In most years, the question is reserved for the sports page on a slow news day, but every four years the inquiry is made repeatedly and breathlessly:
Will soccer ever catch on in the United States as it has around the rest of the world?
Television broadcasts of the recently concluded FIFA World Cup from Brazil scored its largest American audience ever, and news outlets large and small caught the football fever.
The nation’s newspapers were riddled with features on adoring fans and their willingness to get up at any hour, go to their local tavern, drink steins of beer and watch their favorite team in action. After reading several of the stories, I suspected many of those fans adored their beer drinking almost as much as their favorite team.
Unlike past World Cups, this time it didn’t seem to matter a great deal that the U.S. team was driven from the pitch long before the finals.
With all that said, I’d argue that the media interest and the high TV ratings numbers aren’t the clearest signs that soccer is gaining in popularity in the United States.
The legal and illegal wagering on the games is.
Increased betting in Las Vegas sports books is a better indicator than any fan survey about the growth of the love of the sport. It’s one thing to take little Tommy and Mandy to soccer practice; it’s quite another to invest a C-note on a parlay pitting teams from countries you need 45 minutes to find on a map.
A soccer parlay? Amazing.
Something tells me Vinny Magliulo can hardly believe it himself. Now the vice president of Las Vegas Dissemination Co., the former sports book director at Caesars Palace and The Mirage and with gaming legend Michael Gaughan. Like most bookmakers, he was raised on the gambling staples of college and pro football and basketball. In summer, the grinders and hunch players worked the baseball box scores. Later in the year, three guys from Canada bet hockey.
Not in a million years — until recently, that is.
ESPN’s televised coverage and the fact the games were live and most were on at a decent hour really helped. But you only had to walk through a local sports book to see the increased interest in the World Cup.
“Television coverage and betting go hand in hand,” he says. “I have to commend the folks at ESPN. They showed every game, and they showed them in a time frame that was conducive to people watching. … The games were spaced in such a way where people had time to view them and bet them.”
As interest has increased, so have the options available at most sports books. Propositions and game-in-progress betting, for instance. And, of course, those ubiquitous parlays.
Although he tracks the growth in betting on the games back to 1994, 2014 saw a substantial bump.
“All indications are this was definitely the highest-handled World Cup that we’ve ever seen here,” Magliulo says.
Of course, there’s another sign that could be further proof interest in soccer is rising: allegations that surfaced this week accusing eight people of operating a multimillion-dollar sports betting business out of Caesars Palace that specialized in — you guessed it — taking big international action on the World Cup. The FBI is working with the U.S. Attorney’s office on the case, which allegedly involves at least one character connected to a Chinese Triad family.
On the legitimate side, savvy bet shoppers found value in varying prices at different sports books, and Magliulo says the industry expects to handle increasing numbers on games involving the top European leagues and Major League Soccer in the United States. It’s not just a fad anymore.
It won’t rival the feverish pace of the World Cup, and it won’t knock out the NFL any time soon, but the longtime sportsman says it puts a little more steam in a slow time of year.
“I think soccer has a great footing, and I think we’ll see it expand,” Magliulo says. “It’s in the summertime, where we needed another opportunity to wager besides horse racing and baseball.”
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.