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Capital One Arena, British bookmaker team up as D.C. moves forward with legal sports gambling

Monumental Sports & Entertainment is taking early steps to set up a legal sports betting operation.

A photo illustration of Ted Leonsis, owner of the Wizards and the Capitals, who has a vision for the future of sports gambling. (Photo by Finlay Mackay/For The Washington Post; photo illustration by Gene Bresler/Catchlight)

The owner of Capital One Arena has struck a deal with British bookmaker William Hill in what could be an early step toward bringing legal sports gambling to the District.

Executives from both companies said this week they hope to turn the arena into an all-purpose sports-betting complex where fans can place wagers on their phones while watching from the stands, or stop over during the day to bet on a game happening elsewhere. They have agreed to set up a booking venue at the site formerly occupied by Greene Turtle Sports Bar and Grille.

Ted Leonsis sees a future in which his sports arena will attract crowds during lunch hour, happy hour and into the night. The allure: legalized sports betting. (Video: Nicki DeMarco, Ashleigh Joplin, Erin Patrick O'Connor, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

Local businessman Ted Leonsis, whose Monumental Sports & Entertainment holding company owns the arena along with the Wizards, Capitals and Mystics franchises, said the gambling operation is part of a broader set of efforts to appeal to a younger, tech-savvy fan base.

“Think of it as less of a cocktail lounge and more of a modern sports bar and trading desk,” Leonsis said. “We want it to feel like the best Apple store with the genius bar, because young people are accustomed to that.”

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The District legalized sports betting late last year after a landmark Supreme Court decision cleared the way for states to legalize sports betting on their own, allowing residents and tourists to place wagers at retail establishments, sports arenas and on mobile apps. Monumental is one of at least 14 venues that has expressed interest.

The operation is still subject to approval by city regulators, however. A separate online sports betting contract has already been delayed due to litigation.

D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt, who oversees city gambling, said last month that businesses would probably start offering legal sports betting by the end of the year and mobile wagers would be available by early 2020.

Leonsis says he first became aware of William Hill five years ago on a trip to visit his daughter in London. On a family trip to a remote town in Scotland, he noticed that the community seemed to revolve around the local betting parlor.

“I joked it’s kind of like Starbucks there. ... It’s everywhere,” he said. “I would walk in and see young people, business people, mothers, sports fanatics and soccer fanatics.”

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The partnership with William Hill is meant to wall off the betting operation from the interests of Leonsis’s sports franchises. Monumental will not share in the gambling revenue and will be paid rent under a standard leasing arrangement, executives said. William Hill will separately rent advertising space around the stadium and pay the major sports leagues for access to real-time data feeds.

“We don’t touch the money, and we don’t set the odds,” Leonsis said. “A fan needs to know and trust that we do what is in the best interest of the team.”

For William Hill, the deal is part of an aggressive U.S. expansion that has brought its booking venues to 10 states. The company is suffering at home in the United Kingdom, with a regulatory crackdown forcing it to close hundreds of locations.

Joe Asher, chief executive of William Hill’s U.S. division, likened the U.S. sports betting boom to the end of prohibition. The company has opened dozens of U.S. locations since the Supreme Court decision, bringing its total number of U.S. locations to 143.

“You’ve taken this business that has existed but was largely a black market business outside Nevada, and you’ve made it a legal regulated industry," Asher said. “There’s a huge legal industry that is in the process of being created and ramping up.”

They are waiting on the city to implement a legalization process that is already mired in controversy. The city awarded the gaming and lottery contract to a company without competitive bidding, a decision that sparked a lawsuit.

And the city’s online sports gambling program has also been subject to scrutiny. Multiple subcontractors have political connections, including a former campaign aide to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Council member Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4), a former campaign lawyer for the mayor and a fundraiser and friend of D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5).

A lobbyist for an executive benefiting from the sports gambling contract also had a business relationship with the lawmaker who advocated for sports gambling, D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who is under federal investigation.

Thirteen D.C. bars and restaurants have sought changes in their liquor licenses to allow sports betting on their premises.

They include Dirty Water and Duffy’s Irish Pub on the H Street Northeast, Wet Dog Tavern near the U Street corridor and the Brig near Navy Yard to allow for sports gambling, although they are still pending D.C. Lottery approval.

Other bars awaiting approval for sports betting include the Green Island Cafe in Adams Morgan, Arucola and the Avenue near Chevy Chase, Fat Pete’s Barbecue and Abunai Poke restaurant in downtown, Cleveland Park Bar & Grill in the eponymous neighborhood, Bliss in Northeast D.C., Lyve in the U Street corridor and Lou’s City Bar in Columbia Heights.