The UK betting and gaming industry is making the same old mistakes. Will it lose online slot machines in the same way it lost fixed odds betting terminals?
On Wednesday, the UK gambling industry was celebrating the launch of the Betting & Gaming Council (BGC). The day before they had £1.2 billion knocked off their collective share prices.
The BGC launch was covered by one national newspaper - The Guardian - with the newspaper labelling it “an attempt to avoid regulations being imposed”.
The report that drove markets to decimate the industry’s value was covered everywhere - by the BBC, The Financial Times, Bloomberg, The Independent, the Daily Mail and elsewhere. And yet, the report was written by anti-gambling fundamentalists and land-based casinos with a vested interest in making online gambling firms suffer.
There is something very wrong here.
There are so many failings and so many issues arising from these two incidents that it is difficult to know where to start but let’s begin with the Gambling Related Harm All-Party Parliamentary Group.
This is a group of backbench MPs with no formal power or influence. They are fundamentally opposed to gambling in any form. Like Brexit is to Brexiteers, they do not need reason or evidence to fuel their mania. Opposing gambling is like a religion to these people.
They dub the UK Gambling Commission “unfit for purpose” but did not discuss their findings with the regulator or with the responsible government department. These are politicians who have gone rogue.
Their report is funded by Derek Webb, a man who made millions from the land-based casino industry and who led the campaign against Fixed Odds Betting Terminals. It was also supported by Simon Thomas, the owner of London’s Hippodrome Casino, and also a vehement opponent of the FOBTs he believes threaten his livelihood. It was also supported by Bacta, the trade body for arcades and gaming machines.
It was not apparently, supported by the Gauselmann Group, despite the published report stating that it was. The German conglomerate’s name was removed in a second draft that was published online. Needless to say, the Group’s UK arm Blueprint Gaming (a supplier of online slots) was less than happy with this apparent mistake.
But Gauselmann was involved in the fight against FOBTs and its success in that campaign is coming back to bite it on the backside.
“Is it any surprise that this group is using the same attack lines against online casinos as it did in the fight against FOBTs, which are also seen as competition for land-based casinos,” asks gambling industry management consultant Steve Donoughue.
No, it is not. This attack was flagged well in advance. As former under-secretary of state for culture, media and sport Tracey Crouch announced the stakes cut for FOBTs, a queue of politicians lined up to ask her what was being done about online gambling. Crouch promised “to take a robust look at online gambling”.
Taking baby steps
The industry has taken some steps, of course. The majority of land-based casinos united with the bookmakers under the Betting & Gaming Council banner. Not Thomas at the Hippodrome Casino, clearly - despite his casino’s relationship with PokerStars, which runs a poker room in the Hippodrome.
In addition to his ludicrous hypocrisy, Thomas is blind to the fact that he has jumped into bed with the enemy. The likes of Carolyn Harris, Iain Duncan Smith and Ronnie Cowan are zealots.
If Thomas thinks that throwing mud at the online gambling industry will distract attention from the land-based industry, then he does not understand the long-term aims of these people.
“It is a religion for these people,” says Donoughue. “And anti-gambling now plays very well into the populist meme. You only need to look at Italy’s five star movement. It is no coincidence that this report came out at the beginning of an election campaign.”
Furthermore, if the government does start to pay attention it is not going to differentiate between one form of gambling and another. The stigma that Thomas and friends are whipping up will spread across the different sectors of the industry. Gauselmann is finding that out now. At some stage, Thomas will find it out too.
“One of the lessons of the FOBT debacle is that industry arguments help nobody,” says Donoughue.
Splash the cash
The Betting & Gaming Council is a good thing. It is just a shame that it could not get everybody on board. As we are seeing, the minority left out can be very vocal opponents.
Furthermore, the launch of the BGC was close to an utter disaster. The new group was launched without a chief executive officer. Former RGA chief Wes Hymes is conducting the role in an interim capacity but was conspicuously absent from the press release announcing the launch and would have been appointed two months ago if everybody had been happy with his nomination.
The fact that the BGC has failed to find another suitable candidate in time for its official launch is astonishing. But who would want to be the face of the betting and gambling industry right now?
“This is death by a thousand cuts,” says Donoughue.
First it was FOBTs, next it will be a ban on credit cards. Some of these actions are sensible. Some will be evidence-driven. But bit by bit, it all adds up to a narrative that gambling is wrong. The industry does not look an attractive long-term proposition.
The BGC needs somebody to stand up to the bookmakers and casinos and tell them what to do. The fact that they decided to launch the BGC with five wishy washy statements promising safer gambling shows that they need help.
Even we were asking if these statements were anything new. Preventing underage gambling? This was your big, splashy statement?! No wonder the press ignored it. (It might have been a good idea to invite the press too.)
Do something good. Not something you are expected to do.
GVC has its GVC Foundation. Bet365 has its bet365 Foundation. Forget it. Do something together. Buy a football pitch, a swimming pool or a library and slap “funded by UK Betting and Gaming” on the door. After a decade of Tory austerity, cash-starved councils and communities would bite your hand off for the investment.
There is a reason the Lottery does not get dragged into the problem gambling debate. It is because it has paid for hundreds of playgrounds and sports centres up and down the country.
This is the sort of gesture that is needed, not another promise about responsible gambling.
Don’t rely on politicians
While everyone is full of praise for BGC chair Brigid Simmonds, the BGC needs an executive in place that will put in place a team to fight the anti-gambling lobby.
The response from the industry this week was pathetic. GVC and William Hill muttered something about pushing players into the black market.
The industry needs to be rebutting the zealots and showing that it can be a force for good. That needs a programme of investment. It needs to buy people’s love, not make intellectual arguments.
If there was a shred of good news for the industry this week, it might have been Tom Watson’s (pictured) retirement. However, “gambling reform” came top of the list of things that he will continue to devote himself to.
Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn responded: “I know you’ll continue to take on the vested interests of the Murdoch empire, big sugar companies and the gambling industry.”
You can try voting Tory if you like but Boris “Fuck Business” Johnson will not resist a populist tide.
Politicians are busy trying to win hearts and minds. Just this week the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his counterpart on the opposition benches promised massive spending. The gambling industry must do likewise. It can afford it. It just needs to spend the money in the right places.