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Gaming Guru

Howard Stutz

Vegas sportsbooks unsure of World Cup impact

10 June 2010

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The 2010 World Cup is expected to provide local sports books with an influx of hard-core and casual soccer fans over the next five weeks.

Whether interest in the games translates into an increased betting handle is up for debate.

Many sports book operators are hopeful the 32-nation World Cup, which takes place in South Africa starting Friday and ends July 11 with the championship match in Johannesburg, will spur feelings of national pride among gamblers.

"We know there is going to be interest in the World Cup," said Lucky's Chief Executive Officer Joe Asher, whose company operates 13 sports books for casinos in Nevada. "We're going to find out quickly if the interest is more than just passing."

Internationally, many experts believe wagering on World Cup soccer, an event held every four years, could range as high as $2 billion. Much of that could come through legal betting services in the United Kingdom and on Internet sports book sites based outside the United States.

"This is going to be a massive betting year for us," Graham Sharpe, a spokesman for Britain-based bookmaker William Hill, told in describing World Cup wagering. "Almost by definition, turnover increases exponentially every four years. We are very optimistic that there will be 1 billion or more pounds bet with British bookmakers."

Nevada is the only place where American soccer fans can legally wager on World Cup soccer. The industry isn't sure what to expect.

"I think World Cup wagering is going to be matchup driven, such as when the United States plays," said Jay Rood, MGM Mirage's race and sports book director. "We have some proposition wagers and future bets, but we haven't gotten crazy."

Many Las Vegas sports books offer limited wagering on international soccer games and Major League Soccer. But the sport is not a hot commodity. Wagering on soccer is so insignificant, the Gaming Control Board lumps the monthly betting amounts in a category that includes wagering revenues from NASCAR, golf, hockey, tennis and other sports.

If history is a guide, however, the World Cup will change the wagering profile.

Vinny Magliulo was running the sports book at Caesars Palace in 1994 when the United States hosted the World Cup. Interest in the tournament spiked. The games were televised and wagering increased. Magliulo said soccer wagering grew during subsequent World Cups in 1998, 2002 and 2006.

"After the 1994 World Cup, the event became a staple of the wagering menu," said Magliulo, who is now an executive with Las Vegas Dissemination Co. "Having the games televised helped and wagers were up during the final between Brazil and Italy."

How much the World Cup will be worth to Las Vegas sports books in 2010 is anyone's guess.

ESPN and its networks will televise all 64 games, which helps increase wagering activity. However, the time difference between the West Coast and South Africa means games will be shown live in Las Vegas, with starting times between 4:30 a.m. and 11 a.m.

"We don't know if people get up early, come to the books and watch the game, or will they be willing to make their wagers the night before and watch from home," Asher said.

Jason McCormick, Station Casinos' director of race and sports operations, sees the early morning start times as a benefit. There will be relatively little competition from Major League Baseball and other sports, allowing the television screens at properties throughout Las Vegas to focus on the soccer games.

"It helps that you can't turn on ESPN right now and not see a World Cup commercial," McCormick said. "I think that drives interest."

Friday's opening match features host country South Africa and Mexico at 6:30 a.m. On Saturday, the feature game is USA and England at 10 a.m. and will be shown on ABC (ESPN and ABC are owned by Walt Disney Co.).

"That first weekend is key," Asher said, saying that wagering for the eight games taking place Friday through Sunday could equal what Lucky's takes in on a single high-profile National Football League prime-time matchup.

McCormick thought World Cup wagering in total would equal the handle on a month of National Hockey League games or a season of NASCAR. In other words, we're not talking Super Bowl Weekend or the NCAA Basketball Tournament's "March Madness."

In the locals market, casinos are counting on interest from ethnic areas, such as the Hispanic market showing up to root for the Mexican national team.

Lucky's runs the race and sports book at Terrible's Casino on East Flamingo Road and has always done a "healthy" soccer betting business at the location. Lucky's is offering dozens of proposition wagers and parlay cards, along with the individual game odds.

Station Casinos expanded its soccer wagers and will increase betting limits on individual games as the World Cup moves into its elimination bracket.

McCormick said the Station Casino properties plan game-day raffles for soccer jerseys from the countries in the tournament to increase interest.

On the Strip, sports book operators are not sure what to expect. Rood thought the recent emphasis on international customers could help boost World Cup interest.

"A lot of guests visiting Las Vegas from Europe or Asia, who wouldn't give the sports book a second thought during baseball season, might come down and make a bet if their home country is playing," Rood said. "We're not expecting the business Ladbrokes and William Hill expect."