GVC’s Director of Regulatory Affairs Martin Lycka reviews the events of a world-changing April 2020, in which tough lessons have been learnt by the lived experience of working and adjusting to national lockdown orders…
What a month this has been. In the UK, we are told the virus has peaked and is now hopefully ebbing. However, we are not out of the woods yet. There’s a shimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, but not much more. Personal statistics: 30 health walks and five Netflix series completed. The number of conference calls, I lost count in week two … Zoom in, Zoom out, Teams, Skype. This is the new normal.
On the menu: dealing with COVID-19 motivated measures. Portugal and Lithuania approve the suspension of gambling licences. Spain, Sweden and Belgium introduce additional restrictions on play and advertising. The UK-facing industry commits to temporarily halting TV advertising. Colorado bravely launches sports betting despite the pandemic. Tennessee insists on a maximum pay-out rate. Is this the new normal?
Conferences move away from glitzy and glamorous hotels into computer-generated networking halls. Talking heads and virtual visualisations of people occupy our screens. We have to rely on our own coffee makers and carefully managed supplies at breaks and lunches. Yet, perhaps bizarrely, it all comes together and works, despite the occasional shrieks of “Can you hear me?”
No commute or mayhap, just a short trudge with the laptop from the lounge to the kitchen for an afternoon change of scene. Colleagues, sometimes inadvertently, invite us to their houses during work-related conference calls. Most people demonstrate admirable levels of self-restraint. Stay at home, keep distance, sanitise. The use of words well and healthy in emails have gone through the roof; we have never enquired so much and so frequently about acquaintances’ wellbeing.
This is no walk in the park; these are testing times. Daily routines have been turned upside down. Boredom and anxiety have crept in. A lot of people may be looking for a way out. Is gambling one of them? Well, no, it isn’t. Gambling (just like Netflix, by the way) is meant to be consumed within reason and as a form of entertainment; it is not a silver bullet in the fight against monotony.
The sporting highlights of the month have been the NFL Draft and (who would have ever thought) the kick-off of the Belarusian football league. Punters are brushing up on their poker knowledge and venturing into the world of blackjack and roulette. Has there been an explosion in the levels of gambling addiction? No, the numbers don’t bear this out. Customer behavourial patterns are changing but the safety nets are in place and the industry works hard to make the meshes even tighter.
Don’t get me wrong, dear Diary, there is still work to be done, concerns to be addressed. The abolitionists are once again on the march. We might not agree with their views, yet we need to be prepared to reflect upon what they have got to say and engage in a productive debate.
At the same time, one would hope, there is two-way traffic. The other side of the divide should finally bring itself to recognising that the industry has stepped up to the plate and delivered on a number of accounts. There is a fine line to tread between reasonable regulatory restrictions allowing for an attractive gambling offer and the overregulation based on myths, leading to the perdition of the black market.
At one point, lockdowns and associated restrictions will be lifted. We may not be allowed to go back to our old jet setting routines anytime soon, but hopefully catching up with friends in a café down the road will once again become a la mode.
Question is: what will happen to the COVID-19 related restrictions on gambling and gambling advertising? Calling off the suspension of licences is straightforward enough. Will all the advertising restrictions be undone though? Or is there a risk that some of the ‘temporary’ ones will morph into permanent rules?
Just as it will for the physical lockdown, lifting the gambling lockdown will require careful planning, bucket loads of reason and a human touch. This goes for both the industry and its regulators.
To give but one example, the recent Copenhagen Economics report on Sweden shows that the government rhetoric does not necessarily chime with the reality of a market suffering under a severe regulatory strain of perhaps well-intended but counterproductive regulations. I would humbly suggest that further populistic attempts of plunging the industry into an even deeper abyss in Sweden, or elsewhere for that matter, may end up being an unlicensed operator’s wet dream.
But that was what happened in April, dear Diary. A new month has dawned. I am off as there’s a new set of healthy walks to complete …