UK betting stakeholders still stand at a regulatory crossroads following the Gambling White Paper, with more DCMS consultations due to take place. But can the industry still guide itself on the right path?
In this second part of SBC’s discussion with William Woodhams on the White Paper’s recommendations, the Fitzdares CEO shared his views on why the industry needs to “win hearts and minds” as the light at the end of the regulatory uncertain tunnel comes into view.
The UK’s place in the regulatory race
Whilst the government has accepted the limitations of a ‘draconian’ approach adopted in recent years, Woodhams believes that the technology needed to ensure effective finance risk checks is not yet up to scratch.
The UKGC has often encouraged bookmakers to look to other sectors, such as finance, for guidance in this area. But Woodhams outlined that the government may be required to ‘force the hand of financial services” to achieve this, whilst also working to “clear up” GDPR issues and adopt an automated affordability system.
“Current measures are draconian,” he summarised. ”The government wants a more soft, behind the scenes checking system. The technology isn’t there, but the will is. If bookies could just pay for the technology they would.
“It needs the government, financial services and consumers to all be onboard to do it. It is a bit ‘Big Brother’, but also, you wouldn’t lend someone £500,000 for a mortgage without making sure they’re good for the money.”
The UK’s journey to new regulation has been turbulent to say the least, having been overseen by three different Prime Ministers, three DCMS Secretaries and four Junior Ministers. All it needs now is a partridge in a pear tree.
The country has often been viewed as a ‘gold standard’ of gambling regulation by some, but with more and more countries – and in the case of the US and Canada, states and provinces – introducing new frameworks, can the UK still be viewed as such after the highs and lows of the Gambling Act review? In Woodhams’ assessment, just about.
He said: “I do think the UK is the gold standard, but it has been a very challenging environment for operators, the Gambling Commission and other stakeholders.
“The government as a whole has dropped the ball on this. It’s still the gold standard, but other markets are catching up and taking on a more futuristic view of the category.”
Earlier this year, Fitzdares completed its journey to become an international bookmaker, launching its product in Ontario after securing a licence in 2022, not long after the market launched under new regulations.
From his observations of both markets, Woodhams pinpointed Ontario as one of those catching the UK in terms of regulation.
Canada’s largest province has adopted a “very free market system”, he said, but also one with restrictions on bonus advertisements and a consultative approach to interacting with operators.
“I think Ontario has started in the right way,” he said. “What has taken the UK 20 years will take the US 20 months. I think in 20 months time in the US you will see a similar compliance crackdown.
“Before, they would look to the UK as somewhere with a heavy crackdown. But now they’ll look to Ontario as somewhere where you are working collaboratively with legislators or administrators and make sure mistakes aren’t made.
“That’s the future of the industry – making sure mistakes are caught upstream, and then you don’t get into the cycle of massive fines and issues for the industry, like we’ve seen in the UK.”
Correcting the course
Looking back over the last few years, Woodhams reflected on the “gold rush” of the post-COVID era as sports returned to normal, racetracks reopened and betting shops resumed trading.
“The desire to be very compliant kicked in after that,” he remarked. “That’s when you start seeing the large fines, and after that period you start to see the big fines having an effect on the big operators.”
Thankfully, as Fitzdares’ CEO observed, the fines imposed by the UKGC over the past few years have been for historic failings, many of which took place years ago, such as in the highly publicised double digit enforcements against Entain and William Hill.
What is certain for bookmakers is that the days of a customer opening an account and “losing £10,000 on the spot are over”, Woodhams asserted, adding that whilst this kind of big spending has played a part in some larger firms’ P&L, it’s time for the industry to move on.
He reiterated. “It shouldn’t and wouldn’t happen again, and that’s a part of the revenue loss to racing, but it is what it is and morally we all agree it’s not right.
“It’s fine if someone can prove they have the income to spend the money, but the days of opening an account and losing 10 grand overnight are dead.”
This shows that the industry is on the right path operationally. But from a public relations point of view, more may have to be done to ensure the course correction is both maintained and has the necessary impact.
Woodhams explained: “I do feel that the UK has course corrected – I appreciate there is a consultation period, but it has been course corrected effectively, and we need to remember these fines are historic.
“We can’t think of the industry as a quagmire of wrongdoing. It is, however, disappointing to see how few senior figures have come out to discuss this issue and a bunker mentality has been taken.
“They need to be out there winning hearts and minds, they need to show that bookies aren’t baddies, they’re here to take a flutter and pay out to the punter. Right now people think bookies are greedy, that they don’t pay out or support racing.
“There needs to be a readjustment and course correction, but right now it’s a reputational correction that’s needed.”