The likes of Bovada and BetOnline still reign in US sports betting

Super Bowl 54 Highlights The Battle Of Legal US Sportsbooks Vs. Offshore Betting

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Will Kansas City Chiefs’ coach Andy Reid eat a cheeseburger during coverage of the Super Bowl?

How long will it take Demi Lovato to sing the National Anthem?

How many TikToks will Patrick Mahomes’ brother post?

All of these questions have gone somewhat viral and have managed to cut through in the frenzy of media coverage surrounding Sunday’s Super Bowl. Some sportsbooks have laid odds on  these events.

But here’s the thing many don’t realize as these odds whiz around the internet: They almost universally come from offshore sportsbooks like Bovada, BetOnline or others that serve American bettors illegally.

And it underscores the wider dynamic for US sports betting that has developed in the almost two years since the federal ban was struck down. Namely, that while legal US sports betting is expanding, it’s also a pretty good time to be an offshore sportsbook. And differentiating yourself as a sportsbook that’s licensed and regulated in the US is not necessarily easy to do.

Here’s a look at where offshore sportsbooks are beating US legal sportsbooks:

Offshore sportsbooks have few limits

Some sort of online sports betting is legal in nine states in the US.

Want to guess how many states offshore sportsbooks serve? The answer is way more than nine.

Here is the first reason it’s difficult for legal books to compete with their offshore counterparts: They are not hindered nearly as much by US laws.

They even get the term “offshore” sportsbook applied to them instead of illegal sportsbook. The designation of “offshore” probably sounds slightly strange to a reader or listener but doesn’t indicate anything about its legal status to the average American.

This column isn’t meant to be a legal treatise on offshore sportsbooks, but their claim of “legality” generally hinges on the ideas that 1. It’s not illegal for Americans to place bets offshore and 2. sportsbooks are licensed in their home country (like Costa Rica or Antigua).

In any event, neither of those facts means that offshore sportsbooks are coming even close to abiding by a variety of state or federal laws when it comes to sports gambling. An online sportsbook following the laws in one country doesn’t mean you can do whatever you in the rest of the world. And despite those laws, federal authorities are either disinterested in stopping offshore betting operations or are powerless to do so.

All of that adds up to a massive advantage for the offshore industry. They don’t have to

  • Wait for a state to pass a new law.
  • Get a license to operate.
  • Pay licensing fees or state and federal taxes.
  • Deal with the complicated web of regulations around the country.

Right now, no legal US operator serves more than a handful of states.

Offshore sportsbooks crush earned media

Whenever I see a news story about the odds of something happening in sports betting, it’s almost always emanating from an offshore book.

That’s a credit to the offshore industry: They’re extremely good at getting this information in the US media’s hands. I also can’t tell you how many times I have seen offshore sportsbooks referred to as “Las Vegas,” when they have absolutely nothing to do with Las Vegas. (Bovada uses the “.lv” domain from Latvia that is clearly meant to confuse people on that front.)

It’s particularly true around the Super Bowl, as the media laps up some of the crazy bets that offshore books offer and legal books cannot. (You can bet on the coin toss, the color of the Gatorade bath after the game and some other slightly crazy stuff in a few states. Betting on the length of the anthem is not sanctioned anywhere in the US, yet.)

Here’s The Daily Show, for instance, not really making any effort to differentiate between the legal and offshore industries:

In any event, offshore sportsbooks are winning the battle in the press, using both hustle and existing momentum.

There’s no real difference between offshore and legal sportsbooks in Google

Run an internet search for “sports betting,” and here’s what I get:

  • Four offshore sportsbook sites
  • A site that reviews offshore sportsbooks
  • The Wikipedia entry for “sports betting.”
  • A legal US sportsbook (FanDuel)
  • Our sister site, Legal Sports Report.

That’s some hefty SEO juice, which exists because the offshore books have been doing this for decades, in some cases.

In any event, if you’re a user turning to the internet for information about what’s legal and what’s not, you’re going to come up with varying opinions.

Let’s try another search, this time “Legal US sportsbooks.” Here’s what you get when you go to the first result:

“ is our Fall 2019 featured US betting site. Exclusive to the US market they accept players from 45 US states – excluding only Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey and New York for legal reasons. With a history dating back to 1994 they have a great track record.”

Sounds plenty legit, right? Anyway, being a consumer and figuring out the difference between regulated and offshore books is not always easy. And it’s difficult for US sportsbooks and sites to win that battle in the short term.

So how will things change for legal US sportsbooks?

All of this might sound slightly hopeless when you look at it en masse.

But here’s the thing: US sports betting outside of Nevada has existed only since the spring of 2018. We are in the very early days of all this, although it feels like everything has been happening at a breakneck speed.

  • Eventually, more states will open up to legal online betting (although never as many as the offshore books serve). And sportsbooks will be serving perhaps dozens of states.
  • Legal sportsbooks will get better at becoming engrained in the US media, both by brute force and organically.
  • The search engine issue is a tougher nut to crack, but even that will get better in time.

But for now, the American Gaming Association estimates that $7 billion will be bet on the game, and only a fraction of that will come at legal US books.

This weekend people are betting on Super Bowl 54, it’s clear who’s winning the US sports betting battle. But it’s a probably matter of time before that changes.

- Dustin Gouker has been a sports journalist for more than 15 years, working as a reporter, editor and designer -- including stops at The Washington Post and the D.C. Examiner. He has played poker recreationally for his entire adult life and has written about poker since 2008.
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