UK betting faces bigger threats than losing its sport shirts

Industry fears the government’s review of gambling laws could introduce ‘existential’ changes

The long-awaited government review of Britain’s gambling laws is well and truly under way, with renewed warnings in recent days that the logos of betting firms are to be banned from the shirts of Premier League footballers and other sports stars.

As the Guardian has previously reported, the gambling industry is now facing the prospect of a sports sponsorship ban similar to that imposed on tobacco, a reform campaigners say is long overdue.

However, while speculation swirls around shirt sponsorship, more profound if less eye-catching reforms are being considered in a process that could herald a seismic upheaval of the regulatory landscape.

The 2005 Gambling Act – Blair-era legislation that currently governs the industry – dispelled the notion that gambling was a sordid habit practised behind beaded curtains, recasting it as a mainstream leisure activity.

Fifteen years on, after the iPhone put a casino in every pocket, calls for a rethink have mounted, borne on a tide of addiction horror stories and public distaste for gambling’s saturation of sport – football in particular.

The Betting and Gaming Council (BGC), the industry lobbying mouthpiece formed in 2018, has welcomed the moment of reckoning. According to one leading analyst, they’re not just making nice.

“The industry really means it because the wide-open uncertainty is really difficult to plan for,” said Alun Bowden, senior consultant at Eilers & Krejcik Gaming.

“There is a lot here that could have big impacts on revenues, share prices and jobs.”

The ban on sponsorship of football shirts is more eye-catching than a genuine threat to betting revenues, says Bowden.

Others measures could have far-reaching, even existential, consequences.

Web-based casino income has been rising consistently, up from £2.36bn in 2016 to £3.2bn in the year to March 2020. That is about 30% of the industry’s annual £10.8bn take (excluding the national lottery).

When an influential cross-party group of MPs called for a £2 limit on online casino stakes – to match curbs on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) – gambling shares plunged.

Any accompanying limits on how much gamblers can deposit or lose could also prove critical.

“It’s impossible to gauge the potential impact but it’s not improbable some operators could lose more than half their current gaming revenues if the limits are really harsh,” said Bowden.

Alongside the government review, the Gambling Commission has been examining affordability checks that could be drawn on when setting any deposit limits.

Another senior analyst, Dan Waugh of Regulus Partners, thinks such barriers could create enough friction in the betting process to crimp activity significantly.

“If it’s the case that consumers are required to produce bank statements or payslips in order to gamble above a certain amount, a significant number of people would not bother,” said Waugh.

Another potential hit could come from any move to dilute the potency of “in-play” betting.

Pioneered by Bet365, this allows punters to place swift, frequent bets on who will score the next goal or even win the next corner, while the game goes on. By 2015, it accounted for 80% of the company’s revenue.

With in-play at its heart, the soaraway UK football betting market has grown into a £1bn-a-year cash cow – nearly twice what the industry makes from horse racing.

In Spain, regulators have said that in-play bets can only be placed with funds that were already in the account when the game began, to prevent impulsive depositing.

Something similar, or tougher, could have major ramifications, according to Bowden.

“The concerns around in-play are reasonable, but you would hope the regulator will take the time to really understand the product and any risks to the customers before making changes,” he said.

UK gambling firms’ best weapon in the fight against tough regulation is to raise the spectre of a resulting rise in black market operators.

There is some irony in this given that many of those same firms operate in jurisdictions where gambling is not permitted, providing a market that is, if not black, charcoal grey.

But the risk of a UK black market is more than a paper tiger, according to some.

“Illegal offshore is a proper threat to bear in mind,” said one senior executive, who is otherwise broadly supportive of tougher regulation.

“You’ve got to be careful and reasonable in what you do. A £2 limit on table games [such as online roulette] would give you a problem with the black market.”

The underfunded and much-criticised regulator, the Gambling Commission, is likely to be given greater muscle to prevent this but it isn’t clear how effective it could be in practice.

With so much hanging in the balance, lobbying campaigns are ramping up. The industry, in particular, has some friends in high places.

BGC boss Michael Dugher is a pugnacious ex-Labour MP with a bulging phonebook of Westminster contacts.

His close friend, the former Labour deputy leader Tom Watson, was one of the most influential parliamentarians on gambling reform but took an advisory role with Paddy Power owner Flutter earlier this year, after resigning as an MP.

Meanwhile, the BGC recently started paying serving Tory MP Laurence Robertson £2,000 a month, ostensibly for advice on safer gambling. Colleague Philip Davies MP has pocketed £50,000 from Entain in advance of the review.

On the other side of the fence are campaign groups and MPs who favour tighter curbs on online gambling. The coalition of reformers continue to receive financial support from Derek Webb, the wealthy ex-professional poker player and casino game inventor.

His low-profile backing has sparked claims, as yet unsupported, of self-interested meddling by the casino industry.

Until a 16-week call for evidence ends in spring next year, the roulette wheel is still spinning and those seeking to influence the outcome can still lay their chips.

None of that mattered to Las Vegas casino operator MGM in its bid for Ladbrokes and Coral owner Entain, or to MGM’s Sin City rival Caesars Entertainment, which bought William Hill for £2.9bn last year.

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They have their eyes on the ongoing spread of legal sports betting across the US. The Californian market alone, yet to open up, would probably be bigger than the UK.

MGM could well make another tilt at Entain, once a six-month cooling-off period is over.

For gambling firms and their investors the cavalry is on its way, whether they stay independent or succumb to a bid. The UK may be cracking down but America is opening up, presenting a new world of opportunity. The house always wins.


Rob Davies

The GuardianTramp

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