From Ping Pong To COVID, Colorado Gaming Chief Reflects On 1st Year Of Legal Sports Betting

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Dan Hartman went to his first live, in-person NHL game last week in more than a year. In that timespan, the Colorado Deptartment of Gaming’s chief moved his staff out of the office to home work stations, reviewed and approved more than 30 retail and about 20 online sports betting licenses, created one of the most extensive betting menus in the nation, and oh, right, launched live legal sports betting when there were no professional sports to bet on.

“It’s been a crazy year,” Hartman told CoBets earlier this month. “But I still think the preparation that we did leading up to it, and really having things laid out and rules done and having things ready to go, certainly put us in a great position even though we had no retail, and no sports. We had a landscape where operators could come on when they were ready. I think holding to our timeline for the operators that wanted to start was a good thing.”

Saturday will mark the one-year anniversary of that launch, one of only two in the nation that happened after nationwide COVID-19 shutdowns went into place. The other was in Washington, D.C., where the Lottery launched its GamBetDC mobile app on May 28 and William Hill became the first live retail sportsbook at a professional sports venue on July 1.

The Colorado timeline, mandated by the state’s sports betting law, required Hartman and his office to be able to launch operators by May 1, 2020, right at the height of COVID-19 restrictions. But Hartman didn’t miss a beat, and in the year since has developed a reputation as one of the easiest regulators in the U.S. to work with.

Avello: Coloradans are ‘open thinkers’

Between the massive bet menu, Hartman’s extensive knowledge and preparation, and the open, competitive marketplace designed by lawmakers, it’s hard to find anyone to say anything negative about operating in Colorado.

DraftKings’ head of sportsbook, Johnny Avello, may have summed it up best.

“When you go into a state, you don’t know what the culture is for bettors. In New York or New Jersey, you think you know … but a state like Colorado, you don’t know what you’re going to be getting,” he told CoBets. “Free games ahead of wagering gave us an idea. Colorado is an open-minded state, full of progressive thinkers, open to the latest-and-greatest including mobile sports betting.”

“Our compliance guy, Jake List, he works with Dan the most, and I can tell you that when we say to Jake, ‘Hey we’d like to offer cornhole,’ he comes back and says, ‘Yep, Colorado is on board.’ Those guys have been totally open to us to do new things.”

Hartman and the Colorado Department of Gaming have earned a reputation for being partners with operators, and many say they’d welcome the Colorado atmosphere in every state.

When Hartman looks back over the the last year, he does so with enthusiasm, a little surprise, and a certain amount of pride.

“It’s been really kind of rewarding that way. … The staff did a great job that way,” he said.

Among the things that has surprised him most is how committed Colorado sports bettors are to … table tennis, which was one of a handful of global sports that still took place last May at the height of the pandemic. The handle for table tennis in Colorado has remained strong ever since.

“Maybe the extensive catalog we had got a whole lot of attention,” Hartman said. “Who would have thought that a year later that ping pong would have been relevant. It’s kind of become a mainstay.”

According to the February revenue report, the most recent one available, table tennis accounted for 2.6% of all wagers and was the sixth-most popular sport in terms of handle. Bettors in February laid down nearly $6.9 million on international ping pong, which was more than soccer, golf, MMA, or motor sports. For comparison, no wagers were placed on ping pong in the state of Virginia, according to its latest revenue report, which could bear out the idea that ping pong might stick in states that were live with extensive bet menus during the peak of the pandemic. Virginia operators launched in January 2021.

Big bet menu serving Colorado well

Beyond the ping pong phenomenon, Hartman said most other “pandemic” sports, like Korean baseball or darts, haven’t been as sticky. Boxing and MMA were among the first sports back to their respective playing surfaces, and as such saw a bump in wagers at that time. Neither, however, remains in the top five.  Hartman believes that the size of the Colorado’s wagering catalog helped boost profit in the early going.

“It really gave a depth to the catalog, and that remains today — that the folks that have done it for those first few months, they know the depth of the catalog and they can find other stuff,” he said. “If they are out of the Final Four, they can find other stuff out there.”

Hartman’s team launched four operators — BetMGM, BetRivers, DraftKings, and FanDuel — on that first day last year. Since then, more than 15 additional online platforms have gone live.

While it might have seemed like a curse to try to launch operators with few sports available, Colorado regulators prefer to look at it more like a blessing. Unlike states like, say, Virginia or Michigan, both of which went live online just ahead of the 2021 Super Bowl, there was no frenzy surrounding a massive sporting event in the early months. That, Hartman said, allowed his team to work out the kinks with operators under very little pressure. In fact, by the time the Super Bowl rolled around in February, Colorado’s regulators had been at it for nine months and already had some big events under their belts, including the NBA Finals, Stanley Cup, and World Series.

“It certainly was the best of both worlds,” Hartman said. “You get started, but you’re not trying to bring on 10 or 15 operators at once. We could bring those up, and then the operators could bring stuff up as they were ready.

“You could see our operators that were coming online trying to make it for the first part of football. They were gearing up for it, but it wasn’t like everything was happening at once. As we brought on the other ones, it was staggered enough. They did everything virtually, everything online.”

Hartman is quick to praise his staff for their commitment and flexibility during this first year. He said every day during the process was “significant” and “there wasn’t a lot of time for fanfare,” but his staff “got the job done.”

Colorado considered ‘gold standard’

And they did it under Hartman’s guidance, in a way that has made Colorado the “gold standard,” according to multiple stakeholders. Local bettors are avid sports fans, Colorado has one team from each major professional sports league, and regulations allow for a lot of diversity in both what to bet on and how to bet on it. Those factors have combined to make Colorado one of the most lucrative states to do business in, with an average per capita wager of $45.90, the third highest in the U.S., according to CoBets’ math. In terms of overall handle, Colorado is one of eight states to cross the billion-dollar threshold in handle, and it did so in well under a year.

Hartman’s deep background in wagering plays a part in his ability to communicate with operators, vendors, and other stakeholders, but Avello’s point about Colorado being an “open-minded state” — with Hartman’s hands-off approach — really quantifies what has made it such a successful state for sports betting in the early going.

“As we go in now toward the next year and we get sports back to their own regular seasons, it will be interesting to see where we settle in,” Hartman said.

“My advice for anything in any regulated business, you need to work with the licensees and walk through the process with them. It has to be a collaborative effort. We’d never done this before. If you engage and you listen and have a transparent process and you’re willing to kind of adjust your thinking to that new reality, that’s my advice to any regulator, really.”

“If you let them have the freedom to make the choices and ability to do things and continually make changes and work with them, then you have the makings of an incredible, competitive market, and that’s where the customers win,” Hartman said.

Jill has covered everything from steeplechase to the NFL and then some during a more than 30-year career in sports journalism. The highlight of her career was covering Oakland Raiders during the Charles Woodson/Jon Gruden era, including the infamous “Snow Bowl” and the Raiders’ 2003 trip to Super Bowl XXXVII. Her specialty these days is covering sports betting legislation across the country.

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