A 2009 NCAA mens basketball brackets basketball bracket
A 2009 NCAA mens basketball brackets basketball bracket Credit: Joey Parsons/Flickr

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March is one of the best months on the sports calendar, for fans and bettors alike. The NBA and NHL are steamrolling toward the playoffs with big matchups every night. MLB’s spring training is in full swing, offering futures bets for the season ahead. And March Madness, which normally begins this week, tanks office productivity nationwide.

It would seem to be a great time to launch legal sports betting, which has been the plan here in D.C. The Office of Lottery and Gaming confirmed in an email Friday that it will launch its citywide mobile sports betting app and website “by the end of the month.” But even with a comprehensive list of domestic and international sports and leagues available for wagering on the platform, OLG was quick to acknowledge that, due to the widespread hold on organized sports across the country and beyond due to concerns around the coronavirus, “there will likely be little-to-no games or bets to offer in the coming weeks.”

In other words, D.C.’s sports betting app will launch into a world with no sports.

“We are revising our launch strategy now based on the current state of world events/no games happening, but we will be ready to fully debut our sports book when it is safe for the sports world to return to the court, field, etc.,” an OLG spokesperson tells City Paper.

For places like Hollywood Casino at Charles Town in West Virginia, where sports betting has been legal since last year, uncertainty abounds. As of Monday morning, the casino remained open, but with extremely limited sports betting options.

On the afternoon of Selection Sunday, normally the kickoff to the most popular and heavily bet upon event on the American sports calendar, there was a grand total of five events on their online book available to bet ontwo Russian Premier League soccer matches, two Turkish Süper Lig matches, and a professional darts match. There were still World Series futures bets available for the MLB season, despite the great deal of uncertainty around when the season might start and how the delays might affect its structure. That gives a sense of the limited sports D.C. might have on offer when the app goes live later this month.

On Sunday afternoon, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan ordered all racetracks and casinos in the state shuttered by midnight, perhaps a harbinger of things to come elsewhere. Later Sunday, MGM announced it is shutting down its hotel and casino operations in Las Vegas beginning Tuesday. It seems that whatever advantage D.C.’s online-first presence provides — since there are no active, in-person sportsbooks and won’t be until at least the fall—is wiped out by the fact that until it’s safe enough to reopen casinos, it won’t be safe enough to restart sports leagues.

Missing March Madness is a big blow. In Nevada last year, roughly $300 million of the annual total of $5.3 billion wagered on sports came from the NCAA Tournament alone, with much more money being wagered on March Madness illegally and in office pools (an estimated $8.5 billion overall in 2019).

In some ways, this could be a blessing in disguise, a chance to work through any potential bugs in the system. But more broadly for the city, it means another missed opportunity to hit the rosy revenue projections laid out during the lawmaking process. Those projections included more than $7.6 million in tax revenue in 2019, when sports betting wasn’t even operational yet, more than $26 million in this already abbreviated year, and increasing amounts in the years to follow.

Mind you, these numbers are based on a 10% tax on revenue, not total amount wagered. Using the numbers out of New Jersey in 2019 ($4.58 billion wagered, $300 million in revenue), D.C. would have to pull in a total handle of nearly $4 billion this year to provide the level of revenue ($260-plus million) that would yield that level of tax revenue. And that’s with New Jersey sporting a population more than 12 times that of D.C., having access to the New York City market, possessing the existing race track infrastructure, and providing a competitive market with multiple operators.

The in-person aspect of legal sports betting in D.C. is also moving slowly, with only two additional supplier licenses now in review with OLG, joining the William Hill sportsbook application for Capital One Arena. The office expects the Audi Field sportsbook application, also a William Hill-operated venue, to arrive soon and for sports betting to be operational there sometime this year.

These are secondary concerns, but they highlight just how much of the routine and expected progressions of everyday life have been upended by this pandemic. Millions of Americans lean on sportsand, as it has become increasingly legally accessible, sports bettingas a daily distraction. The sudden absence of that has left some looking for alternative entertainment.

OLG will be releasing more information about the app name and advertising in the coming weeks. Time will tell whether something like sports betting will seem trivial, or will be a welcome distraction by that time.

Photo by Joey Parsons on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-ND 2.0 license.