What Happened To These Famous Old Betting Names?
In the world of betting, some companies make a name for themselves early doors but then fade away, either because they didn’t adapt to the changing times quickly enough or else because they were bought out by a rival. Given bookmakers were essentially created by Harry Ogden in 1795, it’s not exactly a surprise that many of them have since disappeared altogether. Whether it be the competitiveness of the industry or the constant legislation put on them, betting companies have struggled to survive.
Even some of the well-known high street bookmakers of yore have moved online, giving up the cost of maintaining shops and using the money to improve the speed with which you can access their websites. It’s been difficult for bookies to cope with the changes forced upon them by the likes of the Gaming Act of 1845 and the Betting & Gaming Act in 1960, even if the latter was the thing that legalised high street betting shops. On this page, we’ll explore what happened to some of those once-famous names.
A brand that started out in 1973, Stan James was created by Steve Fisher and James Holder. Based in Wantage in Oxfordshire, they needed to come up with a name for their new company and settled on a mixture of Steve’s name and his wife Anne, giving them Stan, then James from James Holder. It gradually built up a reputation as being a reliable and fair bookmaker, advertising in the likes of the Racing Post and Sporting Life, using teletext to offer live odds on events shown on Sky Sports.
Teletext was never the quickest of services, though pages still somehow managed to move on before you’d got the information from them that you needed. Even so, with more than 30 pages of odds on offer, Stan James’ popularity grew and grew. It allowed them to move out of the Oxfordshire and Berkshire regions where they were based and earn some name recognition. Soon, shops began to open around the country as well as in some European countries like Spain and Germany.
As you can imagine, the company’s use of Teletext and telephone betting meant that they were seen as a forward-thinking enterprise that was therefore well placed to move into the online sphere. The move online went relatively smoothly when StanJames.com was launched in 1997, becoming one of the first online betting sites. Ten years later, the company paid £5.75 million to buy Betdirect from 32Red, with the two businesses being successfully merged in 2009.
The company also made moves to expand into Austria into 2009, expanding further when Stan James bought the shops of the bankrupt Pagebet a year later. Sponsorship of events such as the World Matchplay Darts, the King George Chase and the Cheltenham Festival’s Champion Hurdle ensure that Stan James became a household name. Soon, Stan James Stan James had users in more than 120 countries around the world, making it a well-performing website and high street bookmaker.
When a company is doing well in the gambling world, it doesn’t take long for a bigger fish to begin circling. That’s what happened to Stan James, whose online presence caught the attention of Unibet. In 2015, Unibet made an offer of £19 million for the online portion of the Stan James business, believing that it had the ability to grow it substantially. The Stan James shops remained on the high street, using some of the money from the sale to Unibet to buy 37 locations from Coral and Ladbrokes.
The problem for Stan James was that the sale of the online presence to Unibet including the brand name. They might have expanded on the high street, but they soon began to need a rebrand to abide by the terms and conditions of the sale. There were around 80 Stan James shops at the time, costing more than £1 million to rebrand them as Megabet. At the same time, the government’s decision to limit the maximum stake payable on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals reduced how much money they could bring in.
In October of 2017, Unibet confirmed that all Stan James customers would be migrated over to Unibet, meaning that the Stan James site itself could be closed down. The high street shops, meanwhile, began to feel the effects of the FOBT stake cut and also began to shutdown. At the time of writing, there are still a number of Megabet shops in operation around the country. Stan James might not be around any more as a brand, but they’re still there if you know what you’re looking for.
There was a time when you could barely turn on a sporting event without seeing advertising for Blue Square. It was created out of the Press Association and the Mirror Group’s ownership of Sportinglife, which had introduced a new part of its website called BETonline. It was a novel concept when it was launched in July of 1998 and within less than a year it had been upgraded to have its own website, which welcomed customers and offered them the chance to place bets on sporting events.
In July of 1999, BETonline merged with Blue Square, which had been operating as an interactive gaming business at the time. The new company went under the Blue Square banner, having a licence to operate from both the Alderney Gambling Control Commission and the United Kingdom Gambling Commission. The sites initial focus was on sports betting, but soon after launch it began to offer online poker as well as casino-style gaming to its customers, broadening its appeal.
As with so many other betting companies, a bigger site soon noticed its success and in 2003 the Rank Group paid £65 million to add Blue Square to the likes of Mecca Bingo and Grosvenor Casino in its brand. In the years that followed, the Rank Group began to sponsor events via Blue Square, with the likes of the Greyhound Derby and the English National League coming under its auspices. The latter became the Blue Square Premier, the Blue Square North and the Blue Square South for a time as a result.
In 2008, Mark Jones, the former Chief Executive of lastminute.com, was brought in as Blue Square’s new Managing Director, with the aim of further expanding the company’s appeal. Over the years that followed, more sponsorship deals were made and Blue Square slowly but surely established itself as a solid name in the online betting market. The company’s eventual end was as quick as its beginning, with the Rank Group selling aspects of it to Betfair in a deal worth £5 million.
It’s not exactly clear which parts of Blue Square were sold off, but part of the deal meant that Blue Square effectively ceased to exist. Betfair wanted Blue Square’s customer base, with punters moved over to the betting exchange relatively easily. For a time, Blue Square looked as though it would be one of the big players in the online betting market. Ultimately, though, its success was its own downfall, bringing in the vultures that picked the bones of it and left it as nothing more than a once-remembered husk.
When it comes to online betting, companies will come up with all sorts of ideas to help separate them from the pack. One such idea was the launch of Bet Butler, which hit the market in 2011 and offered customers the chance to spread their bets across numerous different bookmakers. One of its major selling points was anonymity, appealing both to celebrities and those that had had accounts restricted by bookies in the past but still wanted to be able to place bets with them.
As the name suggests, the idea was that Bet Butler would do your betting work for you. They made money by charging a commission on the winning bets that it had taken, but soon it began to suffer problems. There was a Friday when all customers were offered a £200 matched bet, leading many to wonder whether it was struggling to make money. Panic ensued amongst customers, with some beginning to fear that Bet Builder was on the verge of going bankrupt.
By September of 2014, the Gambling Commission decided that enough was enough after Bet Builder’s huge advertising campaign resulted in an influx of customers that it wasn’t equipped to deal with. Many people were owed a decent sum of money when Bet Builder’s site crashed, leading the UKGC to revoke its gambling licence. It had been unable to carry out the activities for which had been given a licence, with the Gambling Commission pointing to unsatisfactory financial circumstances and a lack of competence.
The beginning of the Football Pools was a fascinating time, with John Moores, Colin Askham and Bill Hughes hearing about a man in Birmingham called Jervis Barnard. This was in 1922, when Barnard had the idea of allowing punters to bet on the outcome of football matches, deciding whether it would be a home win, a draw or an away win. The winners would take home the ‘pool’ of money that had been paid into, minus the 10% that was charged for management costs.
Barnard was struggling to make a profit, but when Hughes managed to obtain one of the coupons he and his friends figured that they could do better. The launched the Littlewoods Football Pool in the first of February in 1923, renting a small office in Liverpool and printing out 4,000 coupons to distribute outside Old Trafford prior to a Manchester United match. A mere 35 coupons were returned, but the budding entrepreneurs weren’t ready to give up yet, printing out 10,000 ahead of a Hull City game.
This time only one coupon was returned and the progression of the 1924-1925 football season didn’t see much of an improvement. Soon, Hughes and Askham wanted to cut their losses, but Moores still believed in the project. He offered to pay them back the £200 that they’d initially invested and continued to run the company himself. It proved to be an inspired decision, with Moores becoming a millionaire within five years as the Football Pools’ popularity took off.
Indeed, it was so popular that it had spawned a number of copycat companies. Vernons’ Pool launched in 1925, with Zetters created in London eight years later. The Football Pool Promoters’ Association launched in 1934, welcoming other big Football Pools companies such as Cope’s Pools of London, W.S. Murphy in Edinburgh and Western Pools out of Newport. Despite numerous attempts to shut pools companies down, they always managed to avoid falling under any sort of gambling legislation.
By 1936, the revenue from the 28 different pools companies in the United Kingdom had reached close to £30 million yearly, with pools entries accounting for four million out of six million packets sent via the postal service. Even when the English Football League, which was opposed to betting, decided to without publication of their fixtures as they attempted to thwart the success of pools companies, it didn’t matter. Instead, they printed coupons that only featured the home sides.
More pools companies were created in the years that followed, with new games being created too. By 1947, the revenue had crept up to £70 million a year and by the start of the following decade, more than 100,000 people were working in the industry. An agreement was made with the Football League in 1959, thanks to the pools companies agreeing to pay the leagues either 0.5% of the stakes received or £245,000, whichever was greater. Even in the off-season players could bet on games being played in Australia.
The Football Pools remained popular even into the 1990s, but the beginning of the end began with the launch of the National Lottery in 1994. That year, the pools has as many as ten million customers. By 2007, that had dropped to 700,000. Littlewoods Pools was sold for £161 million in 2000, becoming a division of Sportech, which later bought both Zetters and Vernons. The New Football Pools was launched in 2008, with Sportech selling the company to OpCapita in 2017.
You can still play the Football Pools today, albeit in a different format to how it existed during its zenith. Instead of posting off coupons, the pools is largely played online in the modern era. It hasn’t disappeared altogether, instead merely reinventing itself to make it appealing to a modern audience. It works in much the same way as it always did, in the sense that you decide whether it will be a home win, a draw or an away win, with other games available for punters to play too, keeping it relevant.
World Bet Exchange
Better known by its acronym of WBX, the World Bet Exchange was an exchange betting platform that it was hoped would offer competition to the likes of Betdaq and Betfair. It was created in 2002, yet it didn’t get its launch until 2006 because its founder, Malcolm Gray, wanted to take his time to ensure that the product was everything that he wanted it to be. When it launched, it sponsored a number of horse races in order to ensure an increase in the company’s name recognition.
At the time, Betfair was the biggest exchange site in the country, meaning that WBX had to offer something different to compete. The World Bet Exchange Launching Soon Handicap Hurdle at Sedgefield was an attempt to get the company into the mind’s of bettors, with about £250,000 spent on sponsorship before it had even launched. When the site’s launch proved to be underwhelming, the Sponsorship Manager, Iain Turner, said that it had hoped for a soft launch initially anyway.
The main thing that WBX offered that made it a genuine alternative to Betfair was the commission rate. It promised punters a tiered rate of commission, meaning that races with three horses or fewer would face 3% commission, whilst those with four runners would involve 4% commission. A race with five horses or more resulted in bettors paying 5% commission, whilst a loyalty scheme would see those that bet regularly with the company would also be offered a discount on rates.
One thing that can’t be argued is that the better rates were indeed competitive with Betfair. WBX’s own internal audit discovered that users would have paid as much as 35% more in commission if they’d used Betfair instead. It gained steady, if not exceptional, customer numbers, allowing it to wash its face on a regular basis. By the time that the ball dropped to see in 2009, WBX claimed that customers had wagered more than £500 million against one another in the preceding year.
Despite the success of the company on a small scale, it ultimately didn’t do well enough to keep going in the face of increased regulatory scrutiny. The nature of exchange betting is such that liquidity is vital to their success. In the end, there wasn’t enough liquidity to keep it working in a manner that would allow it to be a proper competitor to Betfair. Eventually the announcement came through that it would be shutting down on the 16th of March 2015, allowing customers time to withdraw their funds.
There were several reasons for WBX’s failure, including the fact that it failed to truly diversify past offering exchange betting. Whilst Betfair found its way to offering the likes of online casino games, WBX hoped that its lower rate of commission alone would be enough to see it survive any lean years. That wasn’t to be the case, with the lower commission merely meaning that Betfair took more money on a daily basis, with World Bet Exchange failing to get enough users to make up the difference.
For his part, Malcolm Gray essentially blamed ‘the rising costs of regulatory compliance’ as well as the ‘levies in the United Kingdom’. On top of that, he said that there was an ‘increasingly prohibitive stance of various betting jurisdictions’ stopping it from taking off in other countries. The main problem, though, was the lack of liquidity. This meant that big spending customers couldn’t get their bets matched so took their business to a rival, meaning that less money was incoming and the liquidity remained small.