Facing up to realities
If 2018 was a year when bookmakers received a bloody nose from the maximum stake for Fixed Odds Betting Terminals slashed from £100 to £2, this year they are unlikely to fare any better.
The full impact of the FOBTs on the viability of hundreds of betting shops will start to become apparent and it will become clear if the measures announced by Arena Racing Company in terms of cutting prize-money in anticipation of reduced media rights income are an over-reaction or reflect a significant downturn in racing’s fortunes.
What 2019 holds in store for the betting industry was put to a number of key-players in the industry by the Racing Post’s award-winning industry editor, Bill Barber.
One of those asked for their take on the issues set to dominate in 2019 was Keith Oliver, chief executive of the online gaming operator, Black Type.
His response appeared not to acknowledge which way the wind is blowing. “The anti-gambling industry rhetoric will become the ‘new normal’ that we face despite the fact that for the vast majority of the betting public a flutter is a well-liked, controlled and an established part of their leisure spend and enjoyment.”
That most punters can enjoy a bet without becoming problem gamblers is true, in the same way many people can enjoy a buying drinks without becoming problem drinkers. But in the in the pub and bar environment, responsible establishments can see the signs of over-indulgence and refuse to serve someone.
However, in betting shops, or online, such intervention is not so easily or readily put in place. The customer can spend a lot of money without person-to-person interaction with the gaming provider. It’s that situation, where the gamer loses control without intervention, which gives the anti-gambling campaigners their ammunition and leads to their “rhetoric”.
The ‘new normal’ opposition to gambling has to be respected, if not entirely met with agreement. Oliver says that he hopes “we can get some proportionality into the debate this year and ensure that a balanced and rational view of the industry in the media and Whitehall can be re-established.”
Quite correct, so let’s begin by refraining from terms such as ‘rhetoric’. It does not help to use a word with connotations of lacking sincerity or substance. The way the betting industry introduced Fixed Odds Betting Terminals with £100 maximum stakes left the door wide open to justifiable concern and criticism.
Many of the betting public who like a flutter could see what damage FOBTs were doing to people in betting shops and are not sorry to see them go, despite this meaning that their preferred bookies could disappear from the high street.
That said, many shops opened in the last decade in localities already well served by retail outlets, and the driving force for their proliferation was to populate districts with outlets purely to cater for FOBT players.
Such shops did little in the way of betting on the horses and they are already beginning to disappear.
Everyone involved in offering people the opportunity to gamble needs to be aware that the “rhetoric” will continue and from now on a proactive approach, such as the voluntary curb on whistle-to-whistle TV advertising, is the best way to continue to avoid the threat of strangulation by regulation.
It would also be good if betting operators got their houses in order in dealing with money-laundering, honoured the spirit of terms and conditions, identified gamblers who are out of control and took remedial action and took a more considered view of what effect closing accounts and restricting stakes will have in the long-term for the health of the sport upon which no small amount of their business is dependent.
John Francome made a welcome return to our TV screens when he appeared on last Friday’s Get In on Sky Sports Racing. Many had hoped that he’d be back on a regular basis with the launch of the Sky Sports branded channel, but six years on from leaving Channel 4 Racing when the production company changed from the Andrew Franklin led Highflyer Productions to IMG, he’s declined regular involvement.
Friday also gave me the opportunity to spend an afternoon in the company of Sky Sports Racing and, after the unveiling of their team of presenters and pundits, I have to say I felt somewhat underwhelmed.
The channel had two afternoon meetings to cover – jump racing at Lingfield and all-weather racing from Deauville. Not the greatest of offerings but the expectation was that time was available to use the expertise and gizmos which are at Sky Sports Racing’s disposal.
But apart from the slow-motion camera used on the winning lines, and clearer graphics, any other innovations were seemingly absent. Sean Boyce held things together in the studio with their French racing expert, and there was a reporter at Lingfield.
But it all seemed much like the old At The Races and, given there are going to be many more days like this now that Irish racing is on Racing TV, a little more energy could be exerted into the coverage to match what Sky put into other sports.
Somewhat confusingly, the channel’s website still goes under the At The Races name because searching Sky Sports Racing brings up the racing pages of Sky Sports where the “latest” pundits content is nearly a year old. Curiously, there is no link to At The Races.