With online bookmakers desperate to retain bettors during the coronavirus epidemic, concerns are growing that player protection standards will fall by the wayside.
With bookmakers’ shares having been pounded by 75 percent or more since the coronavirus pandemic began, operators are frantic to find income sources to replace cancelled sporting events.
Companies including EveryMatrix, Sportradar and NSoft are pitching virtual sports and Digitain is offering betting on table football.
“Operators must seize the opportunity offered by the ongoing pandemic and satisfy their customers’ demand by adding virtual sports to their offering,” wrote Cyprus-based Slotegrator in an email marketing pitch.
But with people suddenly stuck at home, many abruptly and unexpectedly out of work, regulators and gambling addiction activists are asking operators to resist the temptation to take advantage or let standards slip.
“We are deeply concerned that as we go deeper into this crisis, more and more people will turn to online gambling as a distraction,” wrote Labour member of parliament Carolyn Harris, the Conservatives’ Iain Duncan Smith and SNP MP Ronnie Cowan — all members of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Safer Gambling — in a letter to trade group the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC).
“If the industry were to self-impose a daily limit of £50 … it would be a clear demonstration that the industry is willing to act responsibly and do what they can to protect society and peoples’ finances, at this dreadful time,” the MPs said.
The BGC had earlier said that its members were “stepping up safer gambling messaging to ensure that any customers betting online are doing so safely”.
“We will also step up measures to help identify those on the illegal black market that have none of the customer safeguards or customer interventions that UK licensed online operators have in place and will be seeking action against them.”
One official urged operators to consider stepping up the use of responsible gambling tools and to set deposit limits for all players.
“The gambling industry should tread carefully to not become one of the few sectors which solely focusses on an opportunity to profit from disordered gamblers during truly harrowing times, to offset their losses,” said Danny Cheetham, with Gamvisory, a group that focuses on what it calls “experts by experience” in gambling addiction.
“While the online world may not be exposed to the physical issues of COVID-19, they may certainly be exposed to a psychological fallout from it and they need to show their duty of care,” he said.
Gamesys chief executive Lee Fenton told analysts last week that it has “put the team on the sense of heightened awareness” for gambling harm.
The online casino and bingo operator’s chat-room hosts have been asked “to make sure that we’re picking up on any individual player or any player mood, making sure that we take appropriate actions to ask people to moderate their play or pause their play for any period of time,” he said.
But with the sudden turn of events, many companies have their backs against the wall.
Operators are “pushing more safer gambling messaging, but with no sport, there is not much gambling taking place”, one executive said.
Companies are “focused on preserving the future of our industry”, the executive said.
Last week, the UK Gambling Commission issued guidance warning operators against neglecting customer affordability and responsibility standards in the current crisis.
Operators should evaluate player affordability on a continuing basis, as players might be experiencing “disrupted income” and should increase their social responsibility communications and intervene where necessary, the commission said.
Marketing solicitations should approach consumers in “a socially responsible way and not exploit the current situation for marketing purposes”, the regulator added.
The Netherlands Gambling Authority has been particularly incensed at operators who use inappropriate promotions such as “coronavirus-free”, warning that they will be subject to an additional €50,000 fine in any illegal gambling case.
Veikkaus, the Finnish gambling monopoly, has shut all its gaming machines in retail shops, citing concerns about spreading the virus through contact with touchscreens, although its online games continue operating.
In the absence of high-level sporting events, the prominence of virtual sports is growing.
But opportunities to bet are growing for those who may be most familiar with sports involving humans or animals.
For example, a Daily Mirror advertorial last week offered £20 in free virtual sporting bets through thepools.com with a £20 bet.
One consultant, former Betsson and Netherlands lottery executive Steen Madsen, said he is recommending online operators cope with tough times by offering challenges, championships, instant-win specials for casino games, slots, virtual games, live dealer games and esports.
Madsen said he advocates a “little, but often” revenue strategy in which operators view themselves as part of the entertainment industry.
“We don’t want problem gamblers, we want hobby players, for the long term,” said Madsen, who has launched a new firm called A Game Above.
But for most of the gambling industry, the picture may be dark.
Retired William Hill chief executive Ralph Topping rose from the Glasgow betting shop floor to CEO over 44 years and experienced tough times, notably in 2001 when a foot-and-mouth epidemic shut horseracing.
But Topping said it is hard to compare that time to the impact of the coronavirus epidemic.
“This has never been experienced before; it’s off the charts,” he said.
He is happy British racing abandoned a plan to offer racing behind closed doors.
“If a jockey gets caught with the virus, you’ve got all that negativity to manage,” he said.
Today’s executives have few rescue tools other than to cut costs in the face of this “cataclysmic” event, Topping said.
“Life as we know it has changed — what are we going to do to preserve it?” he said. “Everybody will need help.”
“The priority today has got to be the health of the population, the NHS, and the people who have to deal with this.”
23RD MAR 2020 | WRITTEN BY: DAVID ALTANER