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With sportsbooks open in Iowa, the action for Husker fans isn't only on the field

2nd September, 14:54

While sports betting is illegal in Nebraska -- and has been forever -- local bookies operating out of backrooms and in basements have eagerly taken wagers for years.

In attempting to enforce the law, Lincoln Police would "bust a couple of bookies every year," said Tom Casady, a longtime law enforcement officer and recently retired public safety director.

LPD would often make a big show of locking up local handicappers, Casady added, in attempting to deter others from breaking the law.

But the days of the local sports book, like so many other facets of our civilization, have been crippled by the ease and accessibility of technology. In recent years, betting has moved online, to sites such as FanDuel or DraftKings or offshore operations.

"The old-fashioned bookies operating out of the bowling alley (have been) replaced by the glow from a screen," Casady said.

And now, presumably, by a betting window, with red carpet and TV monitors and scores scrolling on a big digital board.

As another Nebraska football season opened Saturday with the Huskers struggling to hold off South Alabama, let alone cover the five-touchdown spread, the action wasn't only on the field.

Nebraskans have flocked to Ameristar in Council Bluffs in the weeks since legal sportsbooks opened in Iowa, said Paul Czak, the casino's vice president and general manager.

"We've had a lot of Nebraska traffic, but most of our regular gaming traffic is from Nebraska," Czak said, noting more than 50% of the casino's business comes from patrons with a Nebraska zip code.

Bettors from far-flung states such as Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado and other places have also visited the Ameristar Sportsbook in the few weeks since its opening, Czak said.

Typically, the casino registers gamblers from those states during big Omaha events such as the College World Series or Berkshire Hathaway weekend, so to see that kind of traffic in mid-to-late August is unusual, Czak added.

And with college football kicking off, and the NFL season set to debut, Czak said he expects the number of people placing bets at the sportsbook to continue climbing.

Ameristar Sportsbook patrons feeling lucky can place simple wagers -- such as taking the Huskers over the Colorado Buffaloes next weekend, for example -- at a window or a kiosk. Or they have the option to download what Czak called a "bet builder app," which allows them to customize parlays and prop bets from their phone before visiting a betting window.

Next summer, the Ameristar Sportsbook plans to roll out another phone app that will allow remote betting via phone for anyone who registers with the casino and deposits money up front -- as long as they are within Iowa's borders.

"Anytime you are in Iowa, you would be able to wager," Czak said. "But as soon as you get halfway across the river, it won't let you. The app is geofenced and unbelievably accurate."

Other legal sportsbooks are up and running in Council Bluffs, Sioux City and elsewhere in the state.

The advent of legal wagering on college and professional sports within an hour's drive from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has raised some additional concerns for the compliance officers within the Nebraska Athletic Department who are responsible for ensuring student-athletes, coaches and athletic staff follow the rules set forth by the NCAA.

Jamie Vaughn, executive associate athletic director for compliance, said the department provides annual education and training about the NCAA's rules on sports betting to not just players but anyone involved with Husker athletics, including the marketing team and even UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green.

Put simply, the message is "Don't bet on it."

"Anyone who has been a student-athlete, coach or staff member knows that phrase," Vaughn said.

And with good reason.

Placing a bet on a game, even if the Big Red isn't on the field, or on a sport Husker Athletics sponsors no matter if it's at the professional level or peewee competition, can result in severe sanctions, including everything from a suspension to a loss of eligibility.

Student-athletes and staff are also reminded to not share information -- plays, injuries or suspensions, for example -- outside their teams or the department with people who are not prohibited from placing bets by the NCAA, said Jonathan Bateman, associate director of compliance.

"People on the outside, whether it's friends, someone on campus, or a family member, could be looking to place a wager or influence the betting line," Bateman said.

Training sessions take place at the beginning of every year, Vaughn added, but with the advent of sports gambling across the border, the compliance staff at Nebraska will make a concerted effort to reinforce the message throughout the year, particularly around the time of the Super Bowl and March Madness.

The athletic department will post reminders on video screens in training rooms, the dining area and study spaces, and even text those messages directly to student-athletes, Vaughn said.

"I think they pay attention and they hear it," he said.

Counselors specializing in gambling addiction say they are also keeping an eye on how the sports betting operations across the Missouri River will impact Nebraskans.

Deb Hammond, executive director of Choices Treatment Center in Lincoln, said legalized sports betting may draw more people to the Council Bluffs casinos, at least for a short time until the novelty wears off.

Gamblers should have fun placing a bet, Hammond said, but should set limits, manage their money, and be aware of the odds, as well as the warning signs for problematic gambling.

"(Sports betting is) going to be legalized in all of the states around us at some point, so what we need to do in Nebraska is put out an awareness message and let people know there is help available before they get to a place where they can't get out of debt," Hammond said.

For his part, Czak said while most forms of gambling remain illegal in Nebraska, sports betting "is only new to you if you've had your head in the sand."

Where students at UNL used to be able to place a bet with a hundred different bookies in Lincoln, Czak said the state of Iowa has now created a legal, safe and fair way to place a bet.

"You have to drive over here to do it," he said, "but it's eliminated that local booking at the back room of the bar or the golf club and made it a legitimate, regulated and very transparent thing you can do."