CEO Blog: As live sport returns, the betting industry is redoubling its efforts to protect problem gamblers

Jay DossetterNews

15 June 2020

As live sport returns, the betting industry is redoubling its efforts to protect problem gamblers

A disorientating feature of the lockdown period has been the absence of the familiar rhythms of the sporting calendar. Whether it is singing with fellow fans at the local football ground or enjoying a day out at the races, millions of customers have missed their sport.

Of course, lots of people enjoy adding to the excitement by placing a wager. Just look at the Virtual Grand National which saw around 5 million people tune in to watch on ITV and placed bets which raised £2.6m for charity in April.

The popularity of these combined leisure activities is one of the factors that have made the gambling industry a hugely valuable one to the UK economy, contributing around £9 billion Gross Value Added. GVC alone is one of the 20 biggest taxpayers in the UK.

However, there is also no denying that, for a small minority of people, gambling can become a problem. It was understandable, therefore, that the lockdown could exacerbate the issue for some. Thankfully, the UK Gambling Commission has thus far found no evidence of such an increase. But we must never be complacent.

There is a significant anti-gambling lobby that believes punitive and mandatory restrictions – notably clamping down on online stake thresholds - will help problem gamblers. I don’t doubt for one minute their genuine desire to help solve the problem, but such measures would actually only serve to exacerbate the issue: punters would switch instead to unlicensed black market operators, where there is zero customer protection, interaction or intervention for those who may be at risk. In other words, it is an approach that could damage the very people that it seeks to protect.

The proportion of UK customers betting with illegal gambling operations is currently amongst the lowest in the world, but the black market in this country still generates £1.4 billion of turnover a year. We only need to look at other countries that have imposed onerous regulations, such as France and Australia, to see that they lead to the rise of substantial black markets. And problem gambling has been found to be up to 150% more prevalent among illegal operators. Furthermore, it is not a case of simply stopping black market operators by using website blocking devices: the US tried this approach in 2006 when they attempted to stop online gambling, and it did nothing to prevent billions of dollars from being spent on black market operators.

GVC serves more people each year than there are people living in Wales and the scale and nature of the entertainment we provide brings with it a responsibility to look after our customers.

We are constantly improving our player protection policies based on the extensive data and technological capabilities that we have. For example, our software-based algorithms, known as ‘markers of harm’, can identify problematic customer behaviour, which helps our responsible gambling team intervene before serious problems develop.

We are working hard to better understand the nature of the problem, and have made a 10-fold increase in our voluntary donations to the research, education, and treatment of problem gambling. We also believe there is simply too much gambling advertising – particularly around football - and have therefore voluntarily withdrawn our advertising on football shirts and stadiums around the country.

Our industry has not been perfect, and mistakes have certainly been made in the past. However, we have learned from those mistakes and are making evidence-based decisions, guided by what our customers tell us. We know that our customers want to see us go further on safer gambling measures. For example, when asked, punters tell us they are strongly in favour of having the ability to set voluntary limits for online slots games, and as a result we have implemented this change across our business.

Protecting our customers and behaving responsibly is clearly the decent and moral thing to do.

We want to work together with others to get this right. Headline-grabbing blanket restrictions on stake limits may appear superficially attractive, but ultimately, they are likely to be hugely counterproductive. Regulation should encourage the industry to account for individual circumstances, provide tools that let customers manage their own gambling at a level which is affordable for them, and intervene before problems develop.

Get the approach wrong, and we will only make things worse by pushing those who are most vulnerable into the hands of the unscrupulous black market.

Kenneth Alexander
CEO, GVC Holdings 

This blog was originally published by Politics Home and is available here.