Winning Post – The importance of timing for UK gambling regulation

Regulus Partners, the strategic consultancy focused on international gambling and related industries, takes a look at some key developments for the gambling industry in its ‘Winning Post’ column.

UK: In Parliament – Timing is Everything
There are few sure things in matters of gambling regulation but it is looking increasingly likely that the reduction in maximum stakes on betting shop machines will take place in April. Working out which particular April is however a trickier matter.

This week revealed subtle – but potentially significant – differences of opinion between the DCMS and HM Treasury in relation to how long betting shop operators should have to prepare for the change.

In response to questions on the timing of stake reduction from Carolyn Harris (Lab, Swansea East) and Danielle Rowley (Lab, Midlothian), the gambling minister Tracey Crouch said: “We are currently preparing draft regulations needed to make the change, alongside engaging with the gambling industry to ensure they are given sufficient time to implement and complete the technological changes for the reduction in maximum stake for Fixed-Odds Betting Terminals.”

Harris received a slightly different response to the same question from Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, Robert Jenrick (Cons, Newark), who said: “DCMS plan to engage with the gambling industry to ensure it is given sufficient time to implement the technological changes and restructure its business model accordingly.”

This appears to be an important distinction. If implementation of stake reduction is simply a matter of Parliamentary (and EU) due process and technological tinkering then we ought to expect the new regulation to take effect from 2019. If on the other hand, the Government believes that the betting shop sector needs time to prepare for the financial impact of the change then 2020 would appear to be more reasonable. The suggestion that the DCMS and Treasury do not agree on timing is unlikely to be positive for the industry at large.

Parliamentary opposition to delayed implementation is growing more vocal. The Early Day Motion (EDM 1440) tabled last week by the former Shadow Wales Secretary, Jo Stevens (Lab, Cardiff Central) now has the support of 33 MPs, including more than half of the Scottish Nationalist parliamentary party. Moreover, there is a clear threat in the wording of the EDM, which “calls on the Government to implement this new reduced stake of £2 immediately, to prevent any further gambling related harm or possible loss of life”.

Gambling-related harm is a complex matter but continued ministerial dithering on FOBTs may expose the Government to allegations that it is prepared to put tax receipts before human life.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail reported that Lord Chadlington and nine other peers have written to the Government stating that a 2020 implementation “must be reconsidered as a matter of urgency. Government must take into account the policy implications not only at an economic level, but also from a moral and ethical standpoint.”

The peers will have a chance to take the Government to task on the matter on 10th July, when an oral PQ from the Bishop of St Albans on the timing of stake reduction will be debated.

Lord Chadlington has also submitted a Parliamentary Question to ask what assessment the Government has made “of the case for additional independent research on the number of gambling related suicides in the UK”; highlighting the extent to which gambling-related harm (rather than the more abstract condition of problem gambling) is starting to influence policy discussions. It is unlikely that the Government will be able to provide much insight on this matter for now; but with the RGSB’s harm reporting framework expected to be published over the summer we may expect increasingly negative parliamentary commentary on the industry.

Elsewhere, Anne Main (Cons, St Albans) asked how the Government intends to respond to the RGSB’s concerns in relation to the effects of gambling on children; how quickly legislation could be brought forward to require age verification prior to gambling online; and also what plans there were for schools education on the risks of gambling.

The Lib Dem peer, Lord Storey also expressed concern about risks to children, asking what steps the Government was taking “to protect children from gambling adverts and marketing”. As we observed in our blog earlier this month, the World Cup was always likely to result in an escalation of concerns in relation to how gambling brands are marketed. EDM 1351, which calls for the full enforcement of the 9pm watershed gained one more signature and now has the support of 34 MPs.

UK: Regulation – Experts Warn on Child’s Play

The Gambling Commission put the industry on notice this week that regulatory change may be required to address the issue of how gambling affects children as it published advice submitted by its expert advisory group, the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board in February.

Despite declining participation in gambling by children, the RGSB remains concerned about the potential for harm and indicated that the precautionary principle ought to be used more readily where children are concerned. The remote sector was the target for a number of the RGSB’s recommendations, perhaps most pertinently in the area of advertising where the report warns: “The combination of unknown consequences and concern about effects on children and young people strongly suggest that a precautionary approach to gambling marketing and advertising is required – even if that involves challenging some well-established market practices.”

The RGSB also considered the wisdom of continuing to permit play by minors on low stakes (Cat D) slot machines and on National Lottery products. The board echoed the view from the Budd Report in 2001 that children should continue to be permitted to play Category D slot machines; but suggested that the minimum age to play certain lottery products (online instant wins and scratchcards) should be increased to 18 years.

While some licensees may be tempted to rail against the report’s recommendations (in particular the notion that “a strong case” has been made for tighter advertising and sponsorship controls), their interests would be better served by considering what part they might play in accomplishing the priority actions identified by the RGSB. Engaging constructively with the RGSB and Gambling Commission to alleviate concerns is likely to be the smart choice.

UK: Regulation – “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” – McArthur Issues General Alert

The chief executive of the Gambling Commission, Neil McArthur warned this week that the record sanctions against licensees was likely to be just a taste of things to come with penalties likely to escalate for future licensing breaches.

Although the Commission has handed down more than £18m in penalty packages in the year to April 2018 (up from £1.6m in the prior 12 months), the likelihood is that this figure is likely to increase and possibly be accompanied by non-financial measures (notably licence revocation).

This should come as no surprise to operators. Most of the cases settled to date have been in relation to breaches committed prior to the publication of the Commission’s tough enforcement strategy one year ago. Moreover, the regulator has an expectation that licensees will learn from each other’s mistakes. Thus, with every settlement the bar is raised that bit higher. On top of that, with most of Britain’s high impact operators having been the subject of a settlement in the last three years (generally but not exclusively in relation to remote gambling), the chances of repeat offence increases.

The good news for those involved in research, education and treatment to prevent gambling harm is that, as a result of all the settlements, funding for their work has never been greater. The challenge for the Commission will be in ensuring strong governance over the use of this windfall.

Global: football – FIFA group rankings rules raise integrity question

History was made this week in the World Cup, and it wasn’t only Germany’s failure to successfully navigate the group stages which set a precedent. Japan pipped Senegal to a place in the last 16 by virtue of a better “fair play record” (ie, fewer yellow and red cards). While in this case the “more fair” team was rewarded, the rule threatened to be turned on its head by England and Belgium.

Both teams had already qualified by virtue of wins in their first two group matches. Last night’s game between them would only serve to determine which team topped the group and which team qualified in second place. With identical records (including goal difference and goals scored) going into the game, a draw would have led to the team with the better fair play record finishing top. Ordinarily that would be a team’s objective, but with surprising results elsewhere, the half of the draw which the second placed team would go into seemed (on paper) a more attractive route. Would either team seek to ensure they obtained more yellow cards than the other in a drawn match to ensure they finished second?

In the end it was academic, as Belgium ran out comfortable 1-0 winners. However, with Belgian fans cheering each yellow card they received, this does in our view raise a difficult question of integrity in the current system.

There should never be an incentive for a team to underperform, or manipulate events (particularly when betting markets will be influenced) – the integrity risks are too great. Recently a Lincoln City footballer was banned for six years after deliberately being yellow carded in two FA Cup matches.

Interestingly, the yellow card markets on last night’s game were surprisingly weak, and no doubt this is more of a theoretical risk than a practical one. However, there must be a better way of separating teams which are level on points, goals etc. Olympic badminton had to change its regulations after four women’s’ doubles teams were disqualified from London 2012 for deliberately losing matches to ensure a favourable draw in the next round. Is it time for FIFA to do similar?

 UK: horseracing – no time for Callaghan-era ‘economics’…

The ROA has raised the possibility of minimum horseracing margins as a means of protecting online levy income, and this stakeholder is unlikely to be the only one considering the option. Online horseracing faces two theoretical problems which are worth considering. First, with pricing so transparent, it is relatively easy to treat racing as a ‘loss-leader’, thereby impacting levy payments (eg, see Chelthenham 2016). Second, racing is less and less its own ‘churn product’ meaning winnings on horseracing are less likely to be recycled into more horseracing betting online than in a landbased environment. Again, this could significantly reduce racing betting volume if combined with the first.  

However, this is an issue of ensuring racing’s role as an attractive and profitable product. Old fashioned bookmakers link margin and profit directly, because that is how bookmaking used to work – betting (and laying) event by event. However, it is not how it works anymore and it is telling that some of the bookmakers with the lowest margins also generate the highest revenue – including on horseracing, while exchanges decouple margin and revenue almost completely. Indeed, the it is the old-fashioned bookmakers who have been complaining about horseracing being a declining product: it isn’t, it is their antiquated approach to it which is the problem (thankfully customers now have much broader choice than the ‘old names’, which have lost so much market share).

 A minimum margin therefore presents two issues, in our view. First, by making betting on the sport less flexible and responsive it will be less attractive to customers and will therefore have the opposite effect to that intended (rather like any quasi-subsidy), including encouraging illegal betting as well as shifting spend to other products. Second, by imposing another layer of business interference on bookmakers, a much deeper question is re-opened: if racing is able to dictate the terms of business to betting companies then surely betting companies should be able to dictate the terms of product in return (especially since no amount of supply-side tinkering will stop bookmaker losses from an over-abundance of winning favourites from small fields, however short-priced). Racing and betting are symbiotic, but a poor grasp of business, basic economics (from both sides) and an undercurrent of entitlement continues to jeopardise the effective collaboration all stakeholders urgently require, in our view.

US: sportsbetting regulation – California dreams?

The latest tussle over potential betting liberalisation highlights an emerging issue in the state-by-state regulatory picture. A ballot that would ask Californians if they wanted to legalise sports betting scheduled for November 2020 (note over 18m away just for the question) is being opposed by the tribes at least in part because the wording suggests other forms of gambling might also be included. The tribes are using the biggest lever they have: the basis of the compacts, which in California’s case is worth c. US$240m to the state treasury. The basic problem here is that this represents too much ‘certain money’ to risk on a speculative betting tax (even though it has been declining). If California chose unfettered online sportsbetting, then it is not unreasonable to expect a fiscal figure that could get close to this, but such a move is likely to be seen as directly competitive and blocked as much as possible. Further delays and increasingly watered-down proposals are therefore likely in the state which could (in theory) be the biggest single market in the US by some margin, in our view.

Germany: sportsbetting regulation – seeking closure?

Minimum shop distances (up to 500m) might be applied to German betting shops in a similar way to arcades after Health Ministers raised addiction concerns. German operators have pointed out that shop clustering is different in betting than gaming (or UK LBOs), where there is a direct link to the number of machines and therefore opportunities to wager. However, Germany appears to be joining UK, Italy, Australia and Japan as major jurisdictions looking to roll back liberalisation (not always intended from a policy perspective) and introduce tougher controls – an backdrop which is likely to influence any Inter-State treaty online betting ‘compromises’ also.

When politicians come up with gambling controls, it is unsurprising that they are likely to be inexpert and counter-productive as well as economically damaging. But in a growing number of jurisdictions, politicians feel they are left with little choice when faced with gambling sectors unwilling or unable to adequately reform themselves…

Italy: All Gaming Sectors: Dignity above all else?

A new bill has been launched by Italy’s nascent coalition government aimed (amongst other initiatives) at reducing the harm from gambling. The so called, ‘Dignity bill’ specifically bans advertising and sponsorship for gambling related products, services and businesses from 1st Jan 2019. According to the Five Star movement which makes up one half of the coalition, the country has been gripped in a battle with gambling companies for the last fifteen years. Deputy Prime Minister Luigi di Maio is promising that that new legislation will be put before the Council of Ministers next week before becoming law.

This comes at a time when landbased businesses have just completed the slot reduction program removing 34% of AWP’s (total now 250,000) and new distance laws are forcing the closure of many gaming establishments. According to recent Interviews with Di Maio, the ban on advertising is likely to be the start of a concerted effort to clean up Italy’s gambling sector, calling the Dignity Bill a ‘Change Management contract’ aimed at becoming an exit strategy for machine gaming. (Italy’s largest commercial gambling sector by some margin and a key profit centre for Lottomatica, Snai, Gamenet and others)

Other suggested measures that are in consideration, are the Introduction of player cards with session limits to improve safeguarding and limit Mafia involvement, together with restricting the installation of VLT slots to selected locations (which exclude bars) for certain limited hours of operation.

If these measures become law, they will surely severely curtail both the land based and online gaming sectors with an unprecedented level of legislative involvement. Opponents to the proposals suggest the government will lose the majority of the taxation collected through gaming, if these measures are passed and suggest thousands of potential sector job losses. The Deputy Leader of the opposition party, ‘Brothers of Italy’ who opposes the new law suggested that ‘We do not seek to ban wine to help Alcoholics’.

Once again Italy is making a choice between player safeguarding and taxation, with social responsibility the clear early winner, however whether these measures translate into a safer playing environment or just a significantly squeezed legitimate gaming sector remains to be seen.

Denmark: Q1 market size – a flying start to the year

Denmark’s Q1 figures show continued healthy growth for a mature market, with QoQ overall +8.9% to DKK1.5bn (€195m), though with betting 23% down on the very high margin Q4 (€72m, 66% remote). The fact that Q1, typically a seasonally strong month, was only the same level as Q317 also further demonstrates the extent of the Q1 betting ‘hangover’, though this is now likely to be forgotten by most operators, gripped with World Cup volumes (against weak comps). Online casino grew 8.7% to €67m, demonstrating continuing channel shift from landbased casino (-2% to €12m) and slots (-1% to €46m). Newly regulated horse, dog and pigeon(!) racing are not broken out to a similar level of detail, but horseracing is continuing its decline (FY17 €15m), albeit at a lower rate (-1.2%) than the online boom of 2012-15 (-6% CAGR).

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