The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These D.C. area sportsbooks take watching the big game to a whole new level

The sportsbook at MGM National Harbor includes a 110-foot video screen, which can be viewed from theater seating. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
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Less than four years ago, betting on the Super Bowl required a trip to Las Vegas or knowing someone who “knew a guy.” Now sports gambling is inescapable, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court and voter referendums, and in less than a year, the Washington area has added four sportsbooks for in-person gambling.

In May 2021, William Hill opened a sportsbook at Capital One Arena — the first professional sports arena in the country to have one on-site. On Jan. 31, BetMGM opened its sportsbook at Nationals Park. During summer 2021, D.C. allowed four bars to install self-serve betting kiosks, and Adams Morgan’s Grand Central turned part of its building into a sportsbook in the fall.

(There could be more facilities on the way: The 2018 act legalizing sports wagering in D.C. allowed for two more “Class A” facilities at Audi Field and the Entertainment and Sports Arena, similar to those at Capital One Arena and Nationals Park. D.C. United announced in October 2020 that the team would partner with FanDuel for the Audi Field sportsbook, but the license has not yet been approved.)

The situation is different outside the District. Maryland voters approved a 2020 ballot question allowing sports betting, with state revenue going to fund education. Legislation allowing betting at casinos, professional sports stadiums and racetracks, among other locations, was signed into law the following April, and the first sportsbooks at casinos — including MGM National Harbor — opened in December. Meanwhile, mobile betting is on hold until later in 2022. Across the Potomac, after the Virginia legislature legalized casinos and sports betting in March 2020, voters in four cities — Bristol, Danville, Norfolk and Portsmouth — passed referendums allowing casinos the following November. Richmond voters narrowly rejected a proposed casino in 2021. App-based sportsbooks have accepted wagers since January 2021.

The sportsbooks opening around Washington double as sports bars, with video walls capable of showing multiple games simultaneously, and seating options that include theater-style armchairs and leather couches. Gambling is not required for anyone entering the sportsbooks to watch a game or have a beer, though they do offer the option of placing cash bets, if so inclined. Here’s what to expect if you visit one of the area’s sportsbooks (please note, this is not an endorsement of gambling).

Capital One Arena

The first of D.C.'s sportsbooks, Caesars by William Hill — which opened last year as plain-old William Hill — is a two-level bar and restaurant occupying a 20,000-square-foot corner of Capital One Arena that was most recently the Greene Turtle.

The ground floor is split between the business side — a number of kiosks, more staff sitting behind windows than at your local bank — and a large, horseshoe-shaped bar sitting under a block of screens of various sizes. Video boards flash scores and odds as well as games. After a while, the sections of the walls dedicated to framed Bradley Beal jerseys and giant photos of Alex Ovechkin hoisting the Stanley Cup feel almost soothing.

Up a spiral staircase is a lounge that looks like a hotel lobby restaurant with a touch of sports bar mixed in: a long room with chrome-topped tables surrounded by chairs with soft fabric backs; blocky leather sofas on bare wood floors; and a soft blue and green color scheme. Oh, and TVs everywhere, with wall-sized panels showing three or four games at once. Because there is direct access to the arena from the bar, the upstairs bar is very popular before and after games.

Essential info: There are 17 kiosks and 17 betting windows, including a desk upstairs. A geofenced Caesars by William Hill app allows anyone inside the arena — or at a restaurant or bar within two blocks of the arena — to bet through their smartphones.

Pros: The first-floor bar is the kind of place you can drop in with a couple of friends to watch games. The oversize screens can switch from showing a game in four equal-sized windows to showing one game in a much larger rectangle with two other games in smaller panels next to it. A spokesperson for Caesars says there are 1,500 square feet of screens inside the sportsbook, which makes it perfect for March Madness, even if you can’t shake the feeling that you’re at a bar inside a sports arena.

Cons: It’s packed before Capitals and Wizards games, with lines to get to the bar and cashiers, so check the arena’s calendar if you want to hang out on a less-crowded night. Also, while nights with a couple of good NBA games on the schedule are busy, midweek happy hours are slow.

Food and drink: The food menu was designed by Nicholas Stefanelli, the chef/owner of the Michelin-starred Masseria. The roast pork sandwich, with spicy cherry peppers and sharp provolone, was tasty and filling; a half-dozen double-breaded wings, flavored with Old Bay hot sauce, were overpriced at $14. Specials vary: Happy hour before one recent Caps game included pints of DC Brau discounted to $5 and a game-night promotional menu with $7 cocktails and $20 buckets of beer. The “specialty cocktails,” which include a mojito, Old Fashioned and margarita ($12-$15) are nothing out of the ordinary. When seated upstairs, customers can order and pay contactlessly through their phones.

601 F St. NW. Open daily.

MGM National Harbor

The BetMGM Sportsbook and Lounge at MGM National Harbor offers the closest thing to a Las Vegas-style experience — one that requires walking through a casino, surrounded by the video slots and noise, and placing bets among a crowd that varies from groups in their Sunday best to bachelorette parties to folks who look like they just rolled out of bed. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) placed the state’s first legal sports wager here in December, throwing away $50 on a bet that the Washington Football Team and the Baltimore Ravens would meet in the Super Bowl.

Approached from one direction, the 8,000-square-foot sportsbook could be mistaken for just another bar area off the casino floor — until you see the betting windows, which resemble a concierge desk at the resort upstairs.

The main attraction is a section of stadium-style seating with rows of high-backed gray chairs, similar to what you’d find in a high-end movie theater, each with its own tray table. They face a 110-foot-long screen that snakes along the walls and can show 21 events simultaneously in rectangles of various sizes.

Between the stadium seating and the bar are VIP banquettes and a section of booths, with leather cushions and marble tables. Crowning the marble-topped bar itself is an oval “halo” screen with TVs on both sides, providing everyone with multiple views of games, scrolling scores and news. There’s a lot of stimulation clashing for a viewer’s attention, especially at the bar itself, where video blackjack and poker screens are embedded in the counter.

Essential info: There are seven windows and 15 kiosks for self-service betting, making it fairly straightforward. The difference, compared to other sportsbooks, is that customers who want to watch games in the sportsbook after placing their bets have to meet food and drink minimums to guarantee the best seats. Booths have a minimum of $500 for the whole group, tables must spend $300, and VIPs have to drop at least $1,000. All can be booked through the MGM National Harbor website for a maximum of four hours, and popular weekend times are booked well in advance. Theater seats and seats at the bar are available on a first-come, first-served basis with no minimums, though a limited number of theater seats can be reserved for those who want to guarantee the experience.

Pros: The “sportsbook at a casino” experience is like nothing else in Washington, making it appealing to fans who want something different. The screens and tickers are far more impressive than a row of TVs at a neighborhood spot, especially when multiple games are underway. If a change of scenery is required, the Tap Sports Bar, located on the other side of the casino, is a decent place to watch games: It has 70 TVs, a patio with an outdoor bar, dozens of beers on tap, and four betting windows and four kiosks.

Cons: The minimums for tables inside the sportsbook are what you’d expect to pay for bottle service at a nightclub, not a bar showing college basketball games on a Saturday night. The food options could be better.

Food and drink: Considering the minimums you need to meet, the choices are all over the board. Most come from spots in the casino’s National Market food court — a $21.99 crabcake sandwich from Pappas, the Baltimore seafood company, and $3.99 slices of pizza from Zizi’s, but also prosaic items such as a plain hot dog ($6.99). The house cocktails are priced to favor the house, with $15 margaritas and Cosmos, and a $13 kamikaze shot. The beers and wines are about what you’d expect at a bar — $6 for Miller Lite, $8 for craft beers, $11-$14 for wines by the glass. There’s also champagne for when bets pay off, including a $750 bottle of Cristal.

101 MGM National Ave., Oxon Hill, Md. Open daily.

Nationals Park

When the BetMGM sportsbook opened in the old Center Field Social events space at Nationals Park in late January, the team heralded it as “the first retail sportsbook connected to a Major League Baseball stadium.” The key word there is “connected”: Because the sportsbook is outside the ticketed area of the stadium, the team says that fans at a game will not be able to come and go to place bets between innings (assuming there’s a baseball season this year).

At 4,000 square feet, the sportsbook’s footprint is more akin to a neighborhood bar — it’s roughly one-third the size of Mission, the popular margaritas-and-tacos restaurant down the block. The marble-topped bar, 40 feet and lined with high-backed bar stools, sits across from a row of deep booths with red leather cushions. High-top tables fill a section in the rear, and there’s a supersize screen in a nook in the front windows. The line of TVs over the bar is less ostentatious than the array of panels at National Harbor or Capital One Arena, though there are the requisite tickers with score updates — a total of 40 screens in all.

Essential info: There are six betting windows and 17 kiosks, most of which are located by the main entrance. The BetMGM app can be used inside Nationals Park, as well as within two blocks of the stadium.

Pros: With lots of wood, natural light and a simple black, red and gold color scheme, this sportsbook feels closer to an actual bar than a space inside the stadium, such as the FIS Champions Club.

Cons: There’s a lot of competition in the neighborhood, most of which offer a much wider selection of food and drinks, as well as the ability to bet through the BetMGM app. In the mood for a smashburger at Walters or want to enjoy the riverside view at happy hour at the Salt Line? Grab a seat at their bar and fire up the app.

Food and drink: On opening weekend, the draft beer selection was limited to four choices. Bud Light and Michelob Ultra ($7) were the stadium fare; Port City Optimal Wit and Silver Branch’s Beyond the Gnome World Saison ($9) repped the locals. All were served in plastic cups, which seems strange for a bar that’s entirely indoors. Three varieties of house wine — unnamed rosé, chardonnay and sparkling — cost $8 or $10. Flatbreads and stacked-high sandwiches dominate the food options: The menu boasts that the BLT is constructed with a half-pound of bacon. A spokesperson for BetMGM says there will be rotating themed happy hour menus. Right now, happy hour runs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday and noon to 3 p.m. Sunday with $2 off draft, canned and bottled beers.

N and Half streets SE. Open daily.

Grand Central

A fixture on the Adams Morgan bar scene since 2007, Grand Central is known as a place for intramural sports teams in matching T-shirts to bond over pitchers after games, and as a haven for Buffalo Bills fans on Sundays. There are DJs on weekends, and $3 Jello shots every night.

But last year, Grand Central became something else: the city’s first “Class B” sportsbook. Like the books at stadiums, this license allows operators to offer odds and use kiosks from companies other than the D.C. Lottery’s official partner. However, wagers can only be placed at the sportsbook’s physical location. A downstairs dining area gained a cashier’s window for placing bets and receiving payouts, while a pair of video game-sized kiosks were installed in other areas of the bar. Grand Central added another window and two more kiosks after getting approval from the city at the end of January.

For Brian Vasile, the owner of Grand Central, the biggest change for the bar is earlier operating hours. “Monday through Friday, for 15 years, we always opened at 5 or 6 p.m.," he says, but now the sportsbook opens at 10 a.m. “The lunch crowd’s gotten busier, we have people watching European soccer during the day.” Grand Central hasn’t gone overboard with screens, as other sportsbooks have: There are 21 TVs, with the biggest measuring 60 inches.

“The vast majority” of bets are on NFL games, followed some distance behind by college football, Vasile says, which means people primarily interested in wagering have been coming in on weekends when the bar’s already packed with a party crowd, or with fans who there to watch games but not necessarily place bets. Vasile says it’s been interesting to observe the mixing of different groups: “I think there’s some crossover, like, a gentleman who comes in on Saturday to hear a DJ and sees the kiosk and thinks, ‘Oh, that’s cool, I’ll put a wager down on the Washington Football Team’s game tomorrow.’” Despite that, “demographically, it’s pretty much the same.”

Essential info: In addition to kiosks, Grand Central launched an app that allows customers to “build” a slip of picks, which can be done at a table or in an Uber on the way to the bar. The app generates a bar code, which the customer can scan at the kiosk or window when placing the bet, so they don’t have to stand at the kiosk and enter bets one at a time. Later this year, Grand Central hopes to introduce an update that would allow customers to make wagers directly from the app, using location data to check that people are inside the bar, “but we’re not quite there yet,” Vasile says.

Pros: The app is handy, especially for building bets in advance, even if the odds can change at the last minute. Grand Central still feels like Grand Central, for better or worse: Buffalo Bills playoff games were packed with fans more passionate about the team than any wager slips in their pockets. Happy hour runs until 9 p.m., even on Friday — a rarity in this town.

Cons: Two windows and four kiosks is the smallest number of access points at any sportsbook in the area. If a game falls on a Friday or Saturday night, get ready for loud dance music and rowdy groups taking Fireball shots, rather than watching sports with sound.

Food and drink: The New York influence is strong: The beer menu includes Labatt Blue and Genny Cream as well as Bud and White Claw; beef on weck and spiedies are offered alongside burgers and fried pickle chips. (The Buffalo-style wings, of course, remain a top-seller.) Happy hour, which runs from 6 to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, brings $4 Labatts, and $6 wine, rail drinks and craft beer.

2447 18th St. NW. Open daily.

Bars with Gambet kiosks

A D.C. Lottery pilot program put stand-alone Gambet kiosks in four D.C. bars in summer 2021 — a number that has since grown to nearly a dozen — along with convenience and liquor stores. The touch-screen machines, about the size of a video game cabinet, accept cash and print wager slips, which can be redeemed after the game is over.

A variety of businesses have installed the kiosks. You might have expected them at established sports bars, such as Duffy’s Irish Pub, which has two kiosks at its new location near Dupont Circle; Lou’s City Bar in Columbia Heights; or the Cleveland Park Bar and Grill. But Ben’s Next Door on U Street has them, as does Takoma Station, the Avenue on Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase and Abunai Poke, a Hawaiian restaurant near Farragut Square.

Pros: Scrolling through games and checking odds is easier on the large screen of a kiosk than on a smartphone. Unlike wagering through apps, successful bets can be turned into cash immediately. At Duffy’s, for example, bartenders scan bar codes on the paper slips and hand over winnings.

Cons: The kiosks are run by Gambet, the D.C. Lottery’s chosen partner, where the house-friendly odds have drawn ire from some bettors.