To escape D.C.’s betting app, some frustrated sports gamblers head to Virginia

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 01: Steve Cimino rides his bicycle across Washington, DC to end his ride in Arlington, VA on November 01, 2022. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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Like many city dwellers, Steve Cimino does not own a car. So in early 2021, when Virginia launched online sports gambling, the writer from Northeast Washington came up with a plan. On Saturdays, he could chart a 15-mile bike ride that would take him across the Potomac River into Arlington. Once across the state line, he would pull the bike over — often stopping to sit on the same ledge just off a bike path, right outside the Air & Space Forces Association Headquarters — place his bets on his phone and then start back home.

“I can get exercise, and I can place bets,” Cimino told his wife. “Everybody wins.”

Cimino is not alone in his journeys across the river. While mobile sports gambling is legal in the District, many D.C. players find themselves drawn to Virginia and its far more robust options, mostly because of frustration with the D.C. operation. They pull their cars to the side of Virginia roads, schedule visits to suburban friends, study college football lines before a trip to the airport — all for what they consider an easier and more enjoyable gambling experience.

“On a Sunday, it’s [second] nature now to drive over the line and pop back over in time for the 1 o’clock games,” said Mike Callow, a radio producer who works in Northwest Washington. Callow often stops in empty parking lots just over the Virginia state line to place his bets.

After the Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that states could establish their own sports gambling laws, D.C. became the first Washington-area jurisdiction to act, with its online operation launching in May 2020, eight months before Virginia’s. But the D.C. Council chose to award a no-bid, $215 million contract to gaming company Intralot. The resulting platform, GambetDC, is managed by the D.C. Lottery.

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In the fledgling world of mobile sports gambling, a monopoly such as that is rare. Most states that allow mobile sports gambling have approved multiple big-name competitors such as DraftKings, Caesars and FanDuel, all of which are offered in Virginia. (The apps require geolocation checks to verify that users are in a permitted jurisdiction.) With Maryland set to launch its own mobile operation in the coming weeks — and with 10 operators already having applied to offer mobile betting in Maryland — D.C.’s only-show-in-town approach will soon be surrounded by a stable of competitors offering better promotions and more highly regarded apps.

Cimino remembers reading about D.C.’s coming launch and feeling a deep sense of skepticism. When the time came and he fired up the GambetDC app, he felt justified in his distrust.

“It just seemed like all the fears came to fruition,” Cimino said. “It is a dumb, unfinished, incomplete app that we were all supposed to love just because we love gambling.”

Cimino’s reaction was a common one, and soon a chorus of criticism clouded the city’s operation. Users voiced displeasure with details both aesthetic and integral. They claimed the user interface was bad, the geographic restrictions were confusing — mobile gambling isn’t permitted in parts of the District — and the odds were worse than those offered by other outlets.

“The app was garbage — it’s still garbage — and the actual lines? Oh, my gosh, I took one look at it and said, ‘Nope, I am not placing bets on this thing,’ ” Callow said.

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GambetDC was projected to net more than $20 million per year for the city but hasn’t come close, with the pandemic also affecting its rollout. In fact, documents submitted to the city council in March 2022 showed the operation actually cost the city $4 million in its first year, mostly because of marketing expenses. Critics pointed to that red number as proof that the venture was doomed.

“You shouldn’t be able to lose money running a gambling operation,” Scott Kraff, a lawyer from Northeast, said with a laugh. “That should not be possible.”

A month before that report, the app seemed to reach its nadir when the iOS app crashed just before the Super Bowl and remained inaccessible to some users throughout the game. GambetDC said in a tweet at the time that the app had experienced a technical issue and offered users a $10 in-game bet for the inconvenience.

Michael Hacker, a longtime Northwest Washington resident and football fan, described the Super Bowl incident as his final straw. Since then, he has exclusively placed bets in Virginia. Most times, he will make his bets from the tarmac at Reagan National Airport before traveling.

“The [GambetDC] revenue was way below the projections that the city told people they were expecting, and, well, the proof is in the product,” Hacker said. “It’s a [bad] app, and it’s a [bad] experience. If you can very easily go across the river and have a better experience, people will do that.”

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The District’s mobile operation fared better in the 2022 fiscal year; the total money wagered was up 38 percent from the previous year, and the number of wagers was up 59 percent. GambetDC delivered an estimated $2.6 million in revenue to the District government’s general fund in 2022, according to Melissa Davis, chief of communications for the city’s Office of Lottery and Gaming.

Even with improved numbers, the office is aware of the public’s past criticism, Davis said. In late October, GambetDC launched an improved version of its app that is “more in line with what players currently experience when wagering with competitive products in surrounding jurisdictions,” Davis wrote in an email. “We expect this new app to address the concerns of local sports bettors, demonstrate GambetDC’s strength as a sportsbook, and pave the way for future successes.”

But the reputation of the app is beyond repair in some circles.

“If you talk to anyone who has used it, they usually recommend not using it,” said Bennett Conlin, who covers the sports gambling industry for SportsHandle. “There are a lot of reasons to not use GambetDC, and there are a lot of people that have been very outspoken about not liking the app. I know they’ve made some changes to [it], but it’s tough to come back from people’s unhappiness and go above and beyond some of the mishaps they’ve had.”

The original contract between Intralot and the city runs until 2024. Last month, D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) introduced legislation that would terminate the contract at its conclusion and end Intralot’s monopoly, opening the city to national operators.

“We need to turn the page on this embarrassing episode,” Silverman said in a statement. “Residents deserve an online app that works, taxpayers deserve a program that brings in money for the District, and we all deserve a system where we don’t hand huge contracts to a preferred company and its subcontractors without even looking at the competition.”

Until those prospective competitors have a chance to enter the D.C. market, gamblers such as Cimino see their trips to Northern Virginia as a fine way to run out the clock. He has made the bike ride over the river most Saturdays since Virginia’s operators went online, traveling deep enough into the state for the apps to recognize that he is no longer in the District. He places his bets as weekend cyclists whiz by, then heads back to Washington.

“The fact that Gambet couldn’t win over me or my friends who are gamblers … is not a good sign,” Cimino said. “At this point, I don’t think Gambet is ever going to hit.”