When lockdowns took hold across Europe this spring, Europe’s biggest bookmakers including OPAP in Greece and FDJ in France met a perfect storm of shop closures and a suspension of all top-flight sports that saw their retail-led sports betting operations hit with revenue declines in the order of 90 percent.
But betting shop clients did not, on the whole, move channel to play online casino nor, with some localised exceptions, did they start to bet on e-sports, novelty sports or virtual sports. They mostly stopped betting while their local shops were closed.
A survey by the UK’s gambling commission confirmed that the removal of retail gambling and major sport meant, very simply, fewer people were gambling during the lockdown.
Survey data suggests only 0.2 percent of people had started while 2 percent stopped completely. 75 percent of people reported that they had not increased time or money at all, and the very small number of new account openings confirmed the rate of channel shift from previously retail customers was extremely low.
So now, with top-flight sports back behind closed doors, Europe’s retail bookmakers, with just a few exceptions, are again open for business. But the return of customers to betting shops is being scrutinised extra carefully as the industry looks for clues as to what the betting shop in a post-corona era will look like when fear of disease and social distancing are factors.
Social context and community means a lot in retail betting and slow return of key sports content and shop loading limits have left many operators weighing the value or re-opening in Summer 2020 at all, particularly while salary support schemes for furloughed employees are still available. But the shops that have re-opened have begun to reveal some interesting information.
Already player behaviours are changing noticeably.
Last week the Greek betting and lottery giant OPAP said retail revenues from its reopened shops are now 22 percent lower than before COVID-19 “shattered” the Greek economy and it remains cautious on the extent and strength of any future recovery.
Restriction measures in Greece began to be lifted in on May 11 and the company said it had seen signs of a “gradual recovery”, with major European football leagues restarting, seating restrictions in shops removed on June 6 and VLT gaming halls reopened on June 8.
CEO Jan Karas “We remain cautious, as sentiment remains fragile“
While only a small portion of players have not returned to the shops, player behaviour has been changed by the pandemic according to Karas primarily because “they can no longer spend hours in the shop.”
A typical Keno player might now make more visits but overall spend less time, he said, by way of example.
Although Greece’s COVID-19 compliance measures have eased enough now to allow customers to sit in shops and gather outside venues, there remained a general concern from older players about the virus that has also been reported by other retailers.
How far and how strong the eventual recovery might be “is something to be determined”, said Karas, adding that player behaviour is “changing every week”.
In Italy, gambling venues were forced to close their doors when the country entered into a state of lockdown on 10th March.
All of the principal betting market operators offered collateral online betting products such as table tennis (average operator turnover €10-15,000 per match) or esports (average operator turnover a disappointing €5-7,000 per event) but in most cases bookmakers resisted offering alternative products online, instead preferring to wait for the re-opening.
So the reopening of Italy’s betting shops June 20-21 was closely watched by industry veterans and sports betting turnover was €67.5m, down 34.4 percent from the last weekend in February (22-23) when it reached €103m.
People stayed times in the betting shops, as there were few “live” events like tennis to follow and to bet on but, in general, customers accepted the health restrictions which included temperature checks and wearing protective face masks when asked inside the facility.
Still, Marcello Minenna the new Director-General for the ADM Customs and Monopolies -Agency, Italy’s gambling watchdog, underlined that it would take ‘at least a year for the sector to recover‘.
The Rise of Self-Service
One trend that is certain to grow in the post-corona world is the use of self-service betting terminals (SSBTs) to ensure retail punters can place their bets before the start of a race without crowding the shop counter.
The terminals have already gained popularity among a section of the betting population and, because players are able to place multiple or parlay bets without feeling rushed at the counter, they tend to be more profitable for operators in terms of margins.
In Greece OPAP said its reopened betting shops recorded a 3 percent increase in GGR, driven largely by an increase in the installed number of self-service betting terminals (SSBTs) to 6,700, and which now account for 20 percent of all bets made in shops.
In its own guidance to the betting shops the UK gambling commission said that provided operators can evidence appropriate controls when installing SSBTs, their use could be expanded in the post-corona world.
But the regulator cautioned, “We expect full and proper supervision of these facilities. In particular the monitoring for potential money laundering or safer gambling issues.”
And to add an extra element of challenge, shop staff will have to maintain their vigilance on age verification and interact with players even when players are masked, with the UK’s gambling commission noting, “Government guidance states that customers can be asked to remove their masks for age verification checks. If customers refuse, then staff should follow operator guidance on refusing service.”