Just like everything else in 2020, the debut of sports betting in the District didn’t go as originally planned. But unlike many of America’s professional sports leagues, which endured months-long delays or pauses, live sports betting actually launched at Capital One Arena earlier than expected, with the opening of the William Hill sportsbook on July 31.
The traditional Las Vegas books are often large rooms filled with rows of cushy chairs facing a wall of screens showing the action around various sports leagues. They’re a place you can plop down, order food and drinks, and easily lose track of an entire day.
That was the plan—and still is—for the restaurant and sportsbook that will occupy the former Greene Turtle space in the southeast corner of Capital One Arena. William Hill is continuing to build it out with a tentative opening date this fall, in time for the next NHL season and a society potentially less restricted by public health measures. But the company called an audible in order to try to take advantage of a professional sports landscape that has produced an August different than any other.
“It’s actually a pretty cool time, because normally August would be really our slowest month, at least up until college football starts at the end of the month,” says David Grolman, William Hill’s president of retail operations.
Instead, the NHL and NBA are headed into their playoffs, and MLB games and the PGA Tour are continuing, providing a livelier set of options. That led William Hill to take advantage, opening up a temporary sportsbook in the ticket window area just inside the F Street NW entrance to the arena, which took its first bets the same day its application was approved.
“We never intended to use the box office area for a pop-up sportsbook,” says Grolman. “We said, ‘Hey, you’ve got this box office that’s sitting here empty, we can turn this into a sports wagering area pretty quickly, if we can get the blessing of the Office of Lottery and Gaming.’”
The temporary space is spartan and businesslike. Inside the doors, in the space normally used for the walk-up box office, representatives take in-person bets from four windows, spaced out with empty windows between them. Across the entryway, abutting the glass wall at the edge of the building, 10 kiosks offer the same services electronically.
On a sweltering Tuesday afternoon this week, a steady stream of patrons lined up for their chance to wager. For the 45 minutes I was at Capital One Arena, there was a constant but quickly moving line awaiting the opportunity to place bets. Facemasks, along with standard social distancing protocols, were mandated inside.
How to place a bet
The sports book is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. While the representatives are there to help novice bettors, or just those who would prefer to deal with another human being, the kiosks were pretty straightforward and user friendly.
The minimum bet is $2 (and there is really no maximum bet), though it’s worth noting that the kiosks don’t accept one-dollar bills. I placed a trio of $10 bets, one on the moneyline of Tuesday night’s Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Angels matchup, with Oakland at +147 on the road, and a pair of futures bets. I took the A’s again (they’re my hometown team and rooting interest) at 12-1 to win the World Series, and also the Cincinnati Reds, at 14-1, to win the National League pennant.
The machine, just like the window, takes only cash. It also pays out in cash, unless you’ve won a particularly large amount, in which case a check or money order can be arranged.
Will it catch on?
One major question facing the viability of legal sports betting is whether books can offer odds attractive enough to lure existing sports bettors away from the illegal, offshore books where they may be comfortable betting their money. The size of that illegal market is a source of much contention, but it’s clearly in the billions, and siphoning it off into legal channels is crucial for states and municipalities to collect the potential tax revenue that has spurred regulated sports betting around the country.
The William Hill sportsbook offered odds that were a mixed bag compared to Bovada, an offshore gambling site used by bettors, and it also has to compete against the citywide sports betting app, GambetDC, which launched in late May. The availability of competition between the various operators in the city should give consumers a few different options, driving more competitive odds.
But the odds largely aren’t dictated by the local markets. Grolman says that William Hill’s offerings are generally the same across their properties from state to state, only fluctuating slightly on occasion if a particularly large amount of money comes in on one side of a local line. With, say, the Washington Football Team at an extremely long line of 200/1 to win the Super Bowl, a heavy influx of bets on the Burgundy and Gold could sway that number.
The other big question for the industry is whether sports betting can capture sports fans, like me, who don’t usually bet. As Monumental Sports CEO Ted Leonsis has touted, studies indicate sports betting can drive more interest in the games themselves for fans, creating something of a feedback loop of time and monetary investment.
So it was that I found myself at 10:15 on a Tuesday evening with the early innings of the A’s-Angels tilt on the television with my Reds—they’re my Reds, now—in extra innings on my phone, hosting the Royals. Quickly, in the bottom of the 10th, Joey Votto hit one off the wall in straightaway center, plating the winning run for a 6-5 victory, moving Cincinnati back within a game of .500 at 8-9. I didn’t win anything from that individual result but, like tracking a stock, it gave me a reason to be invested in the outcome, both now and in the future.
The A’s game didn’t go as planned. Despite my knowledge of the team—that the offense had started clicking, that they’d already faced that night’s starting pitcher recently, and therefore might have a better read on him—Oakland was shut out in Anaheim, 6-0.
There has been plenty of interest from other parties—both stadiums that qualify for Class A operator licenses and bars or restaurants that can apply for Class Bs—but not much movement to date. Other plans for Nationals Park and Audi Field have not made it to the regulatory stage. Only one other Class A or B operator has even applied for a license to date—Handle 19 Inc., which is still under review.
The exclusion zones granted to Class A operators like William Hill at Capital One Arena gives them a roughly two-block radius around their respective arenas to operate a mobile app. But William Hill hasn’t launched that yet. It was more of a priority when that area was full of restaurants and bars filled with people, rather than the relative ghost town that is the current state of affairs in Chinatown.
So for now, the William Hill book is the only in-person option, with GambetDC the only mobile one for D.C. sports bettors. While William Hill hasn’t released any figures regarding the amount of money wagered or bets placed, it’s clear that, despite everything, there’s still an appetite for it.