OnlineLegal & RegulatoryIndustryFeature

Analysis: Is Sky's CEO right about the RGA’s whistle-to-whistle ban?

If you’ve missed hearing about fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBT) over the past few weeks, fear not: the UK’s regulatory merry-go-round could be ready to return in full swing.


The new topic of the hour is advertising regulation; already a mainstream issue within the public domain. But, with new FOBT restrictions finally being given the go-ahead for April, focus is now shifting ever more towards how the gambling industry can next be handicapped.

As such, Gambling Insider reported last week talks have taken place among Remote Gambling Association (RGA) members about a voluntary whistle-to-whistle television advertising ban during sporting events. It was incorrectly reported by one outlet to have already been agreed, although the likelihood of it coming to fruition certainly looks high.

Unquestionably, it is a proactive measure designed to take a step in the right direction, before the UK’s gambling industry is once again hit with a barrage of criticism – regardless of whether the vast majority of it is statistically justified. With less poor-quality, unoriginal gambling adverts polluting commercial breaks, some good might even come of it.

In a surprise turn, though, Sky UK & Ireland CEO Stephen van Rooyen has criticised the plans – despite Harris Interactive research sent to Gambling Insider showing 81% of the public would back it.

No one could say this is a panacea for problem gambling, of course. But has the RGA really missed the point and avoided an "inconvenient truth," as van Rooyen suggests?

The CEO’s argument, written in The Times, can be broken down into five main points.

Over 80% of advertising is online – Agree

As part of his introductory statement, he says: "You could be forgiven for thinking this sounds a reasonable plan. The truth is the facts paint a very different picture." He goes on to highlight over 80% of gambling advertising is online, rendering a television ban futile.

The strength of this reasoning is difficult to argue against. Gambling companies' television advertising spend forms a small portion of their marketing budgets, with online and mobile betting often the result of advertising on those very platforms. The question of whether restricting television adverts will lead to any revenue loss at all could provide a very surprising answer for UK politicians.

A largely unregulated online world – Disagree

Where van Rooyen falters, however, is his suggestion the online world is "largely unregulated." Much like Tracey Crouch’s claims two people a week commit suicide purely because of gambling, this statement is unfounded.

While the "evidence of harm" he refers to is clear, to claim advertising is unregulated, when suppliers, affiliates and operators deal with increasing levels of regulation every year, is rather misleading.

At SiGMA, a whole section of the industry event’s schedule was dedicated purely to regulatory issues – and it is certainly not alone on the gaming calendar for conferences dealing with regulation. Since March 2011, the Advertising Standards Authority has been able to intervene online as well as for television. Leading operators have to fulfil numerous regulatory pre-requisites simply when making a small banner for their homepage or social media. Weekly meetings are dedicated to advertising by content teams. Whole departments are dedicated to advertising compliance by gambling firms.

The recent remote gaming duty rise from 15% to 21%, meanwhile, hardly portrays an online sector getting away scot-free.

Sky’s advertising proposals are a good alternative – Agree

The CEO of a broadcaster arguing against a revenue-reducing measure is hardly shock material. Van Rooyen, though, has made sincere efforts to deflect accusations of bias by addressing this very point.

"These aren’t the views of a broadcaster scared of losing TV ad revenue; quite the opposite," he writes. "Last month, we voluntarily agreed to limit the number of gambling ads to one per commercial break. And we’re using our AdSmart technology to enable people to block gambling advertising if they wish."

Here, he is spot on. Sky’s proposals were good news for the industry and even do much of the legwork for operators. As an alternative, Sky’s suggestions are very valid indeed, despite the fact they fall victim to van Rooyen's own argument about online advertising.

Society loses out – Disagree

The next point addresses the "irony" of a potential whistle-to-whistle ban, which would limit television advertising that is "already highly regulated." The only winners, he believes, would be "gambling firms and online tech platforms."

But the real irony, unfortunately, is that Sky had no issues with gambling firms or online tech platforms before Sky Bet was sold – at a very reasonable profit – to The Stars Group. For Sky to try and separate itself from the gambling sector is not only hypocritical but exceptionally hasty.

Van Rooyen could have waited a couple of years. To champion television regulation as the better of two evils is to miss the point. This is an area targeted precisely because operators have gone overboard – and the amount of people being turned off from gambling as a result has led to a public outcry against television adverts.

Politicians need to look at this in a more meaningful way – Disagree

In conclusion, the Sky CEO says politicians need to readdress this issue and ensure the same rules apply for both the online and offline worlds. Yet the whole idea of a voluntary ban is for politicians not to intervene.

While imperfect, the RGA’s plans would be a step in the right direction, especially for the industry’s perception. Certainly, Sky’s advertising proposals are a strong alternative, also benefiting the industry’s image. But you can see why gambling firms would want to take control of their own destiny.

Besides, a voluntary whistle-to-whistle ban can still go hand in hand with online regulation – which is already far heavier than van Rooyen lets on. In other words, if this is something the RGA feels it needs to do, let’s see what comes of it.

Gambling companies can’t be damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

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