How the gaming industry's predictions really panned out during COVID-19

By Owain Flanders

Owain Flanders looks back at Gambling Insider’s industry predictions for 2020, and how these might have been impacted by the current coronavirus pandemic. This article features in the July/August edition of Gambling Insider magazine.

In December last year, my colleague Tim Poole put together a list of industry predictions for 2020. Of course, for want of a crystal ball, he had no knowledge of the incoming global outbreak of COVID-19 and quite how different the industry’s outlook would be in just over three months time.

Now that toilet roll is returning to supermarket shelves and our DIY haircuts have grown out, it’s time to look retrospectively at how the pandemic has, or hasn’t affected our predictions.

Great British regulation

Seemingly, regulation is one thing that is immune to the effects of a widespread pandemic. In fact, lockdowns have made regulators even more cautious when it comes to operators and how they protect potentially vulnerable homebound customers.

In May, the Gambling Commission issued new guidance for online operators in the UK to ensure the safety of players during the pandemic, despite also concluding “there is no evidence to suggest an increase in problem gambling”. The additional guidance, which included increased monitoring of players, follows suit with the extra caution shown by regulatory bodies in other markets.

While the pandemic may have increased the Gambling Commission’s focus in the short-term, there is no evidence to suggest this will speed up the Gambling Act review or any increased regulation. In fact, the industry’s behaviour during the crisis could play favourably towards its regulatory outlook. For the most part, it seems operators have played their part in protecting players, and charitable industry donations – like the Virtual Grand National profits to the NHS – will undoubtedly have some positive impact on public image.

New markets

Excitement in new emerging markets around the world is not something that has been quelled by the virus. In fact, the pandemic could even prompt further investment from those struggling in more mature markets.

LatAm in particular has seen continued investment with suppliers and operators continuing to eye up the potential of the region’s markets. Speaking with Gambling Insider in January, BtoBet CEO Alessandro Fried described the region as complex because it’s still in a regulatory phase. However, as we look forwards in 2020, it will be interesting to see how the markets open up once the pandemic has subsided.

In our 2020 predictions, we suggested Sweden will need to restore confidence after a difficult first year of re-regulation. Sadly, it seems the pandemic has had the opposite effect. The Swedish Gambling Authority has introduced a set of strict temporary rules to restrict gambling activity during the pandemic and, as a result, it seems tensions could not be higher between the regulatory body and its operators. It would be hard to disagree with Patrik Hofbauer,

CEO and president of Svenska Spel, when he described these measures as “a substantial underestimation of the gaming industry’s ability to present powerful measures themselves”.

US sports betting

After 2019 saw the expansion of sports betting across the US, we hoped 2020 would test how much revenue those markets could generate. However, with the pandemic cancelling all major sport and closing down land-based sportsbooks, this full test of the market’s powers will have to be delayed until 2021.

Instead, the pandemic has created an unusual situation for sports betting operators. In Colorado, sports betting was legalised on 1 May with full lockdown in effect, while Nevada saw sportsbooks offering a drive-thru service as the Las Vegas Strip closed its doors for the first time in its history.

It’s not all doom and gloom however. DraftKings reported 30% year-on-year growth in net revenue for Q1 2020 despite the lack of sports, and CEO Jason Robins said long term growth expectations “remained unchanged”. We have also seen the pandemic motivate land-based casinos to integrate online into their sportsbook offerings – something that should pay dividends down the line.

Evidently, the US sports betting market is not down and out – only temporarily dormant. By increasing the necessity for an online market, the pandemic may have even played its part in speeding up the process of migration to mobile, although, sadly, we will now need to wait until 2021 to see a test of its true powers.  


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