The FIFA World Cup is finally upon us. The longest wait for the biggest soccer tournament in the world since the second world war is over and on Sunday, the festivities will begin.
For the US sports betting market, the tournament provides a significant opportunity for an explosion of soccer fans wagering on the sport, given it is the first opportunity for millions to legally wager on the World Cup.
Qatar plays host to this year’s edition of the World Cup, forcing FIFA to move the tournament to winter due to the extreme heat conditions in the Middle East during the summer months.
And whilst sports betting operators are licking their lips at the thoughts of another huge sporting event to add to their offerings, the timing does offer somewhat of a challenge to generate as many soccer fans, given that traditional US sports seasons are still ongoing.
World Cup to create more US interest in soccer
Harry von Behr, CEO, US at Spotlight Sports Group detailed: “There’s no denying soccer is an increasingly popular sport for US audiences, and the ability to bet on it this time will only heighten the excitement.
“The challenge with this year’s World Cup is the timing, in that it’s in direct competition with the NFL, NBA and NHL, as well as college football and basketball. Usually, a summer World Cup would give bettors something to enjoy in the quieter months of the sporting calendar.”
Interest in soccer has increased exponentially in the last few years, with broadcasts of the Premier League and UEFA Champions League bringing high-quality entertainment to American homes each week.
Research from the American Gaming Association this week revealed that over 20.5 million Americans plan to wager over $1.8bn during this World Cup, with 72% of those planning to place traditional bets either online, with a bookie, or at a physical sportsbook.
Meanwhile, another survey commissioned by BettorOff, found that 49% of self-described sports fans plan to bet on the tournament, 18% of which will be betting on soccer for the very first time.
Jake Benzaquen, Co-Founder at Prophet Exchange, told SBC Americas that, whilst interest in this World Cup is indeed very high, this will be dwarfed by future soccer betting activity.
He said: “We expect this World Cup to be significant at garnering further interest not only on the game of soccer itself, but on betting on soccer.
“We anticipate the World Cup to be a semi-popular event for bettors now, but are even more optimistic at how this can elevate the perception of soccer betting, specifically on marquee events such as the UEFA Champions League or Premier League, moving forward.”
What has made soccer so popular?
The increasing fortunes of the US Men’s National Team has had an impact on the rise of soccer. USMNT has qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 2014 and will face England, Iran and Wales in Group B.
Benzaquen told us about his most-anticipated fixture in the group: “I don’t know how much of an expectation is present of the USA in the World Cup with regards to anything, but I think this will definitely be the most watched game. Post-Thanksgiving USA vs. England in the World Cup? Sign me up.”
Many of the squad ply their trade in top European leagues, too, with Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie playing for Chelsea and Juventus respectively.
Von Behr remarked: “USMNT players featuring in the top European leagues can only help raise interest for the national team. The Premier League is the most watched league in the world, so having the likes of Christian Pulisic and Brenden Aaronson playing at the top level each week is sure to have helped interest.”
So too has the influx of global superstars into the MLS in recent years. Since David Beckham joined the league in 2007, stars such as Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Frank Lampard have joined the league bringing heightened exposure from European fans.
This year, five-time Champions League winner and Wales captain Gareth Bale joined LAFC, becoming the latest global megastar to join MLS, only increasing the eye-balls on the division.
“The game is much more global than it was in 1994, and the cross-pollination of stars to MLS, as well as US stars to Europe, has supported that,” explained von Behr. “MLS is a much more attractive place for someone to play soccer now, rather than somewhere to finish your career.”
This growth and interest has all contributed to the significant growth of soccer in the US, which has seen copious amounts of investment from broadcasters and clubs, with new MLS expansion teams popping up at significant speed.
“Soccer has experienced significant domestic growth since the last time the men’s team qualified for the World Cup, thanks to ever-improving broadcasts from NBC and CBS, increased marketing efforts from European teams, and significant investment in MLS and USL,” added Ryan Bailey, Senior Account Director at sports betting PR specialists Red Knot, and host of The Athletic’s Total Soccer Show podcast.
“We are seeing unprecedented interest in the USMNT, and the match against England on Black Friday certainly benefits from the holiday and the lead-in of the Thanksgiving NFL program. That game has the potential to break records for American soccer betting.”
World Cup products and strategies
As the World Cup fever intensifies in the lead-up to the tournament, sportsbooks and other industry players have been gearing up, unveiling new products and strategies to grab a slice of the pie.
For Prophet Exchange, the World Cup offers an opportunity to offer soccer markets in New Jersey for the first time.
Benzaquen explained the firm’s World Cup strategy: “Prophet Exchange is doing a few things to prepare. First we are offering ‘Draw No Bet’ moneyline markets instead of the traditional Win/Draw/Win three-way markets you see overseas. Americans are not used to betting on the tie, and we’d like to keep that aligned with the rest of our sport offering.
“Second, we are rolling out brand-new spreads and totals. This is a complete overhaul of our product and will apply to soccer as well as all of our other sports.
“Previously, our spreads and totals were locked in at +100 odds, but now, we allow you to trade multiple lines within each market, and odds underneath. This gives users the ability to bet o/u 2.5 goals at -102 and +101.”
Meanwhile, Spotlight Sports Group is experienced in soccer content, owing to its roots in Europe.
Von Behr noted: “Spotlight Sports Group’s soccer content offering is incredibly strong, given our European heritage. We’re creating engaging betting-focus content through our own channels, as well as working with a number of sportsbooks to provide dedicated World Cup sections to their digital offerings in over 20 territories.”
Looking towards 2026
The excitement ahead of the 2022 World Cup is palpable and, whilst the US may not have the highest expectations in terms of performance, the nation’s fans and sportsbooks are certainly looking forward to enjoying the winter’s action.
But then all eyes will look towards 2026, when the US, Canada and Mexico play host to the World Cup. In that sense, the 2022 edition can act as a litmus test for 2026, generating enough excitement and interest to set the momentum in swing over the next four years.
Soccer’s development in those four years will be key and sportsbooks will be keen to turn soccer into a mainstay of the betting calendar to supplement revenues in traditionally quieter periods of the US sporting calendar.
Von Behr concluded by remarking: “The likes of tennis and golf also provide good year-round betting content. That said, soccer is the biggest sport in the world, so if bookmakers are looking for more content, then it’s a natural starting point. I can only see interest in soccer growing in the US.
“2026 will provide a perfect opportunity to show the world that soccer has become a mainstream sport in the States by then.”