Sports betting operators are putting all their chips on next month’s World Cup in the hope it will be a watershed moment for soccer wagering in the U.S.
Historically the fourth quarter is the best for sports betting, especially in November, and this year the usual slate of NFL, NBA, NHL and major college sports will be joined by four World Cup games a day. The early marquee matches include a United States vs. England game on the Friday after Thanksgiving—which will likely feature a stampede of bettors and a record-breaking day for sportsbooks.
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According to FIFA, the total global handle for the 2018 World Cup in Russia was an estimated $146 billion. At the time, only three U.S. states (Nevada, Delaware and New Jersey) offered sportsbooks. Today, 37 states have legalized sports betting.
“It will be massive for several different reasons,” Max Bichsel, VP of Sports at Gambling.com Group ($GAMB), said in an interview. “Since the last World Cup, not only has the addressable market compounded significantly, with massive states like Arizona and New York, but you also have the function of how popular soccer and European football has become in the U.S.”
According to ESPN, the MLS 2022 regular season broadcasts reached their largest audience in the last 15 years, with ABC and ESPN recording an average of 357,000 viewers per game. Premier League viewership on NBC shot up 21% for the 2020-21 season, according to the network, and during the 2022-23 season, all 380 Premier League games will air across NBC, USA, NBCSports.com and Peacock. Spain’s topflight circuit, LaLiga, now broadcasts 10 games per matchday on ESPN+, and since October, Spanish language broadcasts on ESPN Deportes and ESPN3 have increased to between six and eight games per matchday.
“They’re on TV because people watch them,” Bichsel said. “And as a result, you take the popularity, the access, you will naturally have record-setting numbers.”
Sports betting companies believe the increase in both viewing and wagering will be most visible on a few key dates. The group stage kicks off on Nov. 20, and typically features four matches a day that will run with staggered start times: 5 a.m., 8 a.m., 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. ET. The Nov. 25 U.S.-England match will start at 2 p.m., a perfect window for Americans nursing turkey hangovers and Englishmen starting their weekend.
“The fact that it’s against England will help, because all of those players are recognizable,” Mark Langdon, the head of sports content at Racing Post, a European sports betting newspaper, said. “Even to just a casual soccer fan.”
Data show that soccer reaches beyond dedicated fans, and less avid supporters understand the game and know English players. Likewise, sportsbooks project that the World Cup will attract recreational and transient users who don’t usually bet on sports or watch soccer.
“It is the perfect cocktail for a sports betting operator, specifically in this environment, to generate revenue and acquire new customers,” Bichsel said. “It’s a great way to acquire customers that you wouldn’t necessarily have access to before. So you get some recreational players that want to support their country, they’re going to create an account at MGM or Caesars and put a couple of bucks in a wager. Win, lose, draw, whatever happens, it does not matter. They’re now a customer of that sports betting operator.”
Even sports betting platforms that have not previously focused on soccer are coming into the space. Prophet Exchange, a peer-to-peer platform, is an example. “Soccer bettors are very passionate, and we’re only going to be able to go after them because of the World Cup,” said Jake Benzaquen, co-founder and COO of Prophet Exchange.
The company is creating customized bets with affordable prices, he said, to drive volume and educate new soccer bettors in the U.S. “We can put up who will score more goals—Harry Kane or Christian Pulisic? Who will go further—England or the U.S.? We could even do a North America-vs.-Europe-type market.”
Betting operators hope to keep these customers and convert them into regular bettors. Tom Waterhouse, the chief investment officer of Waterhouse VC, thinks the key might be player retention in the months following the matches. “The World Cup represents a significant opportunity for U.S. betting handle from soccer to compete with the handles of NFL, Basketball, Hockey and Baseball,” he said. “And with the 2026 World Cup being hosted in North America, the market for soccer betting should continue to rise after this tournament.”
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