Although there have been tentative steps in the right direction, discussions on the future of high street bookies at an event last week served to underline how the industry-wide unity needed to fight upcoming battles in the UK is still lacking, writes Jake Pollard
For all the warm words from the executives speaking at the “Future of the UK high street bookmakers” event last week, industry unity and cohesion currently seems as distant a prospect as it has ever been. That needs to change urgently.
The event, which brought together leading executives from across the betting and gaming sector and was expertly moderated by long time IGB contributor Scott Longley, was full of excellent panels and discussions.
Many lamented the infighting that has proved so counter-productive on the issue of fixed-odds betting terminals. This played a major part in the UK government ruling for the introduction of the £2 maximum stake on FOBTs.
Gillian Willmott, chair of the Senet Group, said the betting sector should look at how the alcohol industry had successfully managed to come together to promote its interests while retaining specific trade lobby groups under the cross-industry umbrella of the Portman Group.
“There are lessons for how the betting industry should come together in how the alcohol industry achieved this 20 years ago and convey its message in a way that is not negative, defensive and not adversarial, casinos vs. bookmakers, big vs. small, and that comes together on the big issues.
“There are opportunities (for the betting industry) but it must come together.”
Looking ahead to key challenges for the sector there is no doubt that this lack of unity could be a decisive factor in the upcoming battles the industry is going to have to fight over the rise in remote gaming duty scheduled to bridge the shortfall in FOBT revenues.
But also surrounding important activities such as TV advertising, the sector’s public image and also claims from critics that football is now strongly associated with betting and that youngsters are not only exposed to gambling at a very early age but also increasingly identify football with betting.
Ian Ince, global head of regulatory and compliance affairs at Playtech, said there had been positive moves recently, such as Playtech and Microgaming now regularly consulting with each other in their dealings with the UK Gambling Commission.
“Who would have thought that would happen three to four years ago?” he asked rhetorically, before adding that the industry could not afford “to be reactive to the UK Gambling Commission anymore.
“It’s a relationship and both parties must engage, be open and challenge constructively in a joined-up manner”.
Stephen Ketteley, partner at law firm Wiggin, concurred with Ince, but pointed out that attitudes towards the Commission were far too broad and wide-ranging to be productive.
“For some it’s an adversarial relationship, for others it’s discursive and for quite a number of companies it’s based on fear.”
But as far as industry cohesion went, Ketteley recounted an example that for him typified the industry’s self-destructive approach that needed to change urgently if it wanted to be productive in its dealings with government and regulators.
“(Gambling Commission executive director) Tim Miller was speaking at an event and taking general questions, the first question that came from the CEO of a very well-known London casino (The Hippodrome Casino, Ed) was: ‘What are you going to about FOBTs?”. That needs to change.”
The reality though is that UK stakeholders are currently nowhere near reaching industry-wide unity and the scars they have inflicted each other over FOBTs will take a long time to heal.
Nonetheless that process should begin as soon as possible if the sector is to handle this key juncture in the best way possible.