Winning Post: When the going gets tough …

As COVID-19 continues to dominate global headlines, Regulus Partners kicks off the week by looking at how the gambling industry has stepped up to the plate in supporting its staff and global efforts in tackling the spread of the virus.

Global: When the going gets tough – many gambling businesses step up to the plate

It is said that a crisis brings out the best in us…and also the worst. As the severity of the Coronavirus pandemic has deepened (and government responses have become more hard-line), the popular media has sought to divide the world into the ‘good’ (Burberry making face masks, Dyson manufacturing medical equipment) and the ‘bad’ (Mike Ashley, Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United, Spurs and ‘Covidiots’ in general).

In Western Europe, gambling has – rather predictably – found itself in the naughty corner with allegations of insensitive marketing supplemented by isolated examples of rogue behaviour (e.g. Russian and Netherlands-facing sites advertising ‘Coronavirus-free gambling’: both countries actively attempt to restrict .com access, which tends to mean the voices of the least savoury market participants over-index).

As usual, the truth is far more nuanced – with operators around the world rising to the epochal challenge. Casino and hospitality giant, Las Vegas Sands has donated 2 million face masks and 20,000 protective suits to medical workers in New York and Nevada; machines manufacturer R. Franco has also donated facemasks (13,000 of them for starts) to support the national effort in Spain; Joe Asher, the CEO of William Hill US has pledged his salary to a fund to support furloughed company employees; while in Nevada, the state’s Covid-19 task force is being headed by Jim Murren, until a few weeks ago the President and CEO of MGM Resorts. This is to name but a few: an impressive number of other companies and senior executives have also set a powerful example of leadership and compassion in very difficult times.

At a more localised level, operators are also doing their bit. For example, in Swansea, team members at Mecca Bingo (owned by The Rank Group) have been cooking hundreds of meals every day for vulnerable people in the local community. These types of initiatives are being replicated in thousands of venues across the leisure and hospitality industry globally, some coordinated others spontaneous.

 It isn’t always obvious what operators can do to help, but simply signalling a willingness to get involved is a start. Some companies have responded by thinking differently about how they might serve their customers. There are obvious risks in pushing customers to online sites but there is nothing wrong with allowing people to engage in activities that they enjoy so long as it is done with sensitivity and due care, factoring in unusual circumstances (and based on what the customer wants rather than what is most convenient for the operator). Some are being a little more creative – particularly those who define their product in terms of entertainment rather than exclusively gambling. The Monaco casino operator, Societes des Bains de Mer has been emailing customers with play-lists from (formerly) resident DJs or sending nutritional and well-being advice from the company’s spa team. The shift from transactional marketing to relationship marketing presents an opportunity for some in the industry to grow up fast – with potentially significant long-term benefits.

It matters little whether these are acts of pure altruism or of enlightened self-interest. We suspect that in the main, businesses are mucking in because it is simply the right thing to do. At a more clinical level, such actions may reveal an appreciation of the connectedness of society. If the marketing strategists are right, consumers will reward higher-minded businesses when they are permitted to start spending again. For gambling operators, the crisis is an opportunity to demonstrate their social worth at a time when some in the public health lobby wish to make betting and gaming pariah activities, regardless of how responsibly they are offered and consumed.

The remote sector has responded to concerns about potentially elevated risk of gambling disorder (a more complex issue than much of the press has suggested – and one that we will return to) by calling out unethical behaviour (e.g. EGBA and BGC responses), by ring-fencing funding for treatment providers (irrespective of collapses in revenue) and by elevating harm prevention measures. There must be a good chance that the latter will simply become the new ‘normal’ once the crisis passes.  

As we have written before, the way in which operators respond to the current crisis (at a time when there is a very real need to focus energies on business survival) may have long-lasting consequences. Based upon early responses from some in the industry, we believe that there are grounds to be cautiously optimistic  – if these examples can outshine and outlast the few but tenaciously high profile examples of operators attempting to exploit the crisis.

UK: out of Parliament – Battle of the Acronyms ; APPG takes on BGC over COVID as DCMS looks on

Some patterns in life seem immutable – night follows day, the Tinman follows Dorothy and long queues at the barber shop follow lockdown. Likewise, any announcement from the Betting and Gaming Council seems sure to be pursued by a riposte from the Gambling-related Harm All Party Parliamentary Group.

Last Sunday, the BGC announced its ten-point plan of emergency measures to help keep gamblers safe during the Covid-19 lockdown. It was at the very least a demonstration that the industry’s largest operators recognised the elevated risks (for some) of gambling disorder during lockdown; but it was unlikely to pass muster with the industry’s parliamentary critics. By the following Thursday, Carolyn Harris (Lab, Swansea East) and 23 of her parliamentary colleagues (22 MPs and two peers in total) had written to BGC CEO, Michael Dugher and to gambling minister, Nigel Huddleston (Cons, Mid Worcestershire)  to express their dissatisfaction. Signatories were drawn from across the party political spectrum and included former Conservative leader and all-round-fun-guy-to-know, Iain Duncan Smith (Cons, Chingford) and erstwhile gambling minister, Tracey Crouch (Cons, Chatham & Aylesford).

The letter took the form of a series of questions regarding the BGC’s ten commitments supplemented by five suggestions of their own, which they urged the trade body to adopt:

  1.       Commit to implement deposit limits for the duration of the crisis
  2.       Implement a £2 stake per spin limit on slot content online to reduce the harm that this highly dangerous content can have
  3.       End VIP accounts which encourage high levels of expenditure
  4.       End gambling advertising and sign up offers for bonuses
  5.       Companies should make their data available to ensure independent research can be undertaken to assess the scale of harm being caused by the industry at this time and the need for further harm prevention measures.

The signatories to the letter were quite right to probe the BGC on their commitments which were well-intended but short on detail (and at times begged the question of why it needed an emergency to prompt them). We suspect that – as with the Government – the BGC wanted to set out high level ambitions while it worked through the (likely complex) detail of implementation. That this should leave them exposed to interrogation was inevitable.

However, it is generally a good thing in life to practice what one preaches (even if one is a politician). Just as the BGC’s commitments were light on supporting information, so too are the APPG’s proposals. For example, is it sufficient for all customers to set a deposit limit or does one need to be imposed on them? If so, at what level (some of the signatories have called for a £50 per day limit for all)? How wide-ranging would an advertising ban be and what are the likely consequences (economic, black market etc)? How is a “high level of expenditure” defined? More importantly, there was no effort to explain the basis for adoption of these measures.

Indeed, the proposals proposed look distinctly similar to those that the APPG had been calling for before the state of emergency kicked in; and this will lead to suspicion that the same parliamentarians will support repeal once lockdown ends (notably, only the deposit limit point is framed as a time-restricted measure). A cynic might suggest that the APPG members were in fact exploiting the current crisis in order to pursue a pre-existing prohibitionist agenda.   

The BGC and operators more widely should use the APPG’s intervention constructively. In the first instance, more explanation probably is required of the emergency commitments made and the APPG’s letter may be useful in guiding elucidation. In the second instance, while there are issues with the APPG’s five-point plan, the letter does at least highlight the issues that the industry will need to grapple with over the coming weeks and months (the Gambling Commission had already signalled this week that progress on VIPs was a little underwhelming).

On one point at least, the APPG appears to be bang on the money. We are currently living through an incredible natural experiment in how we live our lives – and this includes how we get our kicks. Some effort really should be made to learn about what happens when gambling (along with other pastimes) is suddenly withdrawn from society.

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Content Provided by Regulus Partners

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