Want to bet on sports? Iowa is your best option. It’s taking a lot of Chiefs wagers

Here’s a look at Ameristar Council Bluffs’s sportsbook

Ameristar Casino in Council Bluffs is bringing Las Vegas to Iowa. The company, owned by Penn National Gaming, spent $750,000 renovating its in-house Amerisports Bar.
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Ameristar Casino in Council Bluffs is bringing Las Vegas to Iowa. The company, owned by Penn National Gaming, spent $750,000 renovating its in-house Amerisports Bar.

Jim Newhouse is a lifelong NFL fan living in college football territory. As his friends make extravagant plans to watch the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Saturdays in the fall, he’s heading to the grocery store to pick out the best cuts of meat to throw on the grill on Sundays.

This is life in Council Bluffs, Iowa, for the 61-year-old Newhouse. If he wants to talk about his beloved Kansas City Chiefs, it often requires an interruption into a conversation about the Cornhuskers. And on a recent afternoon, here’s how one of those talks unfolded, best of his recollection:

“You guys know the Chiefs are winning the Super Bowl, right?” he said over a few beers.

One of his friends laughed.

“Want to bet on it?” the friend asked Newhouse.

At that moment, Newhouse reached into his back pocket and removed a brown leather wallet. From inside it, he pulled out a small white sheet of paper, creased in the middle.

“Already did,” he said, handing it over.

It’s a betting slip, and it’s still stored in the very back file in his wallet. In August, he placed the wager at an Iowa casino, $100 on the Chiefs to win the Super Bowl. The payout: $750.

Three weeks ago, six Iowa casinos began accepting sports wagers. Since then, more have opened their own books.

When will this trickle south to Missouri and Kansas? The odds remain, well, unlisted. But it won’t be this year. The legislative sessions in both states closed in May, leaving the earliest possible passage of such bills for 2020.

Missouri Senator Denny Hoskins authored a bill this year. His “offseason” goal: Drum up support for the birth of another in 2020.

“I have some colleagues that are really passionate about it on one side and some colleagues that are really passionate about it on the other,” Hoskins said in an interview with The Star this summer. “My hope is we can work over this interim now through January 1, and then we can take up this sports betting issue again next summer.”

It’s the same story for the neighbors on the other side of the state line. But it’s oh so different here in Iowa.

Ameristar Casino in Council Bluffs is bringing a bit of Las Vegas to Iowa. The company, owned by Penn National Gaming, spent $750,000 renovating its in-house Amerisports Bar. More than 50 big-screen TVs line the walls. Most of them show sports; others are reserved for the betting lines, scrolling like a news channel ticker, a similar setup to one you might find in Sin City.

“Everything has been going really smoothly,” said Paul Czak, the Ameristar Council Bluffs general manager. “There’s been a lot of new folks in. As the GM, I know most people who come through here after being here 10 years. I don’t know a lot of our (newer) guests.”

Paul Czak.jpg
Paul Czak, Ameristar Council Bluffs (Iowa) vice president and general manager, displays the new sportsbook. Sam McDowell

The sportsbook occupies one wall, with employees ready to take wagers. But many bettors choose kiosks, available both in the restaurant and on the casino floor, the latter providing a ‘round-the-clock option. Previously, the restaurant only opened for dinner. Now, it opens at 11 a.m. on weekdays at 9 a.m. on Nebraska football Saturdays.

On Sunday, the NFL’s opening weekend, Czak planned to crack the doors at 8 a.m. He expected a line of people to be waiting for him.

The place hired 18 additional employees. The patrons eat. They drink. And they bet. They watch the games on giant TVs while holding iPads and computers at their table, logging onto a website to check the updated lines without having to leave their seats.

It’s already doubled the revenue inside the restaurant, Czak said.

“We’ll make as much off the bar and food as we do the sportsbook itself,” Czak said.

Sports bettors can place wagers at kiosks inside Ameristar Council Bluffs (Iowa). Sam McDowell

It’s uncertain for now exactly how much money the sportsbook will generate.

The amount of “futures” bets — wagers on long-term plays like division winners, champions and the like — make the profit difficult to gauge until one full year is complete.

The Chiefs are a popular futures bet, for example. If they win the Super Bowl, people like Newhouse will be quite pleased, along with other local Iowans. The sportbooks in Iowa? They might take a day’s loss. But Penn has plans for 40 similar setups, so it should even itself out.

In Council Bluffs, the most popular futures bet is on Nebraska to win the national championship. The odds are 66/1. Czak said one man has bet $3,000 on the possibility, hoping for a payout of nearly $200,000. The book hasn’t yet turned down a bet.

And there have been a lot of them. Based on rewards cards members, Czak says visitors have flocked here from out of state more than ever before, perhaps making a point to stop when in town on business or passing through on vacation. Many hail from Missouri and Kansas, for it’s their nearest option to place a bet — folks like Clayton Miller, for instance, who recently moved from the Milwaukee area to St. Joseph, Missouri, for work.

William Hill properties in Iowa offer a mobile sports betting app. Bettors must be within the state lines when placing the bet. The technology is quite precise, and members of the Missouri and Kansas state legislatures have had it demonstrated to them in sessions.

Miller has downloaded the app. He lives about an hour from the Iowa border. A Green Bay Packers fan, he drove an hour north, opened the app while sitting in his car and placed a bet on the Packers to win the NFC championship and reach the Super Bowl. Winning tickets must be cashed at the casinos within 90 days of the win.

“We’ll be driving up in February to cash that one,” Miller said.

But why not bet the Packers to win the whole thing?

“I don’t want to bet against Mahomes in the Super Bowl,” he said. “My co-workers in St. Joe wouldn’t like that.”

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