With the biggest sporting event in the world still more than six months away, online sports books are clamoring to get their piece of the action.
Soccer's World Cup always attracts the attention of the world media and sports fans, but the 2002 event could reach an all-time high.
"We are well aware that the World Cup is the biggest betting event of all. We will be planning our moves accordingly."
For the first time in the history of the World Cup, FIFA, the governing and organizational body for the event, is staging the month-long tournament in Asia; Japan and South Korea are co-hosting to the event. Add in China as one of the 32 competing nations and interest on the world's most populated continent has consumer-based companies chomping at the bit to get their brands in front of a new audience.
The draw for the tournament was announced Saturday. Teams were put into eight different groups of four, and bettors are already putting down money on who they think will become the next world champion. Argentina, in the same group with England, Sweden and Nigeria, is the early favorite to win.
Bookmakers who have already set up Internet sites to take bets are looking at the World Cup as a golden opportunity to not only make a good profit, but also spread their brand to corners of the world which had been closed to them before.
"The whole tournament is a great challenge and a great opportunity for us," Andy Clifton of Ladbrokes said. "We are in the middle of putting our strategy together for it right now. We will be giving it the full works."
One of Ladbrokes' biggest competitors in the United Kingdom, William Hill, is also focusing a great deal of energy on the World Cup.
"We are well aware that the World Cup is the biggest betting event of all," Graham Sharpe, the company's press officer, said. "We will be planning our moves accordingly."
No company may have a better understanding of the significance of the World Cup than William Hill.
The bookmaker launched its first Internet site in connection with the 1998 World Cup. It was the first major
land-based bookmaker to turn to the Web, and company officials were confident that the Internet would only be suited for betting on soccer.
"That was why we set up the site in 1998," Sharpe said. "Since then, obviously, it has exploded. Football is still a very big part of the business, but we obviously do a great deal of business on the other sporting events and horseracing. It is now a vital part of our business."
With the France World Cup, Sharpe said, William Hill turned over nearly £40 million .
"We hope to exceed the turnover we saw from the last World Cup," he said. "With the event being every four years that is almost an automatic given. You would be very disappointed if the progression didn't see an increase."
According to The River City Gambler Monitor, a newly published market research report on Internet gamblers, Sportsbook.com has the highest site awareness for Internet sports books among Asian gamblers. Mark Blandford, head of Sportsbook.com's parent company, Sportingbet.com, said that doesn't diminish his company's need to market itself aggressively during the World Cup.
"Soccer is the world's betting sport," he said. "As a company with a global strategy we have been planning for the World Cup for some time."
Blandford's company currently has three distribution deals in Asia lined up, and he said there are more in the works.
"There is a propensity for Asians to gamble, and this No. 1 sporting event is taking place in their time zone."
"There is a propensity for Asians to gamble, and this No. 1 sporting event is taking place in their time zone," he said.
While Blandford's sites have been able to penetrate the Asian market, other operators haven't been so lucky. He said is a unique situation with regulatory standards ranging from one extreme to the other, language barriers and currency issues stopping many from effectively getting into the market. He admitted the World Cup can open some doors for brands, but companies can't just decide to enter the region.
"It is not the kind of market that you can just move into over night," he said. "It has some real unique barriers to entry."
Like Blandford, Sharpe agrees that William Hill must also look outside the United Kingdom for sports betting customers to survive in today's global economy.
"We now consider ourselves to be worldwide bookmakers by the Internet and we have a huge number of clients in Asia," he said. "We are well aware that this will be an opportunity second-to-none to widen the access to our facilities for people who are only just becoming aware of our existence. At the same time we need to consolidate our core business with our domestic and long standing clients, so we will be fighting the World Cup battle on many fronts."
Ladbrokes, according to Clifton, has also seen a rise in turnover from customer accounts based half way around the world from London.
"In terms of soccer betting we get more business from the Far East than we do anywhere else as far as the Internet is concerned," he said. "With the World Cup being held there and the matches at times which are convenient for the Far East customer to watch them and have a bet on them, it will be huge for us."
Clifton and his colleagues agree that the worse thing that could happen to bookmakers this summer is a repeat of the Euro 2000 tournament. During the European Championships many sports books took a major hit as many of the favorite teams advanced deep into the tournament. Coral Eurobet is on record for having lost £6 million.
"We just about broke even which was a bad result for us," Clifton said, "but some books lost an awful lot of money. So, a bad result for the World Cup would be for us to break even because there is so much possibility."
Currently the bets on the World Cup are the futures bets relating to who will win the tournament. Most agree the action won't heat up until the first ball is kicked when defending champion France takes on Senegal on May 31.
"We have seen some massive bets struck on the games themselves in the past," Sharpe said, "like £100,000 and more on one game. We fully expect those to be exceeded this time around."
For many operators Blandford thinks the key will be not so much how much turnover they get during the World Cup, but their ability to keep those customers coming back.
"Our strategy is two-fold," he said. "Yes, we will enjoy the spike in activity while the event is going on, but we see this level of interest as a potential for customer acquisition. Once we have them in our database we will continue to re-market them in the future."
If there is a negative to having the World Cup in Asia it is that starting times for many matches will be in the middle of the night, early morning or midday in Europe and America.
But Sharpe feels the positives far outweigh the negatives.
"It is a double-edged sword really," he said. "You get to tap into the Asian market, but the times aren't the most ideal for betting in Europe and South America. But we have a chance to expand our Asian market, and that is an opportunity we will not be spurning."