It is not often that bookmakers give in to pressure from anti-gambling groups without being forced to, so Thursday’s news that the biggest names in online betting will soon introduce a whistle-to-whistle ban on television advertising around sporting events is a collector’s item. Ray Winstone’s loss, many will feel, is the armchair fan’s gain.
The market leaders in online gambling, including Bet365, SkyBet and Paddy Power Betfair, are all signed up to the voluntary ban, from which TV coverage of horse racing will be exempt. So, too, are the firms with big retail estates, such as Ladbrokes, Coral and William Hill, who may – perhaps – have learned a lesson from their long, bitter and ultimately futile campaign to resist pressure for a cut in stakes on fixed‑odds betting terminals.
The agreement announced on Thursday in effect implements a proposal that was expected to feature in the next Labour manifesto, and does so, in all likelihood, at least three and a half years in advance of any legal requirement to do so.
So, has the UK’s gambling industry suddenly decided that its opponents were right all along? Of course not. Their decision will have been taken after careful consideration of its long-term effect on profitability, versus the possible impact of even stricter regulation further down the line. The clear concern seems to be that if they do not do something themselves, the alternative could be much, much worse.
It is a calculated move, not a climbdown. And when it comes to football, which dominates the online market, it is also far from complete as it does not cover shirt sponsorships, for instance.
But again, this could have knock-on benefits for some British firms at least, since the overwhelming majority of betting‑related shirt sponsors are Asian firms with no significant customer base in the UK. If there are no gambling ads in the breaks, the Premier League could feel that the time is right to ban shirt sponsorships for gambling businesses, too – which would be no bad thing for high-profile UK-based bookies that operate in the Asian market.
It is also significant that the bookies’ self-imposed ban covers the entirety of any sporting event bar racing that starts before 9pm, so there will be no blitz of ads post‑watershed. This means that racing will soon find itself in the happy position of being the only sport around which the biggest names in betting are able to advertise, which could prove to be a significant boost for the only sport that has been intertwined with betting from its earliest days.
The law of supply and demand suggests the value of the advertising opportunities around the sport can go only one way. As a result, the value of racing’s media rights, for instance, should also increase, and the terrestrial rights in particular could be a very interesting proposition for a number of bidders when ITV’s contract expires at the end of 2020.
As things stand, and assuming the bookies’ agreement holds, racing could offer not just the best, but the only significant space on mainstream TV to advertise betting brands around sport.
The bookies’ greatest fear, of course, is racing’s nightmare, too. What if a future government decides that even stricter regulation is required and introduces a blanket ban on gambling advertising? Nothing seems impossible in politics these days but Labour’s proposal included an exemption for racing and the industry is such an important employer that it is difficult to see either major party going that far.
The days when racing accounted for the overwhelming majority of the bookies’ turnover are long gone but the sport remains, in many respects, the best and most compelling of all betting mediums.
Any move that increases racing’s significance for the bookies can only work in the sport’s favour, because like it or not – and there are still plenty who try to pretend otherwise – betting will always be vital for racing’s popularity and prosperity.