“I can practice and I can bet,” Cimino told his wife. “Everybody wins.”
Cimino is not alone in his journeys across the river. Despite mobile sports gambling being legal in the District, many D.C. players are drawn to Virginia and its far more robust options, driven across the Potomac River largely out of frustration with D.C.’s operations. They park their cars on Virginia roads, schedule visits with friends from the suburbs, study college football articles before heading to the airport – all for what they consider an easier and more enjoyable gambling experience.
“It’s on Sunday [second] nature to drive across the line now and be back in time for the 1 o’clock games,” said Mike Callow, a radio producer who works in Northwest Washington. Callow often pulls into empty parking lots just over the Virginia state line to place bets.
After the Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that states could establish their own sports gambling laws, D.C. became the first jurisdiction in the Washington area to act, launching its online operation in May 2020, eight months before Virginia. But the D.C. Council decided to award the $215 million no-bid contract to gaming company Intralot. The resulting platform, GambetDC, is operated by DC Lottery.
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In the emerging world of mobile sports gambling, such a monopoly 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 users are in a permitted jurisdiction.) With Maryland set to launch its own mobile operation in the coming weeks — and with 10 operators already signed up to offer mobile betting in Maryland — DC’s only-show approach in the city will soon be surrounded by stable competitors who will offer better promotions and more valued applications.
Cimino remembers reading about DC’s imminent launch and feeling a deep sense of skepticism. When the time came and he launched the Gambet app, he felt justified in his mistrust.
“All fears seemed to have come true,” Cimino said. “It’s a stupid, unfinished, unfinished app that we were all supposed to love just because we love gambling.”
Cimino’s reaction was typical and soon a chorus of critics clouded the work of the city. Users expressed dissatisfaction with the details, both aesthetic and overall. They claimed the user interface was poor, the geo-restrictions were confusing – mobile gambling was not allowed in parts of the District – and the odds themselves were inferior to those offered by other outlets.
“The app was rubbish — it’s still rubbish — and the actual lines? Oh my God, I took one look at it and said ‘no, I’m not betting on this thing,’” Callow said.
This series will examine the impact of legalized gambling on sports, through news coverage, responsible journalism and advice for navigating this new landscape. Read more.
GambetDC was projected to generate more than $20 million annually for the city, but has yet to come close to that, as the pandemic also affected its rollout. In fact, documents submitted to the city council in March 2022 showed that the operation was actually charge city 4 million dollars in the first year, mainly due to marketing costs. 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 Northeast attorney, said with a laugh. “That shouldn’t be possible.”
A month before that report, the app appeared to hit rock bottom when the iOS app crashed just before the Super Bowl and remained inaccessible to some users throughout the game. GambetDC tweeted 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 last straw. Since then, it has been exclusively betting in Virginia, where popular national companies offer their services. Most will be bet from the runway at Reagan National Airport before the trip.
“The [Gambet] the revenue was way below the projections the city told people to expect and, well, the proof is in the product,” Hacker said. “It is [bad] application and it is a [bad] experience. If you can cross the river very easily and have a better experience, people will do it.”
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The District’s mobile business was better in FY 2022; the total invested money increased by 38 percent compared to the previous year, and the number of bets increased by 59 percent. GambetDC brought an estimated $2.6 million in revenue to the District’s government general fund in 2022, according to Melissa Davis, communications chief for the city’s Office of Lottery and Gaming.
Even with the improved numbers, the office is aware of past criticism from the public, Davis said. In late October, GambetDC launched an improved version of its app, “more in line with what players currently have when betting with competing products in surrounding jurisdictions,” Davis wrote in an email. “We expect this new app to solve the problems of local sports bettors, demonstrate GambetDC’s strength as a sportsbook and pave the way for future success.”
But in some circles, the app’s reputation is beyond repair.
“If you talk to anybody 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 not to use GambetDC and there are many people who have openly said that they do not like the app. I know they made some changes [it]but it’s hard to come back from people’s misfortune and surpass some of the misfortunes they’ve had.”
The original contract between Intralot and the city runs through 2024. Last month, DCCouncilmember Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) introduced legislation that would terminate the contract upon its inception and end Intralot’s monopoly, opening the city to national operators.
“We must turn the page on this embarrassing episode,” Silverman said in a statement. “Residents deserve an online application that works, taxpayers deserve a program that brings money to the District, and we all deserve a system where we don’t award 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, gamblers like Cimi see their trips to Northern Virginia as a good way to pass the time. He’s been bicycling across 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 makes bets as cyclists pass him on weekends, 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 will ever score.”