How the U.S can learn from Europe’s betting industry

GIVEN THE IMMEDIATE cultural acceptance, rapid adoption in media and near ubiquity of advertisements, it’s hard to believe that American legal sports betting is only six years old.

Almost as soon as the floodgates opened, the United States proved to be an ideal breeding ground for the industry. Between major professional sports leagues and college sports programs, it makes sense that a large chunk of a highly competitive nation’s over 330 million citizens would be intrigued by wagering on sports.

Perhaps the excitement is a result of its unavailability for so long, but American sports betting owes much of its current climate to several hundred years of development across the pond.

“America managed to do 200 years of history in six years,” London-based betting industry veteran Matthew Trenhaile told ESPN.

In the United Kingdom, which hosts Saturday’s UEFA Champions League Final between Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid at London’s Wembley Stadium, sports betting was never truly illegal and has, therefore, always been a part of the sporting culture.

As Europe gears up for its biggest sports betting event of the year — the continent’s equivalent of the Super Bowl — it’s easy to see what the United States’ sports betting industry can learn from Europe amidst its own growing pains.

THERE’S NO DISCUSSION about sports betting in Europe without talking about soccer, the bar-none most-popular sport on the continent, and UEFA Champions League, the sport’s pinnacle club competition.

Across Europe, the sports betting industry had a market size of $33.75 billion in 2023, according to a report from Grand View Research. Within that, soccer accounts for approximately one third of the market share of sport, with the Champions League final routinely being the most-bet event of the year, per industry sources.

While sports betting has its place in all European countries, nowhere is it more popular than the United Kingdom, which “dominated” European sports betting industry revenue share at 34.6%, per the GVR report.

“How commonplace sports betting is in the U.K. is about as common as tailgating is in college football in the U.S.,” said Max Bichsel, EVP of North America for Group, an American-founded company that began its business overseas in the mid-2000s. “They’re borderline synonymous. You generally don’t talk about one without the other.”

The normalization of sports betting in the U.K. stretches back centuries, well before it became today’s multi-billion dollar industry. Although the practice was technically illegal at points in the country’s history — such as under the Unlawful Games Act 1541 — the restrictions were never heavily enforced, and the U.K. government began regulating sports betting in earnest since the early 20th century.

In those early days, per Trenhaile, runners would go door-to-door collecting fixed odds wagers for upcoming sporting events and then turn to a wealthy patron, such as a bar owner, to make a book. Parimutuel betting, the system wherein bettors bet against each other and that still operates American horse racing, mostly died out.

The early British systems were largely geared towards one sport in particular, horse racing, and would stay that way through World War II. At that point, soccer began emerging as a prominent professional sport and quickly “exploded” on the sports betting scene, per Trenhaile.

This eventually gave rise to betting shops, which to this day, adorn many street corners in British cities. While originally a great place for bettors to commune, the rise of internet betting in the mid-2000s has made these brick-and-mortar stores a relic of the past, and they are now largely occupied by exclusively horse racing bettors.

“British betting still has its heart in horse racing and fixed odds horse racing,” Trenhaile said. “The average odds, I think, of a favorite horse is 2-1, and many horses will be 10-1, 20-1, etc. So you’re going to lose a lot in that situation, and when you lose a lot and your predominant customer base that you’ve been marketing to is the working-class man with spare change in his pocket, the U.K. has been about betting a small amount to win a lot.”

Trenhaile and Bichsel both noted that the average stake size for U.K. bettors is notably smaller than for those in the U.S. It’s estimated around $10 and $20 in the former and $50 and $100 in the latter.

The rationale behind those numbers come down to a question of objective. In the United States, sports betting is largely marketed as a money-making opportunity, whereas in the U.K. it is very much understood to be a recreation. Bettors will very often throw a small amount of money on a soccer match for entertainment’s sake, giving rise to the popular phrase “have a flutter” — the namesake for Flutter, one of the world’s most prominent multinational sports betting companies.

The legacy of horse racing and the largely binary results of soccer matches keep this dynamic alive. For example, Saturday’s showdown between Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid sees the latter as a massive -375 favorite to lift the trophy over the former’s +240 odds, per ESPN BET. Even so, Borussia Dortmund is attracting the majority of bets, according to American sportsbooks.

Underdogs, therefore, are more appealing in European soccer betting, which, in the spirit of horse racing, places much more emphasis on the idea of betting a little to win a lot. It also places much less emphasis on player prop betting due to the relative lack of bettable statistics, as opposed to American sports that have much more of a superstar effect.

Nowhere was that underdog spirit more evident than with Leicester City’s Premier League winning run in 2015-16. The historically second-rate club was an astounding 5,000-1 underdog to win the league that season, costing U.K. sportsbooks nearly $15 million.

“If you think of the Champions League and the Super Bowl as the pinnacle of the team-based competitions, I find it interesting how those two narratives would be very different and the betting handle across markets would be very different,” Trenhaile said. “‘Mahomes passing yards’ will be one of the top three betting markets in the Super Bowl, whereas ‘whoever to be the first goal scorer’ will not be in the top seven betting markets for the Champions League Final.”

FOR ALL OF their differences, the United States and United Kingdom also share common problems that plague the sports betting industry as a whole.

The first is with advertising, a common complaint among American consumers over the past few years of legalization. Sportsbook billboards adorn city streets and highways, social media peddles targeted ads and, of course, television spots during commercial breaks. The latter issue became so prominent that the NCAA banned sportsbook commercials during NCAA basketball tournament games ahead of the 2022 event.

In the U.K., with its general lack of TV commercials during matches, the most preeminent way to advertise for sportsbooks became shirt sponsorships. During the 2022-23 English Premier League season, eight of the 20 clubs sported sportsbooks as their main sponsor, and several of those books were from outside of the U.K., including many in Asia.

Bichsel points out that this practice also inherently markets sports betting to impressionable sports fans.

“If a young boy wants to buy the kit of his favorite player, it’s probably going to have a sports betting ad already on it,” he said.

For all of these reasons, the EPL decided to ban sportsbook shirt-front sponsors beginning with the 2026-27 season.

While changes are being made in the advertising space, a troubling aspect of the industry that may not ever truly resolve itself are scandals involving integrity.

Americans are all too familiar with this within the legal era with names like Jontay Porter, Ippei Mizuhara and Calvin Ridley. It’s called the integrity of sports into question, and the leagues have responded with significant punishments. But the reality, if history is to be believed, is that the scandals will just keep coming.

In 2010, several Pakistani cricket players were banned from the sport and jailed as a result of their “spot fixing” during their team’s tour of England. Much more recently, West Ham midfielder Lucas Paquetá was charged by England’s Football Association with violations of its betting rules. These incidents come after decades of trying to prevent this type of behavior.

“It comes down to how well do you think you can police greed?” Bichsel said. “It’s no different than Wall Street or other industries or politics. Even if someone has the opportunity where they think they can take advantage of something, inevitably not everyone will take advantage of it, but someone will.

“So I don’t suspect these scandals will stop, but I think the industry is getting much better at identifying them.”

Indeed, American sportsbooks and governments have begun cracking down on these types of scandals, but realizing that they may never stop completely is one of the lessons the country can learn from its parent nation.

American integrity already had success in the case of the Alabama baseball team, as the bad actors in that case were swiftly dealt with — only for an investigation into the Temple men’s basketball to be opened a month later.

Americans may also learn to view sports betting as an entertainment medium, rather than a money-making enterprise.

“What happened is that we slowly but surely realized that the demand was always for lottery style products. Bet a little, win a lot.” Trenhaile said.

Perhaps the American market is already starting to mirror the British one: BetMGM, FanDuel and ESPN BET all report significant year-over-year increases in Champions League handle ahead of Saturday’s game.

“Three days before the final, we’ve already eclipsed the number of bets we took on all of last year’s Champions League tournament, which certainly speaks to the growing popularity of soccer on our platform,” said ESPN BET head of sportsbook Patrick Jay. “Whether it’s the World Cup, Champions League, or upcoming Euros and Copa America, we’re seeing significant interest from our users, and have built out our product to meet the demand.”

As Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid prepare to put on a show for the biggest European sports betting event of the year, America will be watching with interest, too.