

While the first legal bet was placed in Iowa just months after state legislation was signed, Illinois is still setting rules on how sports wagering will work in the Land of Lincoln despite legalizing betting this past spring.

Marcus Fruchter, Illinois Gaming Board Administrator, gave an update on the Illinois sports betting process at the entity's most recent board meeting in November.

"We expect to begin releasing applications for sports wagering and rules governing those applications in advance, or contemporaneously, with our December (19) meeting," he said. "We are making some progress and expect to share something with everyone at the December meeting."

For now, residents can venture into Indiana or Iowa facilities to wager. For one sports bettor, the more than two-hour trip to Isle of Capri in Bettendorf, from the Chicago area, was better than a shorter drive to Indiana.

That's because, according to Gary, of Chicago, Indiana sportsbooks are more crowded than their Iowa counterparts.

He was among those hopeful it was LSU's year early in its matchup with Alabama last month. Gary declined to give his last name.

"It's nice. It's a great place to get out and watch the games. It's a great atmosphere," he said from Isle of Capri's sportsbook area. "It's nice to place a bet and talk to a person rather than sit on my couch and click some buttons."

The way Iowa set up sports betting means a person has to come into an existing casino and register to be able to wager electronically. Not every casino in Iowa has opted to offer online wagering yet, but both Isle of Capri in Bettendorf and Rhythm City Casino in Davenport offer online options.

Gary said he makes the trek from Chicago to the Bettendorf casino every third weekend. That ritual included getting on the road at 8 a.m. a few Saturdays ago, reaching Isle by about 10:15 a.m. and reserving a room for the night.

He had a fresh order of food in front of him as LSU punched in its first score. Several pieces of paper were laid out in front of him, likely from a collection of information sheets available to bettors at Isle.

"I think it's their year," he said of the LSU Tigers, who ultimately knocked off Alabama that day.

And while Indiana is a much shorter drive for him, he said he makes the longer commute to Bettendorf as it isn't "overcrowded. Kiosks are always accessible.

"Eventually, I'd like to get a bunch of my buddies and make a weekend of it."

The venues

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Mo Hyder, Rhythm City's general manager, said the Draft Day sports lounge was built in 2016 as the riverboat casino transitioned to a land facility. The restaurant was crafted to be a sportsbook for when Iowa allowed sports wagering.

That led to an easy transition more than three months ago when sports wagering began at the Elite Sportsbook. A few employees were added to handle the in-person bets, as well as infrastructure improvements, while visitors can register online sports betting accounts with the facility at its resort club counter.

"It's been a very popular spot for our customers. Not only has it attracted folks from just around here, but also from neighboring states. None of the neighboring states to Iowa currently has sports betting, so we do attract quite a bit from the Illinois markets," Hyder said.

He said ticket writers have been able to maintain a consistent level of delivery as well as the atmosphere within the Draft Day Sports Lounge.

"It doesn't matter which game it is, when it is -- our restaurant is packed," Hyder said. "You will always find the place to have customers in there, enjoying themselves and rooting for their teams."

Nancy Ballenger, vice president and general manager of the Isle Casino Hotel Bettendorf, said in an email that the facility partnered with William Hill US to create its sportsbook by using existing space in the casino.

The sportsbook is a roped off area with a mix of high-top and normal tables and chairs with eight 65-inch viewing screens, two 85-inch viewing screens along with 15 55-inch odds boards. The area butts up to slot machines on the floor and is also near one of the casino's bars.

"Whether you are looking to watch five games at once in our sportsbook, from your lucky chair at home, or with your friends at a favorite restaurant, our goal is to make it as easy and seamless so that anyone can enjoy," Ballenger said.

Both casinos make sports wagering part of weekend packages to their facilities. Hyder said Rhythm City has had two UFC nights in its Rhythm Room that have done well offering on-site wagers.

"As we do those things, there seems to be a lot of interest to the customers. At the end of the day, when you think about this sports betting, it's offering our customers another option from an entertainment standpoint and not only is it good for them, but it's also good for the state and the community as well," Hyder said.

The competition

By way of starting up first, both Iowa casinos have an advantage over Jumer's Casino in Rock Island. But there will be more competition, such as event promotions and marketing, once sports betting starts in Illinois -- or at least that's the perspective from Jake Williams, vice president of legal and regulatory affairs at Sportradar.

"What operators can do to prepare for a neighboring state legalizing, is to build up their reputation and trust now by providing an unmatched customer experience with a highly competitive mobile product," Williams wrote in an email.

"While Illinois legalizing will certainly be something for Iowa to keep an eye on, it will need to compete within its own state first and foremost, since there are multiple brands operating there."

As sports wagering grows across the country, some states have allowed sports bets to be made at athletic stadiums. Whether that could happen in Iowa, or even Illinois for that matter, remains to be seen.

"Have to crawl before we walk and walk before we run. Iowa has always done it right when it comes to gaming initiatives ... (with a) high level of integrity and it will be no different than with sports wagering," Ehrecke said.

"I don't have that crystal ball to know, but things will continue to evolve."

But the president of the Iowa Gaming Association also pointed out that nothing stops someone from being at a stadium in Iowa right now from making a sports wager on their cell phone.

Another thing Ehrecke said to watch is how the market develops as sports betting began in the Hawkeye State as college football and professional football were getting underway.

Gaming officials across the state will be "learning and watching what the numbers are and what they will be as we compare year-to-year," he said.

"There's a lot of opportunities ... the volume is something yet to be decided. It's been exciting to see what the individual casinos do with their sports betting."

The betters

Both Ford and Perkins, who were betting on the Nov. 25 Ravens-Rams game, noted the fight nights hosted by Rhythm City. The Davenport casino has also offered two live boxing matches on its premises that had sports wagering available at the time of the bouts.

Perkins said it was standing-room-only for a recent UFC fight.

"It's starting to become a fight center. A lot of people come here for that -- a real good social atmosphere with these fights," he said.

While Perkins mostly sticks to football, Ford bets on a lot of the over-under point totals for NBA games.

Ford also prefers doing all of his bets in-person, as he likes to see how a game is going rather than looking at numbers on a screen to place a wager.

Echoing Perkins, Ford said he prefers Rhythm City to Isle. Both cited some of the drink and food specials that happen throughout the week at Draft Day, while the regular bettors all knew each other and talked amongst themselves during big Lamar Jackson plays that Monday night.

Before that late second-quarter run by Jackson, Perkins told Ford, "I need a touchdown here. No touchdown will kill me here."

Perkins was already starting to eye a play for the next night with Ohio University playing the University of Akron in college football.

"It's kind of like a second job. I like the parlays because it doesn't take a lot to win a decent amount," he said of the betting strategy when you bet several outcomes that all have to win in a bettor's favor to cash in.

One such parlay for Perkins was a 13-team play he made earlier this season. It all came down to the University of California and the University of Washington college football game, which aired late in the Midwest.

He went to sleep that night with all 12 of his previous bets going his way and with the Washington Huskies up by 10 late against the Cal bears. He needed Washington to win by seven. When he woke up, he saw Washington won by one point.

"I was literally two points away from winning $10,000," Perkins said.

On the "highlight reel" run by Jackson, the Ravens' quarterback, Perkins told Ford the quarterback's run was the result of a loss of a gap responsibility from L.A.'s defensive line.

"Can't go outside your gaps with a quarterback like that," Perkins said to Ford. "If he's playing like this, he's going to push the over by himself."

The number of TVs in the Draft Day Sports Lounge brought Perkins back into watching football, which had faded due to a string of down years for his Florida Gators. In fact, Monday night was the first night in which 10 86-inch screens were installed in the sports lounge.

The betting led to learning more about other college football teams to which he previously hadn't given much attention.

"This gave me a reason to start watching again," Perkins said.

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