Across the Pond and Beyond: A Look Back at How 2018’s World Cup Left UK and Global Bookmakers in the Red and the Black

Posted on: December 26, 2018, 06:00h. 

Last updated on: December 13, 2018, 02:48h.

While Americans have warmed to soccer over the past couple decades, the level of interest in the United States is still low when compared to most countries around the world. Never is that clearer than during the World Cup, during which time the tournament dominates headlines across the globe — with nations that have teams competing in the event at the top of the heap.

World Cup betting bookmakers
France’s Kylian Mbappe (left) and Croatia’s Domagoj Vida (right) battle for the ball during the final of the 2018 World Cup. (Image: Getty)

That means big business for international bookmakers, whose fortunes can rise and fall on the results of critical World Cup matches. According to FIFA, sportsbooks, betting shops, and gambling websites took in about $155 billion in wagers during the 2018 tournament. That was generally good news for gaming firms in the UK and beyond, though not everyone reaped the same rewards.

Record Cup Revenues Boost Bottom Lines

Firms like Paddy Power Betfair reported increased profits that were directly linked to the tournament, while national regulators said that record amounts were wagered in many countries, including France and the UK.

One of the factors that may have made this year’s events so profitable for bookies was Croatia’s exciting run to the finals. FIFA reported that Croatia had the largest average betting turnover per match, which would suggest that the team winning would have taken a lot of money from oddsmakers.

But most bettors wager on the result after 90 minutes, and Croatia’s three knockout wins came in penalties or extra time — meaning that for betting purposes, they would be considered draws.

England Gets the Fever

The Three Lions had their own magical run in the tournament, making it all the way to the semifinals before losing to Croatia. The team’s excellent group stage performance not only generated plenty of hype, but also sent punters to the betting shops in record numbers.

Overall, more than $3.2 billion was wagered on the World Cup in in the UK, more than doubling the amount British gamblers put down on the competition in 2014.

But not everyone was excited by the sudden uptick in betting interest. Authorities in the UK received a deluge of complaints about the frequency of advertising during World Cup matches, including many ads that encouraged viewers to make in-game bets — a type of promotion that came close to violating the legal standards for gambling TV spots in the nation.

At least one UK bookmaker also found themselves on the wrong end of a very bad bet. Sporting Index offered a bet on the number of disallowed goals throughout the tournament, setting the initial line at 22.5. But while VAR failed to produce the number of changed calls the oddsmakers expected, the betting firm left the line exactly where it was even after 20 games had been played.

That allowed Simon Cawkwell to put in a bet with a massive advantage over the bookie. The punter put himself in line to win about $2,600 for every goal short of 22.5 that was disallowed, a move that ultimately saw him earn about $40,000 with virtually no risk.

Governments Crack Down on Illegal Betting

While regulated betting markets did great during the 2018 World Cup, not every country allows for wagering on sports. In those nations, gamblers instead turned to illegal bookies, while leaders did their best to root out these underground operations.

In China, a government crackdown forced the closure of hundreds of sports betting websites before the tournament began, with tens of thousands of accounts that were related to betting on the World Cup also being deleted by mobile messaging platform WeChat.

Chinese police also busted a $1.5 billion cryptocurrency gambling operation just before the tournament final.

Officials in other Asian jurisdictions were just as busy trying to keep up with illicit betting rings. In Hong Kong, police seized millions in bets during a sting that led to the arrest of 45 people, while authorities in Thailand said that 3,000 people had been arrested in the first five days of the tournament alone, including not only bookies and bettors, but also models who helped promote the illegal activities.