There are no casinos in Washington, D.C. There are no casinos on the horizon in Washington, D.C. The nation’s capital is bordered on one side by Virginia and on the other by Maryland, states with both sports betting and casinos, already active or in the works.
Washington does offer sports betting, however, so locals, visitors and workers can wager on their favorite teams in D.C. instead of heading north on I-95 or across the Potomac.
The industry is overseen by the D.C. Office of Lottery and Gaming (OLG), which established the sportsbook brand GambetDC. GambetDC, in turn, is run by Intralot, OLG’s longtime online lottery partner. In 2019, Intralot secured a $215 million “single-source” contract to also run mobile sports betting.
The no-bid contract, while controversial, withstood a legal challenge from a local sports betting app developer, and in January 2020, GambetDC launched as a mobile-only sportsbook. It was the only game in town until commercial sportsbooks debuted at local stadiums under Class A licenses. OLG also made Class B licenses available to select establishments not located within two blocks of a stadium.
Despite being accessible in large swaths of Washington, GambetDC’s revenue results seem—well, underwhelming, especially when compared to the Caesars Sportsbook at Capital One Arena and the BetMGM sportsbook at Nationals Park.
To be fair, the dismal results trace back to a provision that keeps the GambetDC’s app from functioning inside the city’s many federal buildings.
A recent report from the Office of the District of Columbia Auditor put sports betting tax revenues from May 2020 to March 2021 at about $1.8 million—of which $1.4 million came from GambetDC’s sole private competitor for the period, William Hill (now Caesars). The total was far short of the $6.2 million initially projected by the lottery.
In September, GambetDC accepted slightly more than 115,400 wagers, which resulted in a handle of $3.7 million. By comparison, Caesars accepted almost 155,000 bets, for $16.2 million in handle. At BetMGM, 24,000 wagers led to a handle of $836,623. GambetDC averaged $32.06 per bet, while Caesars averaged $104.86. Even BetMGM, which only launched in the summer, averaged $34.82 a bet.
Looked at in another light, the handle at Caesars sportsbook for September was 4.3 times the handle for GambetDC.
Why the disparity?
“The premise for sports betting in the district has been a failure since the beginning,” said Brendan D. Bussmann, partner and director of government affairs for Global Market Advisors. “This all started with a study that was done to make a no-bid contract to launch sports betting. They were doomed to fail.”
Intralot’s initial proposal indicated that it expected to hold 20 percent to 30 percent of the handle. According to USBets.com, that was “a nightmare for bettors but seemingly a gold mine for the district… The company could find that there are enough casual sports fans—probably already lottery players—who wouldn’t even notice that the prices are ghastly.”
It’s easy to point the finger at Intralot, but it goes deeper than that, Bussmann said. “This is not just an Intralot issue, but a lottery issue. Lotteries have not provided a good model across the United States to run sports betting. They’re risk-adverse institutions that want a large cut that make it difficult to operate sports betting. Whether it’s D.C. or New Hampshire, these are not models for anyone else to follow.”
Of course, the pandemic can also be blamed for GambetDC’s failure to meet expectations. The auditor stated, “The reduced commuter population due to Covid-19 adversely affected GambetDC’s performance” in its first year. But there’s also the 42.5 percent of gross revenues that went to Intralot as part of the deal.
Intralot’s U.S. CEO, Byron Boothe, blames OLG. “The lottery makes all the decisions about GambetDC, from its design to its payouts, while Intralot simply provides the technology,” he told the Washington Post. He added that GambetDC needs to offer odds that are more competitive with those private operators.
“Sportsbooks really are determined by their payout,” Boothe said. “If the city decides it wants to stay in this space, either raise the payout to be competitive” or restrict other options for legal gambling in the city.
“That’s the choice the city has to make,” he said. “The payout drives the player. … Winning is everything. If you can win more, you’re going to like it.”
But OLG hasn’t restricted other options; indeed, it’s approved a handful of bars and restaurants to open private commercial sportsbooks—a first in the nation. These ventures operate their books as they see fit, setting their own odds and hours of operation. In addition to costly license application fees, the district collects a 10 percent tax on operators’ monthly gross gaming revenue, just like Capital One Arena and Nationals Park.
In October, Grand Central LLC became the first of the independent sportsbooks to open, not just in D.C., but in the United States.
“We are absolutely thrilled to be granted our first U.S.-based sports wagering license,” said Grand Central owner Brian Vasile. “We’ve been a part of the vibrant Adams Morgan neighborhood since Grand Central opened in 2007. We’re looking forward to offering our customers an extraordinary experience to wager on their favorite teams while enjoying our signature dishes and beverages for lunch or dinner.”
Vasile expects to add a mobile component in 2022, with geofencing that will restrict usage to the business premises only. “The mobile aspect permits electronic deposits and payments, quicker placement of bets and convenience,” he said.
Grand Central has partnered with Elys Gaming Technology, which sets the odds. Elys operates in approximately 1,200 venues throughout Italy in both online and retail channels and is now live in five U.S. states with six tribal casinos.
Where Grand Central operates as a privately owned sportsbook, the lottery office has added GambetDC retail locations to take bets in person, augmenting the mobile bets.
Those retailers “operate as vendors for a commission, same as lottery retailers,” said Nicole Jordan, director of marketing and communications for the lottery office. “The revenue goes to the city. Retailers do not own the sportsbooks. We assume the risk and do the marketing. For bettors, it’s like buying a lottery ticket.”
Becoming a retail vendor is easier to file for and requires only a small application fee, she added; as of the end of October, the lottery had 10 retail locations.
“We’re expanding weekly,” Jordan said. “The district’s model was created to provide businesses, both small and large, the opportunity to participate in sports wagering. The GambetDC retail program is another way in which small businesses can enter the sports betting industry. It provides a new revenue stream for local businesses without risk and large financial expense.”
It’s too early to gauge the success of Grand Central or the retailers, but football season will certainly stoke the overall action, despite the poor showing of the Washington Football Team.
“GambetDC continues to be filled with more questions than answers since its inception,” Bussmann observed. “Opening up the market is the only option to get past the problems of the past and have a fresh start. Unfortunately, no one in D.C. likely can see that, as it’s been marred in controversy.”
Meanwhile, Jordan said, the lottery office is looking at payouts as well as other operational items to help GambetDC become more attractive in the marketplace. “Our goal is to provide our players with a fun gaming experience while maximizing return to the district. We’re excited to have enhanced promotions and betting options for our players.”
Bussmann isn’t buying it. “Honestly, the best option would be to open up the market and start over. The only shining star you have are the commercial operators. The challenge is that it’s hard to make any change in the District of Columbia.