The industry takes £14.4bn from UK punters every year
- Betfred owners make millions from company treating gambling addicts
- Who are Fred and Peter Done, the brothers behind Betfred?
The gambling industry has exploded over the past decade and now takes £14.4bn from UK punters every year – equal to more than £200 from every man, woman and child in the UK – with the online sector growing particularly fast.
The sector’s major firms have been transformed into some of the most recognisable brands in the country and gambling is a vast business, despite mounting concern among politicians and campaigners, which has shown it is willing to fight hard to preserve its revenues.
The gambling boom was kicked off when Tony Blair’s Labour government passed the Gambling Act 2005, dramatically liberalising the laws governing betting. The late Tessa Jowell, who pioneered the legislation, later described this as one of her biggest regrets.
Some betting bosses have made vast fortunes. The Bet365 boss Denise Coates has received more than half a billion pounds in salary and dividends in the past two years. The Betfred bosses Fred and Peter Done have a combined fortune of more than £1.25bn.
High street bookies’ £100-a-spin fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) became known as the “crack cocaine of gambling”. They were linked to high rates of addiction and ruinous losses but produced massive profits. When the government limited their numbers to four per shop, the bookies opened more shops. Last year, after a long-running campaign, the government reduced the maximum stake to £2.
Some bookmakers sought to bypass the FOBT crackdown by quickly inventing new games that mimicked FOBTs while technically complying with the rules. They withdrew the games under pressure from the Gambling Commission after the Guardian exposed the practice.
Deregulation also led to a sharp increase in the number of gambling adverts. In 2013 the broadcast regulator Ofcom found the number of ads on TV had increased by 600% in six years. The sector’s annual spend on advertising reached £1.5bn by 2017.
Many adverts were attached to live football broadcasts. Mounting public concern about the impact on children prompted the industry to impose a voluntary “whistle-to-whistle” ban on betting ads from 2019. However, some have since shifted to social media marketing instead.
Football remains the betting industry’s cash cow. Of the top 40 clubs in English football, 25 have a gambling sponsor. There have also been controversial bespoke deals, including Wayne Rooney and Derby Country’s tie-up with the online casino 32Red.
Shirt sponsorships and TV ads aside, football fans still see betting logos wherever they look. An episode of Match of the Day can feature more gambling logos than a Sky broadcast because of visible branding on pitch-side hoardings and elsewhere. Concern has been expressed about gambling branding in the children’s section of football programmes.
A recent tie-up that resulted in seven gambling firms buying exclusive rights to show FA Cup games free to customers with an active betting account prompted outrage and a swift climbdown from the industry and the Football Association.
The growth of the gambling industry has been accompanied by a wave of transgressions that has led to firms being sanctioned by the regulator. Firms to face punishment include Betfred, PaddyPower, Ladbrokes Coral, William Hill, SkyBet, 888, 32Red and LeoVegas, to name but a few.
In some cases, problem gamblers have been given hush money to sign a non-disclosure agreement that prevents them taking their case about a specific company’s failings any further. The Gambling Commission has since clamped down on this.
Some techniques are still permitted but are increasingly seen as questionable. Earlier this year the Guardian revealed details of the industry’s use of so-called VIP schemes – offering free bets and free tickets to big sporting events to heavy gamblers – implicated in multiple cases where problem gambling had spiralled out of control. The commission is reviewing the schemes and could ban them.
The industry contends that the rate of problem gambling has remained relatively stable at 0.7% of the population, despite deregulation. However, that is equal to 340,000 people and hospital admissions related to the addiction are rising.
Recent studies have suggested a rise in the number of child problem gamblers to 50,000.