Recent years have seen a growing number of international soccer stars enter the world of gambling. It may seem strange that soccer players, who specialize in a sport primarily dependent upon skill, should be attracted to a game with a much bigger luck factor. Nonetheless, the thrill of poker certainly seems to tempt the biggest names in soccer – notable examples being Ronaldo, Neymar Jr and Suarez. Teaming up with high-profile poker brands such as PokerStars and 888Poker, these soccer pros are legitimizing the nature of online poker by publicly endorsing what has historically been considered something of a taboo. Growing longer each year; the list of soccer-stars-turned-poker-pros is impossible to ignore.
As opposed to team sports, poker gives athletes the opportunity to focus on themselves, develop their intuition and compete without the need to physically exert themselves. It’s the obvious card game of choice for high-earners, and an excellent retirement hobby for ex-sports stars looking to ease back on physical exercise. All things considered, it’s in fact not at all confusing that so many soccer stars are trying their hand at poker. England has Teddy Sheringham, Denmark has Jan Vang Sorenson and Spain has Gerard Pique. But is a similar trend emerging in the US?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘poker mania’ has yet to effect the big stars in American soccer. Though there are a few notable poker players who have enjoyed brief flings with professional soccer, none of them are on par with stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo or Tomas Brolin. So why is it that the soccer community of South America and Europe are playing poker like it’s the next big thing whilst the US, birthplace to the famous card game, sees no such trend amongst its best soccer stars?
Whilst online betting is so normalized in the UK that it’s now a common pastime even for middle-aged mothers, gambling remains a dark and unknown subject of stigma in the US. The government’s unclear laws surrounding online casino portals, along with gambling’s reputation as a back-room activity has dissuaded prominent figures from touching poker. Soccer players are an inspiration to millions of fans and must work hard to maintain their public image if they are to maximise their career. For American soccer players, joining clubs such as PokerStars is a riskier choice of endorsement than it is for European stars, for whom professional gambling is seen more as a glamorous luxury than a shameful addiction.
Is the refusal to normalize online gambling an example of the US’ triumphant moral standards, or of its backward and restraining attitude toward something which the rest of the world has come to accept? The question is debatable, but in many ways irrelevant considering how inevitable the future of online poker now appears. As more countries ease their gambling laws, and as poker is subsequently further glamorized by prominent figures such as soccer pros, the US will feel pressured to follow along similar lines. The fact is that soccer has a history of poker-loving players, suggesting athletes get a similar thrill out of poker as they do out of soccer. Indeed, the line between ‘skill sport’ and ‘luck sport’ has been blurred more than ever before, with games such as ‘fantasy soccer’ gaining in popularity, and with most online casinos offering free advice and courses on how to improve playing technique and strategy. Before long, ‘poker mania’ will take over US soccer just like it has done to soccer across the world, or else American players are going to start feeling left out as their international counterparts are throwing poker parties they’re not invited to. A few years from now, we’ll be seeing poker logos advertised on the shirts of US players during tournaments like the Copa America. At the same time, prominent US soccer stars will eventually feel safer in admitting they enjoy the occasional gamble. For better or worse, the soccer-poker relationship will change the nature of both industries in the US, as it continues to develop through partnerships, promotional campaigns and mutual interests.