LARCHWOOD, Iowa — South Dakota’s impact was not lost on the Thursday grand opening of the new sportsbook at Grand Falls Casino and Golf Resort.
The Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce helped organize the event, which drew about 100 officials and sports enthusiasts. A Lyon County, Iowa, leader spoke about how he was looking forward to seeing South Dakota State University sporting events on the big screens at the new $1.5 million sportsbook, before backtracking and mentioning that he’s sure the University of South Dakota will be a key draw, as well.
And as usual at the casino, located about 1,000 feet from the Iowa-South Dakota border, plenty of Mount Rushmore-themed license plates were on the cars in the parking lot. For an operation that has done 60 percent of its business in person since starting to take sports bets in August, the former stage area turned Vegas-style sportsbook legitimizes the burgeoning part of Grand Falls’ business.
The timing is important and purposeful for the sportsbook’s opening, as no other single-day event in American sports is bet upon more than Sunday’s Super Bowl. It’s why the casino has 12 pages worth of various point spreads and prop bets available, ranging from the specific number of points one of the two teams will score, who will be MVP, to the more off-beat such as whether the first kickoff will be a touchback, how many total punts there are, and betting on both the shortest and longest field goals of the game by distance.
“We have not had that option to bet legally here in the Midwest,” Grand Falls General Manager Sharon Haselhoff said. “We’re usually quiet on Super Bowl Sunday, because people are at home and watching the game. But now, I think that might change with folks coming here to place a bet and they’ll be able watch the game on the big screen.”
It was the tri-state nature of the casino and the close nature of the Sioux Falls metropolitan area that made it attractive for Betfred, said company’s American chief operating officer Bryan Bennett. Betfred, the longtime United Kingdom bookmaker, is making its first foray into the U.S. market with the Larchwood location. Neither Minnesota or South Dakota have legalized sports gambling, which has only been legal since a key U.S. Supreme Court decision in mid-2018.
“When we were looking for a partner, finding someone that was close to a larger (metro area) like Sioux Falls, that was very important,” Bennett said. “So when we met with Grand Falls, they mentioned the vast majority of their business comes from the Sioux Falls area, that was very attractive to us. But it’s an easy drive, 15 minutes and you’re here. We anticipate, just like the casino, the vast majority of our sports bettors are going to be coming from Sioux Falls.”
Sports wagering has been legal in Iowa since August, with September being the first full month. To date, casinos across Iowa have received $212 million in sports bets and nearly $19.3 million in net receipts, and the state has received $1.3 million in tax revenue. Grand Falls specifically has handled $6.1 million, and nearly 60 percent of that has been bet via retail, or in person. The state of Iowa receives 6.75% in tax revenue on the casinos' net receipts.
The Grand Falls sportsbook is about 3,500-square-feet, with large screens to show sporting events, and the point spreads of hundreds of games available for pro and college sports. There’s various tiered seating options that bettors can reserve in advance, with food and drink service.
“With this sportsbook, we went all out,” Haselhoff said. “We made sure it was the top. I don’t think you’re going to find another sportsbook like this between Las Vegas and Atlantic City, and … there’s some sportsbooks in Las Vegas that this would beat.”
Across the border
The path to legalized sports wagering was opened by New Jersey, which successfully challenged the federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992. The law essentially restricted widespread sports wagering to Nevada only. The case reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of New Jersey and other states seeking to legalize sports bets by deeming the law unconstitutional in May 2018.
Since then, the national conversation about sports wagering has exploded, and 19 states have authorized the gambling, with 14 states having their sports wagering programs up and running.
Meanwhile, on the western side of the border, South Dakota remains a long way away from starting sports wagering anytime soon. The Deadwood Gaming Association has indicated it will again ask the South Dakota Legislature to put sports wagering on the November ballot for voters to decide. If that’s approved by voters, the Legislature would create the framework for sports wagering in the state, meaning the likely earliest date the wagering could begin is July 2021.
In 2019, the South Dakota Senate barely supported a joint resolution to put it on the 2020 ballot, before the bill died in a House committee. A joint resolution for this year’s session was introduced on Thursday and will try to traverse the same path, starting in the Senate Local Government committee. Sen. Bob Ewing, R-Spearfish, who represents Deadwood, is the lead sponsor of the joint resolution for a second straight year, and the legislation has more sponsors in 2020, with 38 total legislators listed as sponsors (18 senators and 20 representatives), up from a combined 27 a year ago.
Since then, three regional states have added sports wagering, with Iowa up and running, and Montana and Colorado both set to add sports wagering by May. Those regional factors, the Deadwood Gaming Association has said, are among the main reasons South Dakota should consider it, along with cutting down with illegal sports betting in favor of a legal, taxed option.
“I wouldn’t be shocked if that at some point, there’s more states looking at the legislation,” Haselhoff said. “It took us two years to pass this legislation in Iowa. It’s not something that is done overnight. It was well-thought out and I think the state did a good job of covering all of the topics in their bill. It really is one of the model.”
If legalized in South Dakota, sports wagering would add to what is still big business in Deadwood. Nearly $1.13 billion was wagered in a 12-month span ending June 30, 2019, according to the South Dakota Gaming Commission’s annual report. In December 2019 alone, Deadwood casinos handled more than $82 million in December 2019, and collected more than $685,000 in taxes. South Dakota taxes Deadwood gaming at 9 percent, which is distributed between the state’s general fund, South Dakota’s tourism promotion efforts, Lawrence County, and the South Dakota Gaming Commission’s fund.
Haselhoff said she knows the in-person, retail manner is a draw. She received calls a month ago from people who typically go to Las Vegas for the Super Bowl who wanted to watch the game at Grand Falls.
“When sports wagering became legal in August, we were getting calls not just Minnesota or South Dakota, but we had a call from someone from Montana because we were going to be the closest place that had it legalized to that person,” she said. “I don’t think it’s just South Dakota or Minnesota, it’s from Fargo and places all over this area.”
At Grand Falls, the sportsbook is part of about $10 million in upgrades at Grand Falls, which opened in 2011 and is also adding more than 60 hotel rooms in a new expansion. It’s all part of the draw, which got a little bigger this week with the opening of the expanded sportsbook.
“A year ago, if you would have told me that I would be spending Super Bowl Sunday in northwest Iowa, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Bennett said. “A lot of casinos are in rural markets and as long as you’re close to population centers, I think that’s the most important part. We’re happy with where we ended up.”