At the beginning of the month, Washington D.C. sports betting was set to begin in time for the Washington Nationals’ March 26 season opener. Now a week after what was supposed to be the season’s first pitch, Major League Baseball has yet to begin its season and the city’s sports betting app is still sidelined.

The coronavirus outbreak has added another delay to the long rollout of D.C. sports betting. First proposed by the City Council in 2018, the District still hasn’t taken a legal bet. Years of bureaucratic, legal and regulatory delays seemed to finally reach their end earlier this year. Now the virus outbreak, which has largely shuttered sports leagues across the world and forced social distancing measures throughout the country, is stopping sports betting once again.

City lottery officials confirmed to Washington City Paper that the District’s sports betting app launch was delayed due to the virus. Though eligible District residents and visitors would have been able to wager from a mobile device in the city without having to register in person beforehand, the dearth of sporting events led the Lottery to postpone the launch for the immediate future.

Another DC Delay

This is more unwelcome news for Washington-area sports bettors.

The nation’s capital seemed like it would be among the first jurisdictions to legalize sports betting. Councilmember Jack Evans proposed sports betting legislation in September 2018, a few months after the Supreme Court struck down the federal wagering ban. The DC bill would allow the government-run lottery to oversee a sole-source, citywide mobile sports betting app while permitting several city sporting arenas as well as individual bars and restaurants to take bets.

With support from area leaders such as Washington Capitals and Wizards owner Ted Leonis and little opposition on the council, the legislation easily passed the Council and was signed into law by Mayor Muriel Bowser in early 2019.

The next steps were far more complicated.

Evans pushed for an unusual amendment to city law that would allow the council to give the sports betting operator contract to the city’s lottery operator, Intralot, without a formal bidding process. Arguing the bidding process would cost the city too much time and lost revenue, especially with neighboring Maryland and Virginia seemingly on the cusp of legalization measures of their own, backers convinced the board to approve the no-bid contract, 7-6.

A Washington Post investigation later found Evans had hired an Intralot lobbyist for his private consulting firm, which led to further revelations of a longstanding pattern of abusing his public office in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts. The Council voted to expel Evans in December 2019, at the time its longest-serving member, but not before it had voted again to approve the no-bid contract for Intralot.

As the Council was considering Evans’ fate, a city court heard a lawsuit from a district app developer that argued the government was legally prohibited from offering the no-bid contract. This was later tossed, but it further clouded the progress of D.C. sports betting.  

All that was in addition to accusations Intralot used a shell subcontracting company that didn’t have any D.C. employees, a violation of city law for government contracts.

Ultimately, that wasn’t enough to tank D.C. sports betting, and regulators continued pushing for a launch in time for March, ahead of the National’s opener and the 2020 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Then the coronavirus outbreak postponed D.C. sports betting once again.

Washington-Area Sports Betting Future

Coronavirus now seems like it will postpone not just the government’s app, but the other betting options as well. The William Hill sportsbook in the Wizards and Capitals’ shared home of Capital One Arena hadn’t yet opened its doors when Bowser ordered non-essential businesses to close, and later a citywide stay-at-home mandate. None of the restaurants and bars with commercial third-party sports betting options have launched either.

Maryland and Virginia are facing similar coronavirus shutdowns, which could threaten the nascent sports betting markets in both states. Despite initial fears that those states would also move quickly to approve wagering, the District’s neighbors on either side of the Potomac River didn’t pass their respective bills until this year.

Virginia will allow up to 12 mobile sports betting sites under a law passed earlier this month, but it was still facing months of rules promulgation and regulatory approvals before it could take its first bet. A best-case scenario was a launch ahead of the 2020 football season, but that was before the coronavirus outbreak.

Maryland is even further behind. Lawmakers had to cut short the 2020 session due to the virus and didn’t finish approving a sports betting bill. Instead, it passed a more limited measure to let voters approve wagering via a referendum on the 2020 ballot. If passed, it would require lawmakers to take up a new bill next year, which would mean betting couldn’t begin until summer or autumn 2021.

Just a few weeks ago, it seemed the Washington D.C.-region was on the cusp of its first legal sportsbook. After several years of delays, that wait continues for the foreseeable future.

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