FIFA is set to kick off its first winter World Cup on Sunday in Qatar.
The schedule shift for the event, which is typically held in the summer, is presenting conflicts for sports fans at a busy time in the American sports calendar, and it may leave the world’s largest sporting event as an afterthought for sports gamblers.
“If it was held in the summer months, in general [it would] be of wider interest,” PointsBet U.S. CEO Johnny Aitken told Yahoo Finance. “If there's more interest, I think there'd be more bets and overall money wagered on the World Cup.”
Aitken, like other gambling executives that spoke with Yahoo Finance, expects the World Cup to be a massive draw for gamblers now that there's broader sports betting legalization in the U.S. But he doesn’t believe it will surpass other key events like the Super Bowl or March Madness.
Projections from the American Gaming Association match that sentiment. The association is estimating that $1.8 billion will be wagered on the World Cup. That comes in significantly behind previous estimates for the 2022 March Madness tournament ($3.1 billion) and Super Bowl ($7.61 billion).
Notably, the World Cup and March Madness have a similar structure. The college basketball tournament spans roughly a month and consists of 67 games played throughout that time, including on weekdays. The World Cup will take a similar format, with 64 games played across a variety of time slots.
But there will be key differences for U.S. betting operations. For starters, soccer isn’t as popular in the American sports landscape as college athletics or the current pro offerings from the NFL and NBA, both of which will be active during the upcoming weeks, according to FanDuel CEO Amy Howe.
“The players just aren't as well known so sometimes that doesn't translate to as big of a betting activity,” Howe told Yahoo Finance.
The time change will also add an element of uncertainty to this year’s tournament. Qatar is eight hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, meaning that many of the tournament's matches will take place in the morning — in some cases before sunrise — on the East Coast.
Argentina, the most bet-on country to win the World Cup on Caesars (CZR), will kick off its first game at 5:00 a.m. ET next Tuesday.
“The honest answer is we'll see how it plays out,” Howe said. “The time zone differences do hurt you a little bit.”
But there will be plenty of advantages for betting platforms throughout the tournament. Ken Fuchs, the head of sports at Caesars, pointed out that time zone differences could work to sportsbooks' advantage at certain points. With popular teams like the U.S. and Brazil playing midday games during the Thanksgiving holiday week, sportsbooks will have added inventory during typically quiet hours for sports.
Soccer also provides a different value proposition for bettors, Aitken argued. With so many Americans not as versed in watching a full 90-minute game with limited scoring, bettors are likely to explore live bet options on predictions such as who will earn the next free kick or whether a goal will be scored in a five-minute period. PointsBet is anticipating those live markets could account for 80% of the betting throughout the tournament.
“Making it easier for a broader audience to engage with the sport by having these sorts of lightning bet propositions will definitely work,” Aitken said. “We've seen that with a sport like tennis.”
Fuchs argued that regardless of time zones and game days, the teams that advance will be the key indicators of sportsbook handles throughout the tournament. Just as bettors flock to Tiger Woods during golf tournaments no matter how big of an underdog he is, U.S. sports bettors are backing the home team during the World Cup.
At Caesars, the U.S. is the second-best team wagered to win the World Cup and holds 13% of the overall money wagered on a potential winner.
“Anytime that you have a big event like this, if the home team, the U.S., performs well, people will want to latch on to that and they will bet it,” Fuchs said. “It can be an incremental opportunity from a sportsbook standpoint.”
Josh is a reporter and producer for Yahoo Finance.