There may not be much local flavor in this year’s NCAA Tournament, but that’s not going to stop throngs of college basketball fans from getting out in D.C. to experience the action. In fact, there could be more people playing hooky this year as legal sports gambling has taken on a larger role within the city. March Madness is a huge deal everywhere, from office pools to local pubs and on campuses across the country, but among gamblers? It’s a legit holiday. Along with the Super Bowl, the first week of March Madness is head and shoulders above all other sports events in terms of handle (or amount wagered by bettors). “Super Bowl and March Madness are the two biggest,” owner of Grand Central Restaurant, Bar & Sportsbook Brian Vasile says. “During March Madness, there’s so much action, so many games going on at one time.
2022 LINEUP: THE FAVE + THE FALLEN
As always, 68 college basketball teams will vie for the ultimate prize across roughly 2 1/2 weeks. That said, this year’s Big Dance is shaping up to be the most normal since 2019 when local favorite University of Virginia took home their first-ever men’s basketball championship. There wasn’t a tournament in 2020 due to the pandemic and last year’s attendance was only a fraction of previous tournaments. By comparison, over 70,000 fans watched Virginia beat Texas Tech in 2019 while capacity was limited to 17,500 for last year’s Baylor-Gonzaga final.
This year, however, Virginia has an uphill climb to even reach the tournament — and the same can be said for Maryland and Georgetown. All three have fallen significantly in the KenPom rankings since preseason and short of a wild string of wins down the stretch they’ll be on the outside looking in. Georgetown, to their credit, was in a similar position last season before a completely unexpected Big East Tournament victory and NCAA Tournament berth.
While local teams are longshots, the heavyweights of the college basketball world are having solid seasons. At press time, Gonzaga is the favorite to win the tournament, according to GambetDC’s future odds and blue bloods Arizona, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Villanova and UCLA are right there in the top ten. Last year’s champion, Baylor, as well as Auburn and Purdue round out the top ten list of most likely champions.
Some less trendy picks to consider are LSU and Houston. Both teams have proven they can rip off a ton of victories in a row and have elite defensive units. According to KenPom, the tigers and cougars are among the top 15 in defensive efficiency and both have won at least 10 games in a row this season. If you believe in the defense wins championships cliché, these might be the teams for you.
THE SECRET’S IN THE STRATEGY
Placing future bets on winning the whole shabang is a lot of fun, especially when the official bracket comes out. All 68 teams have a fair shake, but generally it’s the big dogs (see previously mentioned) who find themselves under the confetti. Since 2000, only one team — the No. 7 seed UConn Huskies in 2007 — has won the national championship as something other than a No. 1, 2 or 3 seed.
That said, it’s the underdogs and Cinderella stories that make the event so classic, oftentimes transcending the sport itself. In anywhere other than the DMV area, George Mason and UMBC are known specifically for their unexpected successes in the NCAA Tournament. It put the schools on the map, so to speak, all while busting millions of brackets and causing mayhem at sports bars and books.
There are several ways for bettors — both novice and seasoned — to wet their beaks come tournament time. Retail sports betting locations keep popping up in D.C. (with more to come) and mobile options have never been more convenient.
“Our retail network includes close to 40 GambetDC kiosks now,” says D.C. Office of Lottery and Gaming Director of Marketing and Communications Nicole Jordan. “We are continuously growing. People like options. If you want to bet on our mobile app from the comfort of your house, you can do that. Or if you want to go to a social setting and bet from a bar or restaurant, we have that, too. Now we’ve also introduced another phase if you want to just go to a convenience store, lottery store or liquor store.”
Bars that have GambetDC sports betting kiosks include The Ugly Mug, Ben’s Next Door, Lou’s City Bar, Takoma Station Tavern, Cleveland Park Bar & Grill, Dirty Water and several others.
“We’re bringing on about two to three a week,” she adds. “And you can go to one place and purchase the ticket, another place to cash it. You don’t have to be wedded to one location. We are also increasing the limits to $1,000 per transaction.”
SPORTS FOR BETS + BEER
In Adams Morgan, the Grand Central Sportsbook is also busy expanding.
“By March Madness, we’ll have more points of sale open,” Vasile says. “Right now we have two kiosks and one ticket window. Very soon we’ll have four kiosks and two ticket windows.”
Complete with wall-to-wall flat screens, a full food and drink menu and growing sportsbook, Grand Central is an ideal spot to hang out during those first few crucial days of the Big Dance. BetMGM Sportsbook, located next to Nats Park and Caesars Sportsbook at Capital One Arena also have food, drink and sports betting, so there are options no matter where you are in the city.
If you can’t get out of work for the games or just don’t feel comfortable being around so many people, the GambetDC app has also made plenty of enhancements to make this tournament one to remember.
“We have been looking at our odds to make sure we’re comparable to those in the area, while staying true to who we are,” Jordan says. “We also made the deposit and withdrawal much easier by integrating PayPal. For March Madness, we’ll do fun promotions where players can win additional money and prizes outside of their regular bets.”
“We have a lot of casual bettors,” Jordan says cheerfully. “I love it. It’s becoming so mainstream.”
THREE PRO TIPS GOING INTO THE TOURNAMENT
1. Don’t always listen to the public. If everyone at the bar loves Illinois, try going the opposite way. The public is wrong more often than they’re right.
2. Set a budget for yourself. With so many games, those $25 bets can add up. And you may think they can’t all lose, but they can. Been there.
3. Bet what you know. There are a lot of teams, but don’t be afraid to brush up on injuries, trends, etc. before all the action gets going. It will help in the long run.
There are 16 games slated for each of the first two days of March Madness (Thursday, March 17 and Friday, March 18), followed by eight games each day on Saturday and Sunday. The Sweet 16 and Elite 8 will follow March 24 through March 27, then the tournament culminates with the Final Four (April 2) and National Championship (April 4) from the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans.
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