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On a Saturday night this past winter, I found myself enjoying a craft beer and bathing in the cerulean warmth of high-def TVs at Spanky’s Roadhouse, a University neighborhood haunt. The flat-screens were showing NBA games, an NHL matchup, and a college football conference championship. My drinking buddy struck up a conversation with the bartender and asked if the barkeep had “any skin” in the contest we were watching. The kid shook his head and then said, “Nah. I didn’t put money on any of these games, but I do a lot of late-night betting online—usually on Korean baseball.”
Until five years ago, no one outside of a Las Vegas casino could’ve uttered that statement—unless they were illegally placing bets with a bookie or through offshore sportsbooks. But when the Supreme Court overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) in 2018, the ruling allowed states beyond Nevada to determine whether and how to legalize and regulate sports betting. After Colorado voters approved Proposition DD in November 2019, the first wagers were placed in May 2020.
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Since then, more than $10.7 billion of bets—or handle, in industry parlance—have been made from within our rectangular borders, a gaudy statistic that not only illustrates the untaboo-ing of gambling on sports but also places Colorado in the top 10 U.S. sports betting markets. Considering our smallish population compared with other powerhouses such as New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, it’s reasonable to ask what has made the local market so successful—and whether that’s a good thing. “First, a relatively low tax rate of 10 percent is a huge reason why so many sportsbooks come to Colorado,” says Ian St. Clair, an analyst for playcolorado.com, which covers the state’s online gambling industry. “Second, Colorado has a massive betting catalog, meaning people can bet on everything under the sun.”
Dan Hartman, director of the Colorado Division of Gaming, agrees that the robust catalog—which allows bettors to put money on in-state college sports, even though some other states disallow it—has made for good business, but he also believes the decision to introduce mobile sports betting was a fortuitous break. “We launched two months into the pandemic,” Hartman explains. “There were no major sports being played, and no one was going to casinos. Being able to bet on, say, Croatian table tennis from an iPhone positioned us well.”
Since the end of stay-at-home orders, in-person betting at retail sportsbooks in Black Hawk, Central City, Cripple Creek, and at tribal casinos in southwestern Colorado has been available, but roughly 98 percent of all sports bets in Colorado are still made online. This should come as no surprise to those who’ve seen former Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning’s commercials for Caesars Sportsbook, which is just one of the 23 online betting shops currently tapping into Centennial Staters’ irrational hopes and disposable incomes.
Although the $10 billion handle over the past three years suggests Coloradans have generally welcomed sports betting into their ever-growing pantheon of formerly illegal vices, there are those who see the easy access to and vigorous marketing of online gambling as a statewide addiction problem in the making. “The approach in Colorado was to launch as quickly as possible and build a competitive market,” says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. “The issue is that sports betting is an addictive product, and Colorado didn’t put in infrastructure to combat the possibilities of harm.”
In 2022, the Colorado Division of Gaming and the Problem Gambling Coalition of Colorado began to remedy that situation by helping engineer a bill that would fund responsible gambling programs in the state. House Bill 22-1402, which was signed into law last June, allows state and local governments, and some nonprofits, to apply for grant funding to support projects—like social marketing campaigns and research studies—that would address problem gambling. “Considering $130,000 was all that was originally allocated for problem gambling when sports betting began,” says Peggy Brown, founder and president of the Problem Gambling Coalition of Colorado, “the more than $2.5 million that 1402 delivered is an important step.”
The fact that our bartender divulged that he often drinks well into the night after his shift and then consults his gambling apps to see what’s live—meaning real-time games across the globe that can be bet on while they’re happening—made me loath to download any sportsbook app. His enthusiasm for putting what I imagined was good tip money on bowling didn’t help. But I ultimately signed up with DraftKings, and what I’ve learned since then—all of it downloaded in the following pages—can serve as an introduction to the hows, whys, and should-I-reallys of sports betting for every Centennial Stater.
Starting Your Bankroll
Getting set up online is easy. Figuring out what to do next is not.
Step 1: Pick A Sportsbook
Determining which app you’ll like will often come down to personal preferences about the different user interfaces and what lines (or odds) the bookmakers are offering. Initially, though, look for the best offers for signing up—like new user bonuses, boosted odds, or protected bets (sometimes called free bets)—and register with a few sites to compare them. Read the fine print on how those offers work, paying attention to whether they’re attached to a required deposit and/or if bonus money is redeemable. “If you’re in no huge hurry to get started,” says playcolorado.com’s St. Clair, “wait for the beginning of the next NFL or NBA season. That’s when the bookmakers give their best sign-up deals.”
Step 2: Verify Your Geography
Obviously, if you’re placing an in-person sports bet at a Colorado casino, there’s no need for Big Brother to determine your location on a map. However, if you’re hoping to place bets online, Colorado sportsbook apps must run a player location check, which means when you register for an account (and log in each subsequent time), you’ll be asked to allow access to your location. Not every state allows sports betting, so your device (and therefore you) must be physically inside Colorado to place a wager.
Step 3: Make A Deposit
Every app, from DraftKings to PointsBet to BetMGM, requires a minimum deposit—usually no more than $5—to get started. To do this, you’ll have to transfer money to the app from, well, wherever you hold assets. The easiest way to do this is to link your bank account to the app. Typically, you won’t even need your routing or account numbers; you’ll select your bank from a drop-down menu and use your bank login information directly on the app. In Colorado, it is also legal to use credit cards to supply your bankroll, although there are some that prohibit payments to gaming activities. PayPal, Venmo, and gift cards also work on some apps. To withdraw your winnings, you can use PayPal, Venmo, or the like to receive funds; most sportsbooks take up to 14 days to send you a check.
Step 4: Place Your Bets
This is, in theory, the fun part. However, if you’re new to sports betting, the sheer number of options for what you can bet on and what types of wagers you can place can be paralyzing. You can find How To Bet guides on most apps and websites, but the best way to learn is through experience. “My advice: Use some of the freebies you get to figure things out and get comfortable with different bets, like futures and props,” St. Clair says. “This allows you to test it out with limited risk and investment.”
From Censored to Celebrated
Not so long ago, the idea of betting on sports was scandalous. What happened?
I was born during the 1978-’79 basketball season, when the Boston College point-shaving hullabaloo happened, and I’m just old enough to remember the disgraceful end of Pete Rose’s illustrious baseball career. I was an editor at this magazine in 2007 when NBA referee Tim Donaghy pleaded guilty to betting on games in which he was officiating and making calls that affected the spread. The national indignation exhibited in the face of these wrongdoings was fervent.
As a sports fan, I’ve always wanted to believe the athletic pursuits I watch are pure and unaffected by external forces, despite that evidence—and many other instances—to the contrary. And until very recently, most Americans and a majority of professional and amateur sports leagues seemed to agree with me, wanting nothing to do with betting on sports, illegal or otherwise. In fact, during a 2012 New Jersey case—legal proceedings that ultimately overturned PASPA—NFL commissioner Roger Goodell testified that “it’s a very strongly held view in the NFL, it has been for decades, that the threat that gambling could occur in the NFL or fixing of games or that any outcome could be influenced by the outside could be very damaging to the NFL.”
So, when I logged on to my DraftKings account for the first time in January 2023, I experienced a familiar feeling: the same one I had walking into a Denver marijuana dispensary for the first time in 2012, which is to say I wasn’t sure this should be legal. Eleven years later, I still vacillate on the liberation of cannabis, and as I hit “place bet” on the College Football Playoff National Championship game, I wondered how we’ll all feel about legalized sports betting, and the road that led us here, a decade from now.
Nevada legalizes gambling, including wagering on sports.
The first sportsbook opens inside a Las Vegas casino.
Although fantasy football has been around since the 1960s, the growth of the internet leads to a massive expansion in fantasy leagues.
President George H.W. Bush signs PASPA, which outlaws sports gambling in states that did not already have laws allowing it, notably Nevada.
President George W. Bush signs the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, a response to the proliferation of online poker and casino games. The act, however, makes an exception for fantasy sports, declaring them skill-based and not games of chance. The daily fantasy industry, which essentially allows betting on individual players but not on the outcomes of games, is born.
In March, New Jersey files its first federal lawsuit to overturn PASPA, arguing the law violates the 10th Amendment’s protection against federal anti-commandeering laws.
In July, FanDuel is founded as a daily fantasy sports provider.
Estimates suggest more than 40 million Americans play fantasy sports.
In May, the Supreme Court overturns PASPA.
Shortly thereafter, FanDuel and DraftKings, the two largest fantasy league operators, announce their intent to enter the sports betting market in states that legalize the practice.
In July, the NBA becomes the first major U.S. sports league to have an official relationship with a sportsbook operator, MGM Resorts.
Delaware becomes the first state to legalize sports betting after PASPA falls.
In May, the first sports wagers are placed in Colorado, which is the 19th state to give sports betting the green light.
In September, the University of Colorado Boulder signs a first-in-NCAA-history sponsorship deal with PointsBet sportsbook, which is headquartered in Denver.
The NFL signs partnerships with Caesars Entertainment, DraftKings, and FanDuel
More than 50 million Americans are projected to wager more than $16 billion on Super Bowl LVII.
Talk Like a Sharp*
Sports betting has a language all its own. We’ve got the important translations for squares** below.
*A veteran professional bettor whose proven successes can influence sportsbooks to adjust their odds (see also: wise guys and handicappers)
**A novice or recreational gambler
The betting lines set by bookmakers; American odds are based on favorites and underdogs. Favorites are denoted by a minus symbol (-) attached to a number. The higher that number is, the better the chance the favorite will win. Underdogs are denoted by a plus symbol (+) attached to a number. The higher the number, the larger the underdog. American odds use a baseline value of $100. For favorites, gamblers are always risking their money to win $100; with underdogs, a bettor risks $100 to win the number set in the line. Keep in mind that you don’t always have to wager $100; if you bet more or less, the wager is scaled up or down accordingly.
Example: Let’s say the lowly CSU Rams (+110) play Coach Prime’s CU Buffs (-110) and you place a moneyline bet on the underdog to win—and they actually do—that means your wager of $100 won you $110 (reminder: you get to keep your original wager). If you place a straight-up bet on the Buffs to win—and they do—then your wager of $110 brought home $100 (plus, you get your $110 back).
A straight-up bet in which a sports gambler tries to predict the outright winner
Example: If the inept Denver Broncos (-110) were playing the equally pitiful Las Vegas Raiders (+110) at Empower Field, a bettor might take the underdog Raiders to win. If the Raiders win by any margin, a bettor who put $100 on the silver and black would win $110.
Odds posted on a game that are designed to level the playing field. Favorites are listed with a negative (-6.5) point spread, while the underdog is given a head start with positive (+6.5) odds.
Example: If the Denver Nuggets (-6.5) are favored to beat the Golden State Warriors (+6.5) and a bettor picks Denver to cover the spread, then Nikola Jokic & Co. must beat Stephen Curry and the rest of the defending champions by at least seven points for the bettor to have a winning ticket.
How many total goals/points/runs will be scored by both teams in a game.
Example: If the Stanley Cup Champion Avs are playing the Detroit Red Wings and the game total is set at 6.5, wagerers must decide if they think the teams will combine to score over or under seven goals.
A single bet that consists of two or more sides, or legs. Each side must win to deliver a winning ticket. Because these bets are riskier, they have higher payouts.
Example: You could bet $100 that the bad news Rockies (+150) will beat the favored Padres (-185) and another $100 that the underdog Arizona Diamondbacks (+130) will fall to the LA Dodgers (-155). If you wager on moneyline bets, you’ll earn $215 or so if both hit. If, however, you parlay them, your odds jump to +311—meaning, your initial $200 bet could turn into $823. But if one leg fails, the whole bet fails.
Proposition (Prop) Bet
Special wagers—typically on the occurrence or nonoccurrence during a game of an event that may not directly affect the match’s final outcome—that are offered on most sporting events (but not on collegiate sports in the state of Colorado).
Example: A bettor could put money on, say, a specific Rapids player to score the first goal of a match.
Everyone knows you can put money on the NBA and the NFL, but Colorado’s betting catalog is vast. There are dozens of leagues—here at home and across the globe—to wager on, if you can find sportsbooks that are accepting those bets. (Hint: Many of them do.) If 5280 were a bookmaker, we might specialize in the…uh…less mainstream sports. Depending on the time of year,* your bet slips could include wagers on these pursuits.
*Event and season dates change from year to year; these are approximations
- International Biathlon Union World Championships
- World Snooker Tour – Snooker Shoot Out
- Badminton Asia mixed team badminton
- TT Elite Series table tennis (Poland)
- Australian Football League
- Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship
- American Ultimate Disc League
- World Rowing Federation University Boat Race (England)
- Women’s Superpesis – Pesäpallo (Finland)
- Mixed Martial Arts Bellator Paris
- Call of Duty League
- Pro Bull Riding World Finals
- Nippon Baseball League (Japan)
- National Rugby League (Australia)
- Professional Bowlers Association bowling
- World Aquatics Championships water polo
- AVP Gold Series beach volleyball
- America’s Cup sailing
- Women’s Americas Winners Cup beach soccer
- WPA U.S. Open Pool Championship
- American Cornhole League Open Series
- U.S. ProMiniGolf Association Master’s
- World Jai Alai League
- PDC Darts Championship
- Champions Chess Tour Playoffs and Finals
Five Questions for Johnny Avello
5280 spoke with DraftKings’ director of race and sportsbook operations about what differentiates Colorado’s sports betting landscape, tips for novice gamblers, and how sports betting can appeal to more than just sports nuts.
5280: How does someone who’s been in Las Vegas since 1979 view gambling?
Johnny Avello: It’s entertainment. In Vegas, it’s always been about table games and keno and slots—and the vibe. In 2018, I went to DraftKings, which offers the easiest way to be entertained: online in approved states.
DraftKings has been operating in the Centennial State since day one of sports betting here—why?
Mobile betting is great for Coloradans. You don’t have to battle the snow or I-70 to get to the casinos. But more than that, Colorado is a unique state in that it has big-name sports teams and a great sports culture. People like to bet on the home teams, and because Colorado allows betting on college teams, there are a lot of teams to follow. Plus, the state of Colorado has taken an aggressive approach by having a large catalog, so it doesn’t miss out on handle.
Did Coloradans bet on the Avalanche this past season?
Oh, yeah. The Avs weren’t a long shot, but they were bet heavily in Colorado. That was a loss for us in the state of Colorado, but in New York they were betting on the Rangers and Islanders, so it all balances out.
With sports betting only being legal for three years, we’re all pretty much newbies. Got any advice?
It’s OK to download the app and just peruse. It doesn’t mean you should be betting right away. Take time to understand what it all means. Do some research. If I were a newbie, I’d stick with the basics. Take Team A versus Team B and either do a moneyline bet, a bet on the spread, or a total-points-scored wager. Those are the three core bets, and they are easy to learn and understand. Something that’s also easy and fun is a futures bet, where you bet on which team is going to win, say, the World Series before the season even begins.
Where do you see sports betting expanding as the industry matures?
Sports betting doesn’t have to just be about big-time sports. It can also be about cornhole and table tennis. But I think it can expand beyond that. The Oscars are a perfect example. You can’t do this in Colorado yet, but since 2019, DraftKings has been taking bets on the Academy Awards in certain states. You know what we’ve noticed? More females sign up to play.
How We Pick ’Em
Which sports do Coloradans like to bet on most? For the 2021-’22 fiscal year, the Colorado Division of Gaming reported a handle of roughly $4.8 billion. If you’re thinking that, like, $4.7 billion of that was plunked down on the NFL (as in, the Broncos definitely won’t cover the spread), well, you’d be wrong. With $1,197,704,193 in wagers, the NBA trounced the No Fun League by $429,091,748 in bets. What other sports did Centennial Staters put money on? We break it down.
The Over/Under On Sports Betting
One sports fan’s hot take on pocket gambling.
Russ, if you’re reading this, thank you. Or perhaps Coach Hackett is more deserving of my gratitude. If I were a linemaker (I’m not), I’d say the odds on which man was my rainmaker were close to even all season long: Russell Wilson at -110 and Nathaniel Hackett at +110.
Why? Because rule number one among recreational, small-time sports gamblers like me is to bet against your team, which was easy with Russ “reading” defenses and Hackett calling plays in the red zone. That way, the theory goes, you’ll always win—either in your bank account or in the final box score, which may as well be your heart. I would take a Denver Broncos win any day, in any circumstance, but barring that, a little pad in my wallet softens the blow.
This past season, the Broncos were one of the worst-performing teams in the NFL (five wins, 12 losses), but they were particularly dreadful when Vegas favored them to win: When expected to beat their opponent, the Broncos only won three times, compared with five losses, and only once—once!—did they cover the spread. Against the spread, the Broncos were 1-6-1 (or one success, six failures, and one push, essentially a tie where wagers are returned).
That’s a lot of gambling gobbledygook, but here’s something more straightforward: When the Broncos were predicted to win this year, I bet on them to lose. And because of this rudimentary metric, my personal shopping line item in our monthly household budget ballooned quite favorably. New Nikes, an Arc’teryx hard shell, and Christmas presents were all paid for from winnings during the woeful stretch between October 2 and December 11, when the Broncos bested their opponent only once.
Such an easy-to-follow pattern is rare in sports gambling—for me, anyway. I typically place two or three bets per week, and except for the windfall from Russ & Co., I’ve been winning and losing the same $200 for about a year. My wagers are small—usually between $5 and $50—and only sometimes based on more than gut instinct and whatever I’ve read in the 24-hour news cycle while scrolling sports Twitter alongside everyone else.
Before betting was legalized in Colorado, which brought the BetMGM sportsbook to my pocket, I was an irregular bettor. On trips to Lake Tahoe to visit family and friends, I’d sometimes swing through Reno, Nevada, and blow a small amount set aside for the occasion, usually on NFL futures (e.g., wagering in, say, September on who might win the Super Bowl), college football bowl games, or March Madness. I’ve always been a sports fan, and my trips to the Grand Sierra resort and casino were born of that persuasion. Watching sports is fun, and correctly predicting their outcomes is even more so.
When I began betting online in Colorado, it was much the same: Posting up with friends at the Dark Horse in Boulder on an NFL Sunday with wings and pitchers of Banquet is a good time, even if the Broncos are finding a new way to lose to the anemic Jets. It’s even better if I’ve somehow correctly predicted Zach Wilson’s triumph over hapless Denver and can offer to buy the next round.
The thing is, though, it’s never been about making money. Beer money, sure; monthly bills, no. I do have well-intentioned, self-imposed rules in an attempt to not lose money. No live betting. Never take a running back prop; never pick the away team in NBA basketball; never be seduced by a college football spread. Also: Don’t bet on baseball.
As you can imagine, each maxim is often the result of more than a few straight losses. But because I am the arbiter of my own rules, I tend to move the goal posts with abandon. My only constant is this: I always bet against what I want to happen. Money can’t buy happiness, but in my experience, I tend to break even. —Maren Horjus
Here’s the Problem
Disordered gambling is a diagnosable addiction and a known danger to public health—a threat Colorado has long ignored. That may be changing, but there’s a lot of catching up to do.
- $130,000: Amount lawmakers allocated annually for problem gambling when Proposition DD passed in 2019.
- ~$2.5 million: Amount that HB 1402 began providing to fight problem gambling in 2023.
- $1,107,700: Amount, allocated by the Responsible Gaming Grant Program in February, given to the Problem Gambling Coalition of Colorado (PGCC) to expand programming at its new Lakewood Problem Gambling Coalition Center of Colorado, work with third parties on gambling behavior research, and hire staff for a program to spread awareness of problem gambling on college campuses.
- $464,265: Combined amount, allocated by the Responsible Gaming Grant Program in February, given to the Massachusetts Council on Gaming and Health and the Kindbridge Research Institute to fund research on problem gaming in Colorado and to do a review of gambling treatment quality and availability in Colorado, respectively.
- 7,121: Calls the Problem Gambling Coalition of Colorado received in 2022 to its hotline (303-662-0772), a 45 percent increase since 2020.
- 225%: Increase in texts, from the beginning of sports betting in 2020 through 2022, sent to the Problem Gambling Coalition of Colorado.
A Helping Hand
- 128,000: Coloradans, according to National Council on Problem Gambling estimates, who likely suffer from problem gambling.
- 5: Counselors in the state who are certified to treat gambling addiction.
- 0: Inpatient treatment centers dedicated to gambling addiction in Colorado.
- ~600: People on Colorado’s voluntary self-exclusion list, which right now only works for brick-and-mortar casinos and has been managed by the PGCC for 17 years. This number does not include anyone who has signed up to be similarly barred from on- line betting through the state’s online sportsbooks in the past three years. Right now, bettors must sign up to self-exclude with each individual app.
- 6: More months the Colorado’s Division of Gaming estimates it will need to combine, digitize, and automate the casino self-exclusion list with the sportsbooks’ lists. The division will need to ensure that casinos are abiding by the list but also that the 23 online sportsbooks are complying with HB 1402, which requires them to do so now, too.
Signs Of Addiction
Dan Trolaro knows the hallmarks of problem gambling, because he exhibited all of them. The 47-year-old vice president of prevention for United Kingdom–based Epic Risk Management, which helps organizations—such as the NCAA, pro sports leagues, the armed services, and insurance companies—reduce the effects of gambling-related harm, lied, didn’t pay his bills, got restless when he wasn’t gambling, performed poorly at work, talked constantly about odds, had to bet more and more money to get a dopamine rush, and couldn’t stop wagering even when the consequences were dire. “My story is extreme,” says Trolaro, who’s working with the Problem Gambling Coalition of Colorado on its program to spread awareness of problem gambling on college campuses. “Not everyone ends up embezzling money to gamble and gets sent to prison for four years like I did, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. That’s why I’m a big believer in telling my story, helping people see the warning signs, and prevention.”
A Huge Hole
A Greeley man* explains, in his own words, how turning 21 quickly turned into a massive financial deficit.
Growing up in Broomfield, I liked sports as much as the next guy. I even played a little football in high school. Back then, it wasn’t like I was watching games all day long, every day. But then online sports betting became legal here, and I turned 21 and downloaded DraftKings. Then it was like I had to bet on every game. The apps are so convenient. Too convenient, really.
NBA, MLB, UFC—it didn’t matter what was on during the day. Then, at night, I’d be jonesing for more betting. If I stopped, my brain chemicals would get low; it was like doing a drug all day and all night. I was betting on stuff I wouldn’t normally care about. I’d look up whatever was “live now” and put money on things like Korean baseball. My true degeneracy really came through when I started betting on Russian pingpong. The amount of money I’ve lost on that is staggering—in the thousands.
I work at the front desk of a hotel making less than $30,000 a year. Recently, it’s not been uncommon for me to lose half of my paycheck to sports betting. Everyone in my life says I’ve gotta quit. But it’s hard. Winning is exciting, and losing gives you a rush, too, because now you have to gamble more to get back to financial normalcy, which I’ve slowly realized is not true or possible. My friends know it’s bad, but my mom is really the only person who knows how bad it is. She has the means to bail me out, but she refuses to, which I get.
Not too long ago, I got a paycheck and then gambled 90 percent of it away within two days. Now, I’m three months behind on rent, my credit card is maxed out, I have no car insurance. I’m in a huge financial hole. I’ve been wanting to quit for months, but it’s so hard.
In January, I called the Problem Gambling Coalition of Colorado and asked to fill out a self-exclusion form, essentially paperwork given to casinos so they won’t let a person gamble. I was under the impression that this form would mean I wouldn’t be able to gamble online, but that’s not the case. Right now, it only works for brick-and-mortar casinos. Those aren’t my problem. It’s the apps. And the promotions. I like FanDuel’s free bets and deposit matches—I just can’t stay away from them. Honestly, it’s difficult to get away from sports betting because every sporting event on television has commercials for it. Kinda makes me sick to see Kevin Hart, who probably doesn’t even gamble, make money while people like me only lose money. They can’t do ads like that for cigarettes because they’re addictive. Well, this is addictive, too. —As told to LBK
The Online Era
Sports betting today isn’t like it used to be. Before 2018, you had to hop a flight to Vegas, and you probably used actual cash. “In other words, there were some limiting factors then,” says John Bundrick, a certified gambling counselor who worked in Colorado from 2016 until early 2023. “Now, the big phenomena are that money is digital and instantly depositable, and betting online means you can do it all day from your phone with no breaks.” Gambling, Bundrick says, has always been called the hidden addiction, because it’s difficult to see that someone is losing money. “The difference in treating disordered gambling now in Colorado,” he says, reiterating that 98 percent of sports betting in the state is done online, “and treating it before May 2020—it’s two different worlds. You simply can’t get away from it.”
Redrawing The Lines
A controversial partnership born in 2020 between the University of Colorado Boulder and PointsBet blurred the boundaries between college-age audiences and sports betting. The deal dissolved in March, but not before some lessons were learned.
If you walked through Balch Fieldhouse and into the bleachers at Folsom Field during the past two football seasons, you saw them: PointsBet advertisements. They were on the scoreboard, on the sidelines, on the Jumbotron.
The marketing bonanza began almost three years ago when CU Boulder signed a much-talked-about, five-year, $1.6 million deal with PointsBet, a sportsbook launched in Australia in 2017 that opened its U.S. headquarters in Denver in September 2021. From day one, the deal was under near-constant investigation, by everyone from the National Council on Problem Gambling to CU’s own Intercollegiate Athletics Committee.
Local media was all over it, too, as were the New York Times and Sports Illustrated, among other national outlets. The criticism was multipronged, but it had one clear through line: College-age kids are a vulnerable demographic, and experts said that neither PointsBet (which declined to comment for this article) nor CU Boulder took appropriate measures to protect them from the downsides of gambling. “Young male adolescents are more at risk,” says certified gambling counselor Bundrick. “They’re competitive, impulsive, and with the popularity of gaming, they have been exposed at a young age to loot boxes, where there’s an element of chance and intermittent reinforcement. Plus, they have a digital relationship to money.” In other words, some college-age males—and probably females, too—may have a predisposition to gambling addiction, especially if the user interface feels a lot like the video games they’re used to and the tangibility of money is nonexistent. As such, experts say college campuses are no place for sports betting sponsorships.
On March 28, roughly 24 hours before CU Boulder and PointsBet released a joint statement ending their partnership, the American Gaming Association (AGA), a national trade group for the U.S. casino industry, agreed with said experts and released a new marketing code that prohibits its members from entering into the kind of deal CU and PointsBet pioneered. PointsBet is not a member of the AGA, and multiple sources said the AGA code change—which garnered national attention—had no bearing on the talks between the sportsbook and the university. Regardless, amid all the chatter, the two entities decided the agreement had run its course—and would not provide details explaining why. CU Boulder, for its part, says it has certainly learned some things over the past three years.
Lesson 1: Being First Isn’t Easy
Although several universities across the country ultimately followed in CU Boulder’s footsteps and signed lucrative deals with sportsbooks, the Buffs broke the trail. “When you’re the first into the breach,” says CU Boulder’s chief spokesperson, Steve Hurlbert, “there’s added scrutiny. The media attention did not end; it was ceaseless. That was unique.” Still, Hurlbert says the deal showed innovative thinking that the university is proud of. “We have no regrets,” he says. “It was a novel, ambitious, and creative partnership.”
Lesson 2: Hindsight Is 20/20
Critics panned the deal for providing no funding to address problem gambling on campus and said a referral fee—the school received $30 for every person who signed up using a CU promo code—actually encouraged gambling on campus. The money from the fee was initially meant to address campuswide gambling harms and DEI initiatives, but the funds were insufficient. The paltry $1,830 was instead used for in-stadium problem gambling awareness signs. “Certainly our intent was broader,” Hurlbert says, “and we wish the funding had been there to do more.”
Lesson 3: On The Bright Side
The $1.6 million that CU received from PointsBet went to facilities and other resources for student-athletes. “In that sense,” Hurlbert says, “the deal was a normal and beneficial marketing sponsorship.” In other ways, the partnership was singular. Built into the contract were ancillary perks that Hurlbert says were super popular with student-athletes. “PointsBet was at our job fair last year,” Hurlbert says. “There were also internships and career development opportunities with PointsBet that focused on analytics and computer science.”
There’s at least one other reason—beyond the hope of winning—to feel good about sports betting.
Whether you bet on the Broncos to win or against the Avs in the Stanley Cup Finals, the dough you handed to the house wasn’t a complete loss. In the Centennial State, the majority of tax funds from sports betting go to the Colorado Water Plan, a project born in 2015 to address the state’s myriad water challenges. “What most people don’t know,” says Lauren Ris, deputy director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), which manages the plan’s framework, “is that the Colorado Water Plan never had a permanent funding stream until sports betting was legalized.”
That means in a water-constrained state that’s been experiencing a megadrought since 2000, a plan meant to support statewide water projects that would provide multiple benefits to the state’s H2O users didn’t have a steady source of income to provide the grants it was built to help deliver. “As you can imagine,” Ris says, “it’s exciting to have the sports betting tax dollars.”
Colorado’s 10 percent tax on sports betting is among the lowest in the country—a calculated but criticized move that has lured a legion of sportsbooks to the state—but with the passing of House Bill 22-1402 last summer, the Colorado Water Plan is expected to see an increased purse. The law, which took effect on January 1, reduced tax write-offs for sportsbooks, and, according to the Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting (OSB), should garner the state $24 million for fiscal year 2022-’23, up from $12.4 million the previous year. The OSB estimates the number will rise to $25 million next year.
The CWCB has already awarded grants, partially funded by early sports betting tax dollars, to support a training program on conservation- and efficiency-oriented irrigation for farmers in eastern Colorado and a research project into the potential water conservation benefits of linking urban food policies and programs with rural communities. “Water projects cost money just like anything else,” Ris says. “This has been a really big deal for us.”
$24 Million: Amount in taxes on sports betting that’s expected to be allocated to the state in 2022-’23, much of which will go to the Colorado Water Plan
The Sky Ute SportsBook app is one of a kind. Here’s why.
In a market full of big names like Caesars, FanDuel, and BetMGM, Sky Ute SportsBook is nearly anonymous. Its three-year-old mobile app isn’t as polished as SISportsbook’s and doesn’t offer the kickbacks and free play you’ll find with DraftKings. But that’s exactly what makes it stand out, in what some might consider a charming way. Well, that and the fact that it’s the only tribe-owned sportsbook app in the state.
Operated by the Southern Ute Indian Tribe since 1993, Sky Ute Casino Resort has long had slots, craps, blackjack, roulette, and even bingo, but when Colorado legalized sports betting in November 2019, Sky Ute had a mobile sportsbook ready to go within seven months. In fact, the casino’s app started taking wagers 10 months before Sky Ute’s retail sports lounge, located near Ignacio in south-central Colorado, even opened. “With COVID-19,” says David Oelschlaeger, the casino’s director of interactive gaming, “we were uncertain when or if a retail sportsbook was going to be possible, so we knew the app was the thing. This was our opportunity to think outside traditional norms and take care of our customer base.”
It wasn’t easy, though. Oelschlaeger says the technology necessary for an app far exceeded his training, which he jokes ended in the Etch A Sketch era. “The geolocation setup, the financial part with banks, the regulations we had to comply with, and the platform itself, plus the day-to-day selection of lines,” he says, “it was a lot.” It was, however, worth it. Ever since then, Oelschlaeger says, Sky Ute has been hiring new employees and expanding its offerings. But, he says, the reason Coloradans might want to consider placing bets with Sky Ute is because it’s not one of the big guys. “We’re the mom and pop shop amongst the Walmarts,” he says. “To us, you aren’t just some name or number on a giant spreadsheet.”
Rolling the Dice
Odds are that these areas represent the future of sports betting in Colorado.
Determining whether the next drive will end in a touchdown or if a team will stage a come-from-behind victory while games are being played is what in-game wagering is all about. “Live betting means sportsbooks can get further engagement during a game,” says playcolorado.com’s St. Clair, “instead of just relying on traditional bets that happen before games.” Live betting is trending up, and it’s available for a variety of sports, even fast-paced ones like table tennis, but industry insiders say the NBA, NFL, pro soccer, tennis, and MLB offer the most predictability. Predictability is relative, but St. Clair suggests that MLB is great for live betting. “The biggest reason why baseball is the best is the speed of the game, though the new pitch clock may change that,” St. Clair says. “Still, compared with basketball and hockey, you have a little more time to place your bet…. One [of the] most popular is the result of the next at-bat.” St. Clair also offers this tip: Given the delay on the broadcast, bettors should place their next at-bat bets during commercial breaks. The sportsbooks constantly update their odds from pitch to pitch, and they have a massive advantage given that delay. You could be eight seconds behind a pitch, and the batter may have already flied out as you’re locking in your bet. During commercials, the books no longer have that edge.
Props & Parlays
Online sports betting has roots in fantasy sports, and that provenance means those who have a knack for drafting so-called studs can choose wagers where their instinct and vast knowledge base may give them an advantage. “Right now, we are seeing the emergence of props and parlays,” St. Clair says. “Those bets will overtake moneyline and total points bets because fantasy players are realizing their research transfers well to those bets.” Numbers from the Fantasy Sports & Gaming Association back up the predicted increase: 81 percent of fantasy players bet on sports in 2022, up from 78 percent in 2018. Still, St. Clair says the detailed spreadsheets fantasy players are known for will only help so much. “Parlays really are the worst bets,” he says. “That’s why sportsbooks push them. Props, like total yards or touchdowns, are better.”
If fantasy leagues were the precursors to sports betting, then sports betting is the harbinger of online casinos. Right now, games you’d see at brick-and-mortar casinos, like roulette, blackjack, and slots, are currently illegal to play online in Colorado. But with iGaming (because, of course, that’s what they’re calling it) already available in Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, the next frontier in online wagering is expected to begin rolling out across the nation—and potentially coming to Colorado—in the near future. “The industry is really only getting started,” St. Clair says. “Sports betting is still new, but online casinos are coming soon. It’s just the next logical step.”
Inside These Walls
If digital sportsbooks aren’t your jam, these Colorado brick-and-mortar casinos are an analog’s best bet.
Ameristar Black Hawk
The 24-foot video wall, 13 betting kiosks, and 29 high-def TVs give this retail sportsbook a suitable man cave vibe.
Bally’s Black Hawk Casino
DraftKings is one of the biggest players in the online sports betting world—and its retail location in Black Hawk feels about as grand as you’d expect it to be.
The Lodge Casino
It’s hard to duplicate Nevada vibes in Black Hawk, but SuperBook Sports is like a small (OK, very small) version of what you’ll find in Sin City.