Capital One Arena
Capital One Arena Credit: Kelyn Soong

The confusing, contested road to legal sports betting in the District has been filled with roadblocks and potholes. More than a year after a bill authorizing sports wagering was signed into law by Mayor Muriel Bowser on Jan. 23, 2019, no sports bets have been made in the city. But that will soon change.

At a recent event hosted by the D.C. Bar, chief counsel of the D.C. Lottery Ridgely Bennett said that “the District moved extremely quickly” in getting citywide sports betting operational, and that “we will probably begin District-operated sports wagering in early March.”

That projection has been pushed back ever so slightly by a spokesperson for the Office of Lottery and Gaming, who on Wednesday said “the Lottery anticipated a mid-March launch of its wagering app and website.” OLG submitted proposed rules governing the mobile app and site at the end of January, which are currently under a 30-day public comment period. Assuming no further delays, the Lottery-run mobile app will be the first platform for legal sports betting in D.C.

Additionally, the lottery will be drafting proposed rules governing sports wagering at D.C. Lottery retailers in the spring, anticipating a fall 2020 rollout, once infrastructural upgrades have been made to support sports wagers.

Bennett also confirmed at the D.C. Bar event that the roughly two-block radius exclusion zones that each of the city’s four Class A arenas enjoy was a provision pushed for by Monumental Sports and Entertainment chief executive Ted Leonsis and the Lerner family, who own the Washington Nationals. The exclusion zones allow each arena’s proprietary app to work in the area surrounding the arena, in lieu of the city app or any other bar or restaurant that might otherwise want to become a Class B operator. Bennett said the concession was made due to the owners’ status as “major contributors to the economic vitality of the city.”

While there is no set limit on the amount of Class B operators, there are obvious cost challenges, particularly in terms of geolocation requirements, especially for those that choose to go it alone. The Bet D.C. consortium of nearly 30 bars and restaurants has partnered together to share some of that cost burden, but they have not yet submitted their application, as of Thursday. In fact, the William Hill application for the sports book at Capital One Arena (in the old Greene Turtle space) remains the only submitted Class A or B application at this point. But, despite the various city delays, Leonsis and Co. don’t appear to be in any hurry to try to be first to market.

“We want to get it right, rather than fast,” said William Hill US chief executive Joe Asher in a separate interview following the event. “It’s going to be there for a long time, so we’re much more focused on getting it right and having something truly special than any artificial date.”

Asher said the goal is for the Capital One Arena sports book and restaurant to be open for business sometime in 2020. And while he mentioned the obvious market around the beginning of football season in September, he wouldn’t commit to any target dates.

As for the venue itself, the restaurant will comprise at least two floors (there are three floors to work with, but one may remain back-of-house). William Hill is in discussion with a local, as-of-yet-unnamed restaurateur to run the food operation, but a deal has not been finalized. The idea is to create something larger than a simple sports book, though.

“It’s going to be in the nation’s capital, in between the White House and the Capitol, on top of one of the busiest Metro stations in the system, one of the busiest subway stations in the country,” said Asher. “There’s gonna be a lot of people coming and we want it to be something that people can get really excited about.”

Meanwhile, the Bet D.C. consortium is still working to secure an operator for its mobile platform before it can apply for its provisional license, which is subject to a 30-45 day review period. That means the countdown to legal sports betting at any individual bars and restaurants not on the city app hasn’t even begun yet and will take 4-6 weeks once it does, assuming it’s approved.

But through the citywide mobile app, kiosks at D.C. Lottery retailers, arenas, and bars and restaurants, legal sports betting will be operational, piece by piece, throughout the District in 2020.