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The timing of legal sports betting’s arrival in the District could hardly have been worse. It landed just as the sports world went into a months-long hibernation, and only now is it starting to approach normalcy. Perhaps nothing signifies that more than the opening of the William Hill Sportsbook at Capital One Arena this week, a first-of-its-kind structure that permanently marries sports and gambling in America in a way we’ve never seen.
Sprawled over two stories and 18,000 square feet, the venue can pack as many as 764 people into its various bars, betting spaces, and lounge areas. There are 100 televisions tuned to the various sports networks, along with betting screens behind the counters where you can place live bets. There are also kiosks, if that’s more your speed, with more set to be installed along the 300 and 400 levels of the arena.
With a lower floor centered around a sweeping, slightly rounded staircase that twirls up to the space above, the venue feels “of Vegas” in the way that so much of Vegas itself feels vaguely of Italy, or at least of the Americanized flourishes of Roman architecture.
The space, which is being leased to William Hill on a 10-year deal, will also feature a menu from local chef Nick Stefanelli, who rose to prominence with his Italian restaurant Masseria, which earned a Michelin star in 2016. According to Stefanelli, the floor plan looks a little different than originally envisioned, as the extra time allowed them to adjust and make better use of the square footage available.
Depending on the event, ticketed fans will be able to move to and from the arena and the sportsbook, on the 200 level near the elevator bank that faces F Street NW. Monumental Sports & Entertainment has reached an agreement with the NBA for Wizards games, starting with this Saturday’s first-round home playoff game against the Philadelphia 76ers. Monumental is hoping to do the same with the NHL before the next season begins in the fall, but do not have an agreement in place yet. Other events, like college basketball games, will depend on the governing bodies of each sport.
The 5G service within Capital One Arena has also been expanded as part of this arrangement, which is crucial for in-game betting. Monumental hopes fans will largely use their phones to place those bets, rather than leaving their seats. That upgraded infrastructure will help support the increase in fans using bandwidth.
One other change from last fall’s opening—Caesars acquired William Hill last month, in an approximately $4 billion deal. That meant Caesars CEO Tom Reeg was the one following Monumental CEO Ted Leonsis at the dais Wednesday morning, though all the branding in and around the venue still carries the William Hill name and logo, aside from a No. 21 Wizards and Capitals jersey on display with “CAESARS” on the name plate.
Even amid the pandemic, as businesses across the city and country were shuttering—and even as their own, original timeline of trying to get the restaurant component open by the NFL season became clearly unrealistic—Monumental took a leap of faith by opening a spartan, pop-up sportsbook in the Capital One Arena lobby last August.
Leonsis gave credit to Monumental President of Business Operations and CCO Jim Van Stone for its success: “He’s the crazy one who came to me and said … ‘I guarantee it will work.’”
The modest setup with seven windows and 14 kiosks took in more than one million bets in seven months, from almost 350,000 people. The publicly reported sports betting numbers back up the continued popularity of William Hill’s platform against the citywide GambetDC app operated by the DC Lottery, despite the extra effort bettors have had to make to travel to Capital One Arena to place bets, rather than just using their phones anywhere in the District. The amount wagered through William Hill has remained roughly triple that wagered through GambetDC since last fall.
That number only figures to rise with the addition of the brick and mortar space. And while, in a vacuum, that’s good for the tax base (as Leonsis touted Wednesday), only 10 percent of revenues from William Hill’s operations actually go to city coffers, per D.C.’s sports betting laws. Compare that to roughly 50 percent of gross gaming revenue from GambetDC. The DC Lottery missed a deadline for an early May audit that will provide more information about how this nascent industry is shaping up, and it is yet to be seen if they will deliver information before next year’s budget is finalized this summer.
Despite the delay in opening, the in-arena sportsbook is still the first of its kind here in America, and could serve as the template for other teams across the country looking to integrate the in-person sports betting experience as fans return to venues this summer.
Leonsis has been at the forefront of the push to both legalize and monetize sports betting in America, ever since the Supreme Court agreed to hear the challenge to overturn the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in May 2018. It’s only fitting, then, that three years later, Leonsis’ arena is the first one taking that next step into the unknown.
“Here in Washington D.C., we wanted to be innovators,” said Leonsis. “We really wanted to lead the way in taking the stigma out of gambling.”
Leonsis pointed, as he has often in the past, to the massive, existing illegal betting market in America, and the financial benefits in bringing it all above board.
“I just view this as a natural extension of what was happening, but to do it in a more modern, in-the-sunlight, transparent way,” he said.
Whatever the additional tax boon, one thing the new sportsbook will do is make even more use of a building that already sees three million fans across 230-some events a year. Open Monday to Thursday from 10 a.m. to midnight, Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m., Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m., and Sunday from 9 a.m. to midnight, the sportsbook serves as another destination not just to accompany the existing calendar, but to fill the other 135 days in between.
“This building is pretty much dark during the day, but now it will come alive 10 o’clock to midnight,” Van Stone said.
For his part, Stefanelli will cater his menu more to the sports crowd, with the ability to shift and accommodate, depending on the event. But the sheer scale of this venture will be an entirely different challenge. Unlike the teams that call Capital One Arena home, the new sportsbook won’t exactly get a soft preseason to see how things will run on a gameday. Their first test comes Saturday, during a heated NBA playoff game.
“If 600 people walk in the door, that’s a lot of margaritas you have to pour,” said Stefanelli.
Leonsis, perhaps unsurprisingly, is already thinking bigger.
“At first I thought it was too big, and now I think it’s too small,” he said. “We have a lot of space in the building. We’ll see how it works.”
If the restaurant component ends up being enough of a success to warrant an expansion, it won’t come without a personal sacrifice for Van Stone.
“On the third floor, directly above, is actually my office and our sales center,” he laughed.
But that would be a problem he’d welcome.
“We don’t ever want to have to be in a position where we have to turn people away,” he said.