Betting shops and gaming machines (Fixed Odds Betting Terminals) took up significant parliamentary time in January and, although a Labour party motion to bring about a change in legislation was defeated, the subject is not going to go away. The Prime Minister, himself, acknowledges there is a problem with the machines that have been dubbed betting’s version of the “crack cocaine” of the high street.
We are told gaming machines now account for over half of betting shop revenues, which is hardly surprising when you see how eagerly punters feed money into them. It is a high turnover, low margin type of gambling concept, encouraging the player to believe that a big win is moments away just so long as they keep going.
There is now a groundswell of real concern on both sides of parliament as to whether the machines fuel gambling addiction and prey on the lives of the most needy. The machines require none of the intellectual input or periods of quiet contemplation that often takes place before a bet is struck on horseracing.
It wasn’t so long ago that we were arguing vociferously that gaming machines were taking the bread from racing’s mouth
The bookmakers tell us that the popularity and high profitability of the machines has kept many of their shops open. Certainly, betting shops have proliferated in a lot of town centres – in many cases against the wishes of residents – while bookmakers make the argument forcefully that a clamp-down on machines would inevitably have an adverse effect on their large, tax-paying companies, with big implications for employment.
The racing world sits uneasily on the fringes of this debate because, apart from the huge contribution made by owners, most of racing’s income emanates from the betting industry in the form of payments from the levy and for pictures shown in betting shops. To be clear, income from the statutory levy is not directly affected by betting on any activity other than horseracing but, if tougher legislation on machines leads to betting shop closures, there will be fewer people betting on horseracing – or so the argument runs.
Recognising this, the BHA has weighed in with support for the bookmakers. But you wonder whether parading such self-interest against what is increasingly looking like a moral argument puts racing in a good light. We must also remember that bookmakers have done everything in their power over many years to steer punters away from horseracing and onto other betting activities, from which racing has never received a penny. It wasn’t so long ago that we were arguing vociferously that gaming machines were taking the bread from racing’s mouth; that the great majority of people who went into shops did so primarily to back horses and only then moved onto other activities.
Even in these days when some punters go into shops purely to play on the machines, horseracing continues to be a crucial part of the betting shop mix. And while we will never return to those days when our sport accounted for 80% of all betting turnover, there is great scope for an increase in racing’s betting market share if bookmakers diverted some of their marketing spend in our direction.
Potential problems for racing stemming from there being fewer betting shops could be counterbalanced if we were to start receiving levy from the increasing number of bets placed via the internet or phone. The fact that most of these bets are now diverted to overseas jurisdictions that are untouched by levy legislation, is a matter over which racing must continue to keep government onside.
If, as seems likely, a government of any complexion is going to make life difficult for bookmakers over gaming machines, racing would do well to distance itself from this debate. A less opportunist stance might create a better climate to get through legislation so that every time a bet is placed on British horseracing, wherever and however, our sport receives the revenue it justly deserves.