The outside of the William Hill sportsbook at Capital One Arena Credit: Noah Frank

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The world endured a very different kind of March Madness in 2020. Just as everything else in society came to a screeching halt, so did the sports calendar. One year later, the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments are back, but the March Madness experience—and the experience of a live sportsbook in the Las Vegas mold—is still not a reality in D.C.

It should be a time of celebration in the extended D.C. area, with Georgetown, Maryland, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Mount St. Mary’s, Liberty, Norfolk State, and VCU all in the field of 68 for the men’s tournament and Maryland and Mount St. Mary’s in the women’s field. Normally, bars would be bustling with alumni, with both official and unofficial watch parties popping up all over the District. But while the rapid spread of COVID-19 prompted the cancelation of the 2020 tournaments, the virus’ lingering impact a year later is continuing to wreak havoc on the event, both as an athletic competition and as the largest annual sports betting event in America.

There is a looming uncertainty for men’s teams like Virginia and Kansas, along with the more existential threat of an outbreak that could affect any school in the fields. Both the Cavaliers and Jayhawks were forced to withdraw from their conference tournaments last week due to positive COVID tests. Any player that already tested positive is out for at least 10 days, per NCAA rules, a stipulation that puts those Virginia and Kansas players who have done so out of the equation for the opening weekend of the tournament, with the potential to return if their teams advance to the Sweet 16. Every member of every team’s traveling party must test negative for seven straight days leading into the tournament to play. That’s a lot of things that all need to go right, enough so that four teams are on standby, in case a team needs to withdraw. 

Rather than the customary practice of holding games at sites all around the country, the NCAA centralized this year’s tournaments, with the men’s games played in Indianapolis and the women’s games in San Antonio.

For fans trying to enjoy the games, there is a lot more at stake than simply how far their team can advance in the tournament. For the grand distraction that March Madness usually is, it’s difficult to turn anywhere and not see the impacts of the pandemic. 

In years past, President Obama has filled out his own bracket live on ESPN, while countless sites around the web have run brackets for people to vote on everything from their favorite foods to wacky names. All that fanfare feels a little off this year, including on the sports betting front.

This should be the biggest weekend of the year at the local sportsbooks, but a full year after legalized gambling arrived in D.C., there is still only one actual sportsbook—William Hill’s setup at Capital One Arena. There are no big events or celebrations or watch parties planned, no special promotions. William Hill doesn’t plan to open the bar and restaurant component until later this spring, per a spokesperson. Meanwhile, neither the BetMGM sportsbook at Nationals Park nor the FanDuel sportsbook at Audi Field are open yet, a full year after GambetDC’s launch. While both have announced they will open in 2021, they are both missing this more subdued March.

On the afternoon of Monday, March 15, following Selection Sunday, a small but steady stream of sports bettors gathered at Capital One Arena. But much of the talk surrounded NBA games for that evening rather than March Madness. With the First Four and opening round men’s games pushed back until March 18 and 19, respectively, perhaps the action will pick up, and you certainly couldn’t blame bettors for being cautious, under the circumstances.

Per William Hill’s house rules, any bets on the canceled conference tournament games featuring Virginia and Kansas were refunded, but any futures bets on those teams to win their respective conference tournaments remained in play. According to William Hill, those rules remain in place moving forward. So if you bet on Virginia to win its opening round game, but the Cavaliers end up not being able to participate, you’ll get that bet back. Bet on them to win it all, though? You’re out of luck.

With that in mind, I put down a few bets on some upsets, including on my alma mater, UC Santa Barbara, to win its first game in the Big Dance in a decade. But my futures bet on Illinois to win the national title could go up in smoke even if they don’t lose.

Any futures bet is, on some level, a wager on a team staying healthy. But health within the context of a sporting event is obviously not the same as health within the broader context of a global pandemic.

A diminished March Madness will only further widen the gap between what the city hoped to make in tax revenue from sports betting and what it is actually pulling in. According to the website Legal Sports Report, which tracks numbers from every state with legal sports betting, D.C. has totaled less than $1.2 million in tax revenue as of March 15, 2021. In its recent oversight hearing, the Office of Lottery and Gaming reported roughly an additional $2.2 million in 2020 tax revenue from the GambetDC mobile sports betting app. Compare that to the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer’s fiscal impact statement projections of nearly $34 million through the end of 2020 and an additional $28.3 million in 2021.

Meanwhile, mobile sports betting went live in Virginia in late January, with brick and mortar sportsbooks expected sometime in 2022, and Maryland may not be too far behind. That means increased competition around the District for those same betting dollars and tax revenues.

It’s worth noting that more than half of the money wagered each year on March Madness comes in the form of bracket pools, most run privately, which could be thrown into utter chaos if teams are forced to withdraw at any point during the tournament.

In ESPN’s online Men’s Tournament Challenge, there is an entire section of the official rules dedicated to COVID-related interruption or cancellation contingencies. It offers a framework for its prizes if the tournament is halted somewhere along the way, but also leaves wiggle room.

Add up all the uncertainty and, as has been the case with many sporting events in the last year, it’s hard to fully enjoy the distraction of March Madness. Even if bars and restaurants weren’t limited by city restrictions to 25 percent capacity, it’s difficult to imagine the kinds of large, packed crowds that watch parties often draw, alumni and fans crammed into close quarters, yelling and embracing. Penn Social, one of the city’s most popular gathering spots for sporting events, hasn’t even reopened.

At Ivy & Coney, a home bar for fans of top-seeded Michigan, March Madness will look a lot different this year. Normally, it would run a bracket system where, if patrons picked games correctly, they would get discounts on beers the rest of the day.

“It’s one of our busiest months of the year,” says owner Chris Powers of March. “We were ready for it to be totally crazy.”

But with D.C. COVID restrictions currently keeping bars and restaurants at limited capacity, things will be decidedly less mad. The outdoor patio has four four-tops and a six-top available to reserve in two-and-a-half hour blocks (up from two hours, to accommodate for potential overtime).

“For us, being a Michigan bar, normally it would be packed wall-to-wall with Maize and Blue,” says Powers. “The real diehards that take Friday off and sit at a bar and watch basketball all day, that’s really out the window for this year.”

Ivy & Coney will extend its hours on the front end to open at noon starting Friday, but alcohol service still ends at 10 p.m. through this weekend, per city restrictions, before the last set of games ends. That is scheduled to loosen starting March 22, with establishments able to extend hours until midnight. That will benefit them for future rounds—if the tournament gets there.

“We’re still not sure what’s going to happen for the second round,” Powers says.