When Simon’s Betting Company went under in May 2018, it wasn’t just one of the UK’s most successful sports betting companies that suffered. The ripple effects of the pandemic are being felt by nearly everyone in the industry, leaving many struggling for work. To find out more, we spoke to industry experts about the fallout of Simon’s demise.
‘It’s About All of Us Living in This Time Together.’
When the UK government announced that all sports grounds and casinos would be closed to the public until at least April 15th, the entire sector took a hit. The government’s decision followed the growing number of cases of COVID-19 in the country and the fear that the pandemic would be exacerbated by large public gatherings. For instance, the risk of an outbreak in a sports arena is considerably higher than in a football stadium.
“We all saw the damage that gambling can do. We’ve known about the ill-effects of gambling for years and yet still thought it was a worthwhile activity. It wasn’t. It was always going to end in tears,” said James Summers, a professor of business ethics and owner of a company that provides businesses with ethical and responsible gambling practices.
Even before the pandemic, the UK sports betting industry was facing something of a downturn. Gambling as a whole was on the decline, and with many people now unable to leave their homes, the industry’s revenue streams have been significantly reduced. However, the industry’s resilience is commendable – revenues fell by just over 4% in the last year of pre-pandemic sport as a whole, and the gambling industry as a whole suffered an even more modest decline of 2.8% between April 2021 and March 2022.
The effects of the pandemic are being felt throughout the entire UK industry, with many companies adjusting their staff working arrangements and temporarily closing down. However, the gambling industry has been hit particularly hard with a 48% fall in licensed club and casino revenue due to government restrictions and the general public’s reduced desire to be near a ball.
Summers said: “I think what we’re going to see is all of us living in this time together, which is something that many people didn’t think would happen. It will be interesting to see how this pandemic affects the way that people interact with one another and participate in society in general.”
‘The Demand for Legal Sports Betting Was Never There.’
The UK government was forced to make a decision on whether or not to shut down the sports betting industry due to the pandemic, and what is now legally permissible under the terms of lockdown restrictions. One of the key issues that the government considered was the demand for legal betting. While there is a huge appetite for gaming and digital marketplaces in general, there was never a significant demand for sports betting in the UK.
“We’ve seen the UK’s largest bookmaker struggle to keep up with the demand for football betting during a Premier League season. The demand was always going to be there, but it was never going to be as high as the government or bookmakers thought,” said James McKay, CEO of BettingExpert.com.
McKay said that during the 2010s, there was a “general malaise” when it came to sporting events and their outcomes, and more and more people turned to online betting shops to get their fix. However, it was essentially a quick fix. If the match was popular, then it was easy for the bookmaker to get more bets on the match. If it was a low-profile match, then the odds would likely be very short, meaning that less money would be at play.
“I think what we’re going to see now is a shift away from physical betting shops and to online marketplaces, simply because there’s so much more opportunity to conduct business online. And, as a result of that, I think we’re going to see smaller and more agile bookmakers emerge,” said McKay.
‘The Need for Effective Social Distancing.’
While the sports betting industry was struggling with government restrictions, the rise of eSports as a viable e-sport pursuit meant that some people still had a desire to be near a TV screen and some engaging in a bit of fantasy sport. What the industry needed was effective social distancing. It wasn’t just about closing down the places where people gathered, but also about limiting the number of people who could participate in the activity.
“For a lot of people, whether or not they admit it, sports is a way of life. It’s something that they enjoy doing, and they also enjoy going to the games and being together with friends and family. So, even though they’re at home, in the privacy of their own home, they still want to be able to participate in the activity,” said Nick Moore, manager of the eSports club at London Irish RUFC. London Irish plays in the UK’s premier rugby union competition, the Premiership Rugby. The club’s memberships have doubled since March 2021, with around 80% of the club’s revenue coming from ticket and match fees rather than TV rights or sponsorship deals. But while watching sport at home is one thing, going to a live match is another.
“We’ve seen a lot of people that enjoy going to the movies and to gigs. So, instead of going to the cinema to watch the latest blockbuster, they’re going to watch live sports. This is where the demand is, so it makes perfect sense for the industry to come back,” said Moore.
‘There Are More Opportunities Than Ever to Be Engaged in Sports Betting.’
With many people now working from home, and with the lockdown restrictions likely to be lifted at some point in the not-too-distant future, the opportunity for the UK’s betting industry to grow has never been greater. While some may choose to ignore the pandemic and continue their regular lives, for those who want to get involved in a bit of betting, there are more opportunities than ever before.
“The demand for sports betting never went away, and it’s actually increased. People want to be able to follow sports, and they want to be able to do it from the comfort of their home,” said Summers.
Indeed, while the UK sports betting industry has been hit hard by the pandemic and its subsequent government restrictions, it is still one of the world’s most attractive markets. The UK takes the prize as Europe’s largest consumer of legal sportsbooks, with around 275 million GBP being wagered each year (Source: Euromoney). The market size of the UK’s legal and regulated gambling industry was valued at 4.9 billion GBP as of 2021 (Source: Global Market Insights). And while government restrictions continue to have an effect, the industry is still valued at 8.9 billion GBP (Source: Euromoney).
‘The Industry Hasn’t Quite Found Its Feet Yet,’
Summers, who was also the chief executive officer of the British Poker Industry Limited (BPI) and the chairman of the UK Gaming Association, said that the UK’s gambling industry would take some time to recover from the pandemic. What he’s looking for is the ability to work remotely, flexible working hours, and the ability to generate an income online during the lockdown periods. While many in the industry are adjusting to life in a “new normal”, Summers said that the days when everyone in the industry was physically located at a workplace are, in many ways, over.
“The industry hasn’t quite found its feet yet in terms of the digital transformation. So, we’re still seeing a lot of gambling companies try to do things the old-fashioned way, with a brick-and-mortar workplace. But, the world has moved on, and what we want now is the ability to operate remotely,” he said.
Even though the UK’s sports betting industry is in a more precarious position than most, it has displayed incredible resilience. While it has lost many of its high-profile bookmakers, it still boasts some of the country’s biggest names in the industry, including 1616, Betfair, and William Hill. And while many in the UK want to see the industry flourish, particularly as it provides a skill that many people might find valuable during this time of uncertainty, it still has a long way to go before it becomes profitable again. The industry has changed, and while many may return to the ways of the old, it will be a while before the change is fully manifested.