2019 Betting News and Gambling Industry Review – What Were The Major Stories
2019 has been something of a volatile year for the betting industry. There have been numerous ups and downs, including the introduction of the £2 maximum stake on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals as well as the Point Of Consumption tax being increased. There have been plenty of stories throughout the year that I’ve covered as best I could, which is why a summary piece felt like a good way to end the year.
There have been some good news stories, such as the person who woke up on the first of January 2019 £114.9 million richer thanks to their EuroMillions win, but mostly it has been a year in which the darker side of gambling has dominated the headlines. Bookmakers and other betting companies have responded as best they could to protect the most vulnerable, but that didn’t stop the headlines being written.
The first major news story of 2019 came about when a study revealed that football’s relationship with gambling had ‘dire consequences‘ for many people. It was claimed that many young men struggled to watch a football match without having a bet on it, whilst a majority of football teams were sponsored by a betting company. One young person revealed that he was ‘in debt to his eyeballs’ and had turned to drug dealing in an attempt to reclaim his losses.
As campaigners claimed that ‘people are dying‘ as a result of gambling addiction and wanted it classes as a public health issue, the Gambling Commission confirmed that it planned to introduce stricter ID checks in order to stop people that had self-excluded from cheating the system. It was seen as a failure of the GamStop system that had been brought in to allow people to exclude themselves from being able to place bets on line.
A big change was introduced to the industry in February when gambling adverts were banned from computer games and websites that were popular with children. The decision to introduce such a ban came in alongside gambling companies not being allowed to use celebrities or others in their adverts if they looked as though they could be under 25 years of age. One such example of an app was the I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! app, which was popular with young people.
The end of the month also saw the Remote Gambling Association and the Association Of British Bookmakers confirm that they were planning to merge in order to create a powerful new trade body for the industry. Given a working title of ‘Newco’, it eventually became the Betting & Gaming Council when it was launched in July. It was believed by some that the decision to create the new body came in the wake of the decision to introduce the £2 maximum stake on FOBTs as it showed the inability of the bodies to influence government policy.
The pressure on gambling bodies to do more to help problem gamblers increased in March with the release of a study that found that they were 15 times more likely to commit suicide. The image of bookmakers wasn’t helped by William Hill’s request to landlords that they cut their rent in half in order to allow them to cope with the hit that the reduction in Fixed Odds Betting Terminals’ maximum stake was going to cause them.
That cut was introduced at the start of April, with bookmakers using March to prepare people for the possibility that they’d have to close stores in order to cope with the loss of revenue. Indeed, it was only really Paddy Power that said that they didn’t expect to be that badly hit by the government’s decision. They felt that the report produced by the Association Of British Bookmakers had been discredited.
The month that the actual FOBT stake cut was introduced also saw bookmakers being accused of ‘cheating’ the new law by introducing high stakes roulette games on new machines. Paddy Power and Betfred were both given sanctions for the act, which Labour’s Tom Watson referred to as ‘FOBTs by the back door‘. It came at the same time as five gambling firms were punished by the Advertising Standards Authority for creating adverts that targeted children.
April also saw the government hit with criticism for failing to get behind the idea of a mandatory levy on betting firms that would be used to treat people that were addicted to gambling. The Chair of the Gambling Commission had said that the voluntary levy didn’t work, but Mims Davies, the Sports Minister, immediately said the opposite. Tory MP Richard Graham said that the gambling industry made £14 billion gross profit but only offers around £9 million to fund research and treatment.
May saw numerous gambling firms come under fire for the way in which they’d advertised their wares, including Paddy Power for using Ryan Giggs’ brother Rodhri in an advert about loyalty. William Hill were also punished for an advert about ‘friend zones’ that appeared on the Tinder dating app. That was part of the reason for an increased call for a mandatory levy to be imposed on the industry to help treat gambling addicts.
It wasn’t all negative stories for the industry in the month of May, however. Kenny Alexander, the Chief Executive of GVC, chose to take a pay cut of £150,000. The firm, which owns Ladbrokes and Coral, said that he’s decided to do so after receiving ‘feedback’ from its investors. Not that he was likely to be poor on the back of his decision, given that he still earned more than £19 million that year.
In June the Labour Party began to lay out its plans for the gambling industry, were it win the next election. The then-Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, had long been a proponent of tougher regulation on betting firms and he suggested that the appointment of an ombudsman would be a way of putting a stop to ‘unclear offers’ and the ‘lack of a framework’ that he felt had been a blight on the gambling industry for some time.
The leaders of GVC, Bet365, Paddy Power, William Hill and Sky Bet will have wondered what they needed to do to please some people after they used the month to suggest that they would pay a voluntary levy of £60 million over four years in order to help those with gambling addictions. The offer was criticised as not being enough and Ronnie Cowan of the Scottish National Party referred to it is a ‘bribe to appease campaigners’.
In July it was found that gambling companies were acting irresponsibly after a study revealed that they weren’t doing as much as they could to stop children from seeing adverts for their services online. The news came after it had been confirmed that the National Health Service was going to open a new clinic specifically aimed at helping young people with a gambling addiction.
The sense that betting firms weren’t doing enough to help the most vulnerable was given fresh evidence towards the end of the month when Ladbrokes Coral were forced to pay a penalty of £5.9 million for ‘systematic failings’. There were ‘a litany of transgressions’ carried out by the bookmakers between 2014 and 2017, resulting in them being issued with the one of the largest fines to date.
One of the most major changes to the manner in which gambling companies advertise was introduced from August, when it was agreed that there would be a whistle-to-whistle ban on adverts during televised sporting events. It kicked in from the start of that summers Ashes cricket tournament and has been used ever since. It stops gambling companies from advertising their wares between the start and end of a sporting event that is shown before the 9pm watershed.
It was no real wonder that betting firms spent the year trying to rehabilitate their image as much as possible, given that complaints about them were shown to have risen by 5,000% in five years. It might well also explain why William Hill was shown little sympathy after the company announced that it had suffered losses of £63.5 million because of the cut to FOBT’s maximum stake. It was a fall in sales of around 12%.
As the year went on and the likelihood of a No Deal Brexit under Boris Johnson’s government increased, Mecca Bingo and Grosvenor Casino’s owners, Rank, decided to try to avoid any disruption to its patrons by creating a menu that wouldn’t be affected by problems at Britain’s ports. It came not long before an inquest was asked to consider the role of the state in the suicide of a gambling addict, showing that the darker side of the industry’s problems were never far from the headlines.
The month of September was a busy one for betting firms, with GamStop finally given the approval of regulators to launch and betting firms told that they risked losing their licence if they didn’t sign up to it.
At the same time the bosses of the likes of Flutter Entertainment, William Hill and GVC Holdings angered the MPs on a cross-party group looking into gambling by pulling out of their meetings with them.
In October Flutter Entertainment, which was the new name of Paddy Power Betfair after it had decided to rebrand in order to try to break into the American market, made an offer to buy The Stars Group, which owned Sky Bet. The deal was worth £10 billion and would make the world’s largest online betting company in terms of revenue.
In the same month the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, said that there should be a clamp down on so-called ‘Loot Boxes’ in games such as FIFA. There was a debate over whether or not they should be thought of as gambling at the same time as the high-street bank NatWest began to partner with GamCare to offer problem gamblers help and advice in-store.
At the start of November a cross-party group of MPs that had been looking into the world of gambling related harm released its report. It suggested that major overhauls were necessary in the industry, including rolling out the £2 stake cut imposed on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals to slot machines and a ban on adding betting funds to accounts using credit cards. The release of the report resulted in the shares of gambling firms taking a big hit.
- Prevent underage gambling
- Increase treatment and support for gambling addicts
- Have a strong code for advertising and marketing
- Empower customers
- Promote safer gambling in general
This was also backed up buy major high street banks such as HSBC and Halifax confirming that it would allow customers to block their cards for use on gambling websites. Barclays induced a similar scheme earlier in the yeat.
The final month of the year was another one in which concerns over gambling dominated the headlines. As the Bet365 boss Denise Coates paid herself £323 million, the NHS released figures that showed that hospital admissions due to gambling had gone up to more than one per day. The north-west of the country was the worst hit, with London coming in second.
It came not long after a study found that half of adults in England gambled at some point during 2019. In his own review of the year the Chief Executive Officer of the Gambling Commission, Neil McArthur, confirmed that they had carried out more than 160 regulatory checks and criminal investigations.