Wes Ehrecke, president of the Iowa Gaming Association, talks about plans to introduce a bill in the Iowa Legislature that would allow Iowans to legally bet on sports events if the U.S. Supreme Court rules favorably in a pending case. William Petroski/The Register


Gamblers could be making legal sports bets on Hawkeye and Cyclone football games at Iowa casinos as soon as next fall if the chips fall the right way.

The change hinges on two factors: Whether the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a federal law that bans most states from sports betting, and whether the Iowa Legislature approves a proposal during its 2018 session to allow it.

"We would definitely be very interested," said Gary Palmer, president and chief executive officer at Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Altoona. "We are always willing to look into something new, and sports betting has been going on illegally forever with bookies. So you might just as well legalize it so that we could get some tax money from it."

The Iowa Gaming Association, which represents the state's 19 commercial casinos, is asking lawmakers to pass a bill during the upcoming legislative session that would allow sports betting on professional and college sports, said Wes Ehrecke, the association's president.

"We would like to think it would be very popular," Ehrecke said.

State Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, who chairs the Iowa Senate State Government Committee, said he's open to considering legislation to allow sports betting, but he's in no rush to make a decision

"I want to do due diligence on it. I want to talk with different colleagues at the Capitol.  I want to talk with constituents, and I want to see if this is something that Iowans want," Smith said.

Why now?

Ehrecke's organization wants the Legislature to act now in anticipation that the Supreme Court will side with New Jersey in a pending case that could open the floodgates for legal sports betting nationally. A decision is expected this spring or summer.

Under the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, sports gambling is prohibited in all but four states, to various extents: Nevada, Delaware, Montana and Oregon. But sports betting could be offered in 32 states within five years if the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of New Jersey, according to a report by Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, which tracks state-by-state gambling legislation.

Many court watchers are guessing the Supreme Court will agree with states that want to offer sports wagering. If that happens, Ehrecke envisions the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission could quickly adopt administrative rules to oversee casino sports betting, just as it regulates slot machines and other games like blackjack and poker. In addition, Iowa could also see tribal casinos at Tama, Onawa and Sloan request authority to offer sports wagering.

The American Gaming Association, a casino industry group, estimates that sports fans annually wager at least $150 billion illegally, including nearly $90 billion on NFL and college football games this season.

Geoff Freeman, president and chief executive officer of the  American Gaming Association, contends the existing federal ban raises fundamental questions about states’ sovereignty to define their own laws and combat crime within their borders, and prevents fans from betting on games in a safe, legal manner. 

Nelson Rose, an attorney and law professor from Encino, Calif., who is considered a leading expert on gambling law, recently wrote there is a good chance New Jersey will win all nine votes on the Supreme Court, but with "wildly differing opinions."

"My bet is that the court will not be able to avoid the ultimate question: When, if ever, should Congress be allowed to tell states that they have to keep any private conduct illegal?" Rose wrote. "The answer will probably be: Congress cannot require the state to keep an activity criminal when the issue comes within the traditional police powers of a state. If I am right, a dozen states will have some form of sports betting within four years."

But not everybody is supporting the legalization of sports betting nationwide.

Tom Coates of Norwalk is a longtime critic of Iowa's gambling industry who believes it has contributed to divorces, family financial hardships and suicides. He said sports betting would be the next logical step in an expansion of gambling that has swept the country in recent decades. But he's particularly concerned about the addictive potential of online sports betting for younger Iowans who might not want to sit in front of a slot machine at a traditional casino.

"This is a way to further corrupt sports in this country" and will be aimed at "fleecing" participants out of their money, he contended. "None of that is good," said Coates, who is executive director and co-founder of Consumer Credit of Des Moines, which helps people in financial trouble solve their debt problems.

The possible legalization of sports betting could add a new dimension for fans of college football and basketball at Iowa's three public universities. Thousands of fans who enjoy tailgating, pep rallies and cheering at games could also find themselves worrying whether their legal bets beat point spreads or other odds.

But Iowa State University Athletic Director Jamie Pollard, as well as athletic department officials at the University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa, aren't taking a stance on the issue of sports betting — at least for now.

"We are certainly aware of that national landscape regarding this issue. However, it is very premature for anyone at Iowa State to be commenting on this issue," Pollard told the Des Moines Register.

Prairie Meadows' officials aren't wasting any time. Palmer said he's already been scouting out places in the casino and the racetrack's clubhouse as possible venues to establish a sports book facility that would accept bets on athletic events.

"It would be another reason for people to come out and enjoy our facilities and another reason for taxation for the state and another conduit for us to give money to charities," Palmer said. "We think it would be good."

Register reporter Jason Noble contributed to this story.

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