Just How Important is the Olympics to US Sportsbooks?
Just How Important is the Olympics to US Sportsbooks?
The Olympic rings is displayed near the National Stadium in Tokio. Photo by Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP

It is no secret that the success of the US sportsbooks is tethered to the presence of major, marquee sporting events. The sporting world is on the cusp of one such event, the Olympics, which has the potential to be the event that snaps the US legal wagering scene out of a seasonal slump happening now in every jurisdiction in the country.

The festivities kick off July 23, 2021, and should, in theory, bring with it an increase in Olympic betting interest. The Olympics will treat bettors to 16-day of riveting sporting events with over 10,000 athletes from more than 200 countries competing in 33 different sports — most of which have betting odds associated with them.

With the impending excitement, there are a number of factors that have forced sportsbooks to temper their expectations that a spike in betting activity will result from Tokyo 2020. On the one hand, it will be the first Olympics that bettors outside of Nevada will get a chance to legally wager on the once-every-four-year event. On the other hand, a lack of familiarity with the athletes involved and in some cases the events being run will likely be a bigger factor than the spectacle itself.

Sam Panayotovich, sports betting analyst for FOX Sports, on Tokyo 2020 said: “It’ll be the largest handle for the Olympics we’ve ever seen.” What exactly that means is anyone’s guess.

The Biggest Headwind

Outside of perhaps the Olympic Men’s Basketball team, there won’t be a whole lot of name recognition for the average American bettor. Americans love a good story but likely won’t be familiar with the trials and tribulations of the majority of competing athletes prior to arriving in Tokyo.

Sam Panayotovich said “uneducated bets” will likely dominate whatever betting happens to take place. It speaks to the lack of familiarity potential bettors will have with the athletes they are betting on. In that case, sportsbooks will have an edge and could scare potential bettors away early in the Olympic fortnight.

“There are gonna be a lot of uneducated bets. I think the problem on a lot of Olympic betting is people don’t do a lot of homework. You can draw a correlation between the handle for the Euro Cup. You ask the average Euro Cup bettor to name three people on a [country’s team] and they can’t do it. It’s more about having something they can bet on than something they can win on. My advice to a bettor is to please do your homework, because you can slide down a really slippery slope with these bets.”

More of a Watching Event

Until this Olympic cycle, betting on the event had been illegal in all but Nevada. Nobody is accustomed to wagering on the Olympics like they are the Super Bowl or March Madness which rival the Olympics in terms of “spectacle-value”. The chore for sportsbooks will be to take the Olympics past a viewing-only extravaganza and into one that bettors take an interest in.

According to Jay Kornegay, executive vice president of the Westgate SuperBook is that “Going back, Olympic betting was more of a watching event than a wagering event. [American bettors] don’t really know the athletes that well. The team sports will get some attention, but it’s still very light when you compare it to our regular games — hockey, basketball, our major sports that we take wagers on.”

Tokyo Time

Real-time betting on the Olympics is going to be a difficult task especially for those in North America. A 13-hour time difference between Tokyo and the US East Coast is going to make it sometimes unreasonable to expect bettors, who generally like to watch the events they bet on, to throw down on their favorite event, especially if the event takes place while they are sleeping or prepping for work.

Robert Kowalski, a Nevada sportsbook operator put it this way: “The fact that it’s in Tokyo, it turns the day completely upside down.” New York bettors for instance may not be willing to wake up for an event that takes place at 3 PM Tokyo time. It translates to 4 AM East Coast time.

Events That Should Pique Bettors’ Interest

Despite the potential roadblocks for a robust Olympic betting market, there are a few events that should pique the interest of US bettors. The biggest is of course Men’s Basketball – and that event has become more intriguing with the Men’s teams’ struggles ahead of the tournament. “USA Men’s Basketball will naturally be gigantic,” said Bill Knauf, vice president of operations at Monmouth Park in New Jersey.

Betting on the country that will win the most medals during the 16-day event should generate some interest as well as some of the marquee Track & Field events. Gymnastics and the throng of prop betting opportunities could also provide a spark for sportsbooks operating in the US market.

In the end, any marquee sporting event, in theory, should lead to an increase in betting activity. It remains to be seen what the first betable Olympics for the 21 new betting states plus Washington DC will bring to the US legal wagering scene. Sportsbooks are working hard to promote the Olympics and will get to see the fruit of their labors in less than two weeks.

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