Soccer has never attracted American interest anything close to its popularity elsewhere in the world, but the return of the top-flight version of the sport from Europe shows it can make betting inroads during the shutdown of popular U.S. sports.
Germany’s Bundesliga became the first of the major European leagues to return to action last weekend, with games played in empty stadiums that would normally be packed with tens of thousands of fans.
Sports-starved Americans watched and bet on it more than ever, like the rest of the world, even though soccer has always ranked well behind football, basketball, and baseball in U.S. gambling. There’s little of those currently to be had, after all.
Finally, this is high-level soccer
Pennsylvania’s online betting sites have carried lines the past two months for other professional soccer that continued during the COVID-19 sports shutdowns — most notably the leagues in Belarus and Nicaragua — but none with the prominence of the Bundesliga.
The 18-team German league ranks among the top four in Europe, comparable to those from England, Spain, and Italy, and it became the first of those to return to play. Notably, the first major sports league in the world to begin play without spectators was one that averages 43,000 fans normally for contests, second in the world among professional leagues behind the NFL.
Teams and players had to meet stringent guidelines of a 51-page hygiene and safety protocol that included quarantines and coronavirus testing prior to matches. Stadiums were limited to a few hundred key personnel, and everyone but players on the field and head coaches had to wear masks. Scoring celebrations were supposed to avoid the normal hugging and back-slapping (though there were some violators).
It made for unusual TV viewing, with the shouts of coaches and players echoing through stadiums in this new pandemic version of action the Germans call geisterpiele, for “ghost games.” But viewership set records for the league around the world and on U.S. Fox network telecasts, and bettors dove in as well.
The bettors prefer this German version
Rush Street Interactive reported that its BetRivers and PlaySugarhouse online/mobile sites saw nearly four times as much betting action on Bundesliga soccer last week as they would normally experience.
Unibet, with online operations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, reported that soccer represented its most popular sport for betting during the weekend other than Saturday’s UFC matches.
And Kambi, an international firm that provides odds and platforms to sportsbook operators in 11 states — including Unibet, Rush Street Interactive, and others in Pennsylvania — confirmed Bundesliga betting was far higher than for any other soccer action since early March.
“To provide some context, overall network handle on the weekend the Bundesliga reopened was the second highest for any soccer league throughout the entire season when comparing a single game week,” said Jonathon Hurst, Kambi’s head of soccer.
With its worldwide presence, Kambi has taken note in the past of how far U.S. betting interest in soccer generally trails the rest of the world. It is by far the biggest sport for wagering elsewhere, but a Kambi report for 2019 noted the U.S. betting sites connected to the company took more wagers not just on football, basketball, and baseball, but also on tennis compared to soccer.
Hurst noted that details such as the start time of games, considering the time differences with the rest of the world, can affect the level of American betting interest in soccer. The majority of the eight games scheduled this weekend, for instance, start at 9:30 a.m. EST.
Hurst said U.S. interest in the sport could be heightened next month with anticipated return of Spain’s La Liga competition, including globally popular teams such as Real Madrid and Barcelona.
“The level of interest is fairly consistent across the 11 states where we are currently live,” Hurst said, “although it’s worth noting that in more mature markets like New Jersey, where players have had more time to get to grips with regulated sports wagering and discover new possibilities, the level of growth for less traditionally popular sports in the U.S. is higher.”
American soccer bettors are a small minority
Jonathan Aiwazian, sportsbook vice president for Kindred Group, the European-based firm that operates as Unibet in the U.S., said that in early March soccer represented more than half of Kindred’s betting volume in the rest of the world but just 3% in the U.S. About six of seven customers on its sites outside the U.S. were soccer bettors but fewer than one of seven Americans.
In the U.S. since mid-March, however, “we saw an uplift in soccer betting (as % of total) during the lockdown with the absence of the major leagues,” Aiwazian wrote in an email.
The most popular bets are on the moneyline and totals, he said, with a lot less interest in player props than is the case with other sports, probably due to Americans’ lack of familiarity with the athletes.
There’s no shortage of betting options
This weekend’s lineup of Bundesliga action starts with a 2:30 p.m. Friday match: Hertha vs. Union Berlin, where there’s a three-way moneyline of Hertha +130, Union Berlin +205, and a tie at +235.
The over/under on goals is 2.5, with a -115 price on the over, -108 on the under.
All kinds of other wagering options exist in soccer, in addition to the long odds to pick individual players to score. For Hertha-Union Berlin on Unibet, you can take an over/under 8.5 on corner kicks, or o/u 24.5 on total shots, or pick the team to receive more penalty cards (Hertha is +163).
You can even turn it into an even/odd roulette wager, with a -118 price on whether the total goals scored will be an even number and -106 for an odd number.
The Bundesliga is actually a high-scoring league, for reference, with its 3.18 goals per game last year representing more than the counterpart leagues in England, Spain, Italy, or France.
There’s nothing to indicate its scoring will come down as a result of the lack of fans in the stands to cheer players on. Since the league returned Saturday, four of nine games had at least four total goals scored. You just didn’t hear nearly as much cheering for them.
Photo provided by Michele Morrone/Shutterstock