To escape GambetDC, some frustrated sports gamblers head to Virginia

“I can exercise and I can bet,” Steve Cimino told his wife when he started cycling in Virginia. “Everybody wins.” (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

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Like many city dwellers, Steve Cimino doesn’t own a car. So in early 2021, when Virginia started online sports gambling, the writer from Northeast Washington came up with a plan. On Saturdays, he could plan a 15-mile bike ride that would take him across the river to Arlington. As soon as he crossed the state line, he would pull the bike over — he often stops to sit on the same ledge just off a bike path, just outside the Air Force Union headquarters – place his bets on his phone, then start back home.

“I can exercise and I can bet,” Cimino told his wife. “Everybody wins.”

Cimino is not alone in his travels across the river. Despite the fact that mobile sports gambling is legal in the District, many DC players are drawn to Virginia and its much stronger options, driven to the Potomac River mostly out of frustration with DC’s operation. They pull their cars over to the side of Virginia roads, plan visits to suburban friends, study college football lines before a trip to the airport – all for what they see as an easier and more enjoyable gambling experience.

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

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

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In the fledgling world of mobile sports gaming, such a monopoly is rare. Most states that allow mobile sports betting have approved many well-known 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 launching its own mobile feature in the coming weeks — and with 10 carriers already applying to offer mobile betting in Maryland — DC’s unique look The inner-city approach will soon be surrounded by a solid competitor, offering better deals and more highly regarded apps.

Cimino remembers reading about the upcoming DC release and feeling a deep sense of skepticism. When the time came and he activated the Gambet app, he felt vindicated in his disbelief.

“It just seemed like all the fears came true,” Cimino said. “It’s a stupid, half-baked, unfinished app that we were all supposed to love just because we love gambling.”

Cimino’s reaction was typical, and soon a chorus of criticism clouded the city’s operation. Users expressed their dissatisfaction with the details both aesthetically and comprehensively. They claimed the user interface was poor, the geo-restrictions were confusing — mobile gambling is not allowed in parts of the District — and the odds themselves were worse than those offered by other outlets.

“The app was rubbish — it’s still rubbish — and the actual lines? God, I took one look at it and said ‘no, I’m not betting on this thing,'” Callow said.

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GambetDC was projected to earn more than $20 million a year for the city, but has yet to come close, with the pandemic also affecting its rollout. In fact, documents submitted to the city council in March 2022 showed that the business had indeed cost the city $4 million in the first year, mainly due to marketing expenses. Critics pointed to this red number as evidence that the venture was doomed.

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“You shouldn’t be able to lose money in a gambling business,” laughed Scott Kraff, a lawyer from the Northeast. “That shouldn’t be possible.”

A month prior to this report, the app appeared to have reached its nadir when the iOS app crashed shortly before the Super Bowl and remained inaccessible to some users throughout the game. GambetDC said in a tweet at the time that the app was experiencing a technical problem 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, it has placed exclusive bets in Virginia, where popular national companies offer their services. More often than not, he will place his bets from the tarmac of Reagan National Airport before traveling.

“THE [Gambet] The revenue was way below the projections that the city told people to expect and, well, the proof is in the product,” Hacker said. “It is one [bad] application and is one [bad] experience. If you can very easily cross the river and have a better experience, people will do that.”

The political stakes are rising. Forecasting is about to get complicated.

The District’s mobile operation fared better in fiscal year 2022. Total money wagered increased by 38 percent from the previous year and the number of bets increased by 59 percent. GambetDC contributed about $2.6 million in revenue to the District government’s general fund in 2022, according to Melissa Davis, chief communications officer for the city’s Office of Lottery and Gaming.

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

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But the app’s reputation cannot be repaired 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 many reasons why you don’t use GambetDC and there are many people who have honestly expressed that they don’t like the app. I know they have made some changes [it]but it’s hard to come back from people’s misery and overcome some of the misfortunes they’ve had.”

The original contract between Intralot and the city runs through 2024. Last month, DCCouncil Member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) introduced legislation that would terminate the contract at its inception and end Intralot’s monopoly, opening up the city to national agencies.

“We must turn the page on this shameful episode,” Silverman said in a statement. “Residents deserve an online application that works, taxpayers deserve a program that makes 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 potential competitors have a chance to enter the D.C. market, players like Cimino see their trips to Northern Virginia as a good way to run out the clock. He’s made the bike ride over the river most Saturdays since Virginia operators went online, traveling deep enough into the state for the apps to recognize he’s no longer in the District. He places his bets as the weekend bikers pass, then heads back to Washington.

“The fact that Gambet couldn’t beat me or my friends who are gamers … it’s not a good sign,” Cimino said. “At this point, I don’t think Gambet will ever hit.”



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