Iowa has a history with tourist-centric betting games that goes all the way back to riverboat gambling, back again and finally into modern casino gaming. And as of 2019, Iowa is one of about 20 states that is progressively working toward legalization and regulation of betting on football and other sports. 

History of Gambling in Iowa

Any history of gambling in Iowa has to start with riverboat gambling. Following suit of the vice-tempering mood of the U.S. in the post-Civil War 19th century, Iowa gradually eliminated all legal gambling. Only in 1972 – incredible as it seems – were bingo, charity raffles and pari-mutuel betting at the state’s racetracks again made permissible. 

So perhaps the explosion in riverboat gambling in the 1980s which led to a mini-industry unto itself was simply a severe backlash to the long period of repression. A former scrap-metal dealer named Bernard Goldstein saw opportunity in history and lobbied hard for the legalization of riverboat gambling, arguing that such a unique tourist draw would prove a bonanza for state coffers.

After Goldstein’s efforts led to his launching of the first revamped riverboat casino, the Hawkeye State became known as a pioneer in modern riverboat gambling from the 1991 through the 2000s; because of the nascent industry, the Iowa state government was able to benefit from the casino-gaming craze of the 1990s a good seven or eight years before the rest of the U.S. 

By 2005, some 14 – then the maximum number permitted by Iowa law – were open for business on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Ironically, the Iowans’ own progressive thinking toward casino gaming caused an implosion in the industry. Passage of the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) in 1988 combined with the allowance of “Class III” gambling on riverboats to create a glut of gaming.

Additionally, Las Vegas interests behind Native American-operated casinos started selling locals on the hotel-and-spa concept around casinos, wiping out the more limited riverboat casinos.
In the late 2010s, just two riverboat casinos are still doing business in Iowa. Another 22 land-based gaming houses are in operation in 18 Iowa burgs.
Perhaps the failure of the riverboat casinos has led to a backlash to the backlash. Iowa was just one of six states to illegalize daily fantasy sports from the go, and legislation to allow citizens to play fantasy football and other sports for money was rejected in 2017. Indeed, as legal full-on sports betting seems well closer to passage, Iowa may become unique in legalizing sportsbook-style gambling *before* DFS games.

Football in Iowa

With no major market for professional sports in Iowa, most football fans are mostly beholden to the nearby Minnesota Vikings, though the Kansas City Chiefs and Chicago Bears are also quite popular in the southern and eastern bits of the state.

The pride of the Iowan gridiron game for years has thus been the University of Iowa Hawkeyes. The Hawkeyes began play in 1892 and enjoyed success quickly enough: In 1899, Iowa went 6-0 and this performance earned the Hawkeyes an invite to join the Big Ten (then the Western Conference) and, with the exception of the years 1907-10, have remained in the powerful conference since.

The first national headline-grabbing football from the Hawkeyes came in the 1920s. From 1920 to ’22, Iowa enjoyed a run of 20 consecutive wins and took two Big Ten titles; thereafter, head coach Howard Jones departed for sunny California and got to work in turning USC into a college football powerhouse.

In 1952, Forest Evashevski was hired as Hawkeyes head coach and Iowa’s golden age began. From 1956 through ’60, Evashevski’s Hawkeyes earned five top-5 AP finishes and two Rose Bowl wins. “Evy” left the sidelines for the U. Iowa athletic director position after the 1960 season; the Hawkeyes finished 5-4 in ’61 and wouldn’t return to true national prominence until the 1980s.
Hayden Fry came over after a decade and a half with SMU and North Texas University in 1979. The future College Football Hall of Famer would ultimately go 232-178-10 with the team until retiring in 1998. In his 20 seasons with Iowa, Fry’s Hawkeye teams boasted one top-10 finish (in 1985), nine other top-20 finishes and a 6-7-1 record in bowl games. Studs on the ’85 team included QB Chuck Long, DB Jay Norvell and RB Ronnie Harmon, although Harmon was responsible for a shameful four fumbles in the Rose Bowl game following that season.

Taking over from Fry was Kirk Ferentz, whose head coaching record with Iowa is certainly comparable to his predecessor’s in their first 20 seasons. Through 2017, Ferentz’s Hawkeyes have run up a cumulative record of 143-97 for a .596 overall winning percentage. (Fry’s Iowa teams won at a .613 clip.) In his first 19 seasons in Iowa, Ferentz helped the Hawkeyes win two Big Ten titles and finish in the national top 10 on five occasions. 

Betting on football in Iowa

As stated previously, Iowa is in a strange situation vis-à-vis betting on football in that legalization of proper sports betting actually seems closer to fruition than legally permissible DFS games. On the face of things, the replacement of former governor Terry Branstad by Kim Reynolds in January 2017 seemed to be a plus for those looking for expansion of the Iowa casino industry or sports betting in the state; after all, Branstad had been anti-gambling enough that at one point he mused about rolling back extant laws allowing riverboat gambling.

Sadly, Reynolds was hit with a gambling-related mini-scandal just weeks into her first term. As the local Des Moines Register reported, “Gov. Kim Reynolds was on a roll during her first days in office, but she drove herself over a box of nails when she decided to travel on a casino executive’s private plane during her first outing as governor.

“Reynolds […] defended the decision to seek out and accept as an in-kind donation the use of businessman Gary Kirke’s plane on Friday, even though he is seeking a license for a new casino in Cedar Rapids.

“‘First of all, the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission is an independent agency with no oversight (by) the governor’s office, and there has been no discussion of the casino licenses,” Reynolds said. “I have never done that in the past and I won’t do that going forward.’”

So after driving through that metaphorical box of nails, NFLbets’d expect Governor Reynolds to be walking on eggshells regarding gambling issues in Iowa. Nevertheless, pro-sports betting legislators are hoping to move forward. As noted previously, an attempt to regulate/legalize DFS games died before proper introduction in 2017. In ’18, a bill (later modified) which would give extant Iowa casinos the right to run sportsbook operations did not get put in front of the legislature before the annual session ended.

Look for progress in 2019, then, we suppose…