"It's the closest thing to a sportsbook," says Noel Hickey, owner of the Celtic on Market, the Irish pub at 1400 Market Street. The Celtic is also a licensed off-track-betting facility, where gamblers can watch horse and dog races "off-track" and legally bet on them; at sportsbooks, gamblers can bet on all sports.
But the Celtic is betting on gamblers willing to put up with certain limitations in order to stay in Denver, enjoy the ambience of a bar...and maybe win some money. In December, the Celtic unveiled "Cash at Counter," a partnership with FanDuel. Using the FanDuel app, bettors can deposit cash in person at the Celtic and make bets while watching sports.
The Celtic doesn't actually take bets; gamblers must place wagers on their phones. But Hickey believes the amenities of his place and the tactile aspects of exchanging cash will bring people in. "It's nice to win, but it's much nicer to get the cash," says Hickey, acting out flipping through $500 in bills while he takes a break from bartending for the half-dozen people drinking at the first-floor bar. That area is filled with TVs showing horse and dog races, as well as more traditional sporting events.
The Celtic's off-track-betting venue is in the building's large basement. Before the pandemic, it would typically fill up for popular sports events like the Kentucky Derby. During the pandemic, following social distancing rules, the space can fit about fifty people.
According to Hickey, most of the 500 or so people who have made use of the sports-betting counter since it opened last month have been men in their twenties. While some have been avid horse- and dog-race gamblers who placed their winnings in a FanDuel account, many came in to bet on other sports and then became interested in betting on races. "A lot of them have never even experienced horses or dogs," says Hickey, who takes time to sits down with new customers and explain the basics of betting on races.
The Celtic gets no commission from the FanDuel deposits, but benefits from new customers generated from the arrangement. And sports gamblers get bonuses for making in-person deposits at the Celtic.
Other off-track betting facilities in the metro area whose licenses are owned by Twin River Worldwide Holdings — a casino company that owned Arapahoe Park racetrack and established a larger footprint in Colorado before sports betting went live — have similar arrangements with FanDuel. Besides the Celtic, there are FanDuel "Cash at Counter" sites at Havana Park in Aurora, Elevated Stakes in Colorado Springs, and Odds On in Arvada.
"We're doing what we can do legally," explains Bruce Seymore, executive director of the Colorado horse-racing operations for Twin River. "It helps our business. Someone comes in and cashes and may want to stick around. The bar might make some money."
The Colorado Division of Gaming has signed off on the off-track facilities opening cash counters in partnership with FanDuel.
"These cash counters are just an option to fund accounts and make withdrawals, similar to how PayPal or Apple Pay used to fund sports-betting accounts, but the counters are for people funding accounts with cash. They have no betting functionality, so they're allowed per rule. All the options to fund accounts are approved by the Division of Gaming director after the division reviews for internal control procedures and AML (Anti-Money Laundering) practices," says Suzi Karrer, a division spokesperson. FanDuel did not return a request for comment.
While officially sanctioned by state regulators, the cash counters are a bit of a workaround to the spirit of sports betting in Colorado.
When Colorado lawmakers were working on the language of Proposition DD, which would legalize sports betting in Colorado, one of their selling points was that the "brick-and-mortar" aspects of the state's sports-betting market would be limited to Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek, where gambling has been legal for close to three decades.
"There was a fear that this would be like marijuana, where there were physical ticket windows on every corner, that in a way can lead to more falling into the negative impacts of gaming," Alec Garnett, the Democratic state lawmaker (and now House speaker) who championed sports-betting legalization, told Westword in June 2019. "Somebody who gets paid in cash on a Friday and just wants to go up to a ticket window and wants to risk it all is much more likely to happen with brick-and-mortar all over the state than it is with creating an online account linked to a bank account."
In their final proposal, Garnett and other lawmakers ended up excluding off-track betting facilities from being allowed to open retail sportsbooks, instead creating the two sports-betting prongs of casinos and mobile apps. A slim majority of Colorado voters ended up approving sports betting in November 2019; under the language of Proposition DD, the majority of tax revenue generated by the wagers goes to the Colorado Water Plan. The legal market went live in May 2020.
FanDuel contributed $1.35 million to efforts to pass the measure; that amount represented 35 percent of the $3.86 million put into the campaign. Twin River, which also has a partnership with DraftKings in Colorado, contributed $350,000.
Between then and the end of December, bettors in Colorado wagered $1.185 billion on sports, which resulted in the state collecting $3.4 million in taxes. Only a small percentage of the bets were made in person at casinos. The vast majority of the money wagered went through mobile betting apps, including DraftKings and FanDuel; some of those were made in person at Cash at Counter locations, which might look like sportsbooks...but aren't.
"The Speaker is confident that the Division of Gaming has worked hard to listen to and balance the interests of the many stakeholders involved in sports betting, and that they are making fair decisions while creating the sports-betting regulations that are best for Colorado and its people," says Jerónimo Anaya-Ortiz, a spokesperson for the Colorado House Democrats.
"Obviously, I wish we could be doing the full thing," says Seymore.
But for now, the Celtic on Market and other Cash at Counter off-track-betting facilities are settling on the next best thing to a sportsbook allowed by the state.
Hickey is betting on the return of sports fans to Coors Field, Ball Arena and Empower Field at Mile High. By then, he plans to install a 20-by-20-foot screen in the pub.
"It'll feel like a sportsbook without calling ourselves a sportsbook," Hickey says.