Analysis: Will the handling of online stake limits truly be “sensible and evidence-based?”

By Tim Poole

William Hill has enjoyed a busy few days of news – understandably so given it was the week the operator reported its full-year results for 2019.

It was also indirectly involved with a story involving Mr Green, which was fined £3m ($3.9m) by the Gambling Commission for player safety failings that occurred before William Hill acquired the company.

But within this week of initially negative headlines (a £3m fine and 2% fall in annual revenue are the bottom-line facts), William Hill CEO Ulrik Bengtsson may have offered a significant note of encouragement to the Great British gambling industry.

Speaking with Gambling Insider after the operator announced its results, Bengtsson discussed international diversification and the strength of William Hill’s US performance. Equally however, he offered hope when it came to online stake limits potentially being imposed in the UK.

Asked about potential regulation in the digital sphere, he said: “I think our industry has always had and will always have regulatory challenges. So there’s nothing really new in that context. More specifically, I think we have done a huge amount of work in the last 1-2 years when it comes to protecting customers, whether it’s age verification, source of funds, customer due diligence and the responsible gambling algorithms we have put in place; the consequence of that is proactively reaching out to customers that we do think need help.

“All these things are something you cannot do in a retail environment; you can only do this online. That changes the basis for this conversation. When I was at the House of Lords a couple of weeks ago, my feeling was that there is a real interest in a sensible and evidence-based review of the Gambling Act. These are the sort of considerations that come into that.”

These are certainly telling words coming from one of the industry’s senior leaders. The William Hill CEO sensing a voice of reason is obviously based on something concrete. After all, industry leaders of the past – and indeed Bengtsson’s predecessor Philip Bowcock – have all too often been privy to the opposite reception when greeted by government.

This also ties in with a recent speech given by Tom Watson at ICE London, covered by Gambling Insider at the time. Watson, the former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and a staunch anti-gambling critic, offered a far more balanced presentation within the confines of the gaming sector’s biggest event on the calendar year. He spoke of working with the sector, rather than against it, and emphasised the progress already made by operators.

Could it be that the industry’s willingness to collaborate is finally being taken into account and genuinely making a difference?

Hopefully – but it is all worth taking with at least a pinch of salt. For, as soon as the anti-gambling brigade starts banging its drum, how will politicians and regulators then react when greeted with lobbying pressure and scrutiny?

As a prime example earlier this year, despite a reasonable approach to its research and investigations, the Gambling Commission did, in the end, decide on a full ban on credit card gambling in the UK; effective from April. Even if industry figures are listened to, then, those in power may well decide to impose the full recommended £2 online stake limit after they’ve heard all the available evidence.

It certainly wouldn’t be a surprise given the current narrative and climate, while the outcome would corroborate another major focus of William Hill’s full-year presentation: diversification away from the UK.

Even with the maturity of the UK market taken into consideration, it was notable just how much better William Hill’s FY results looked if you removed its British-facing performance. Granted, that would be taking the vast majority out of the equation completely, which at this stage is nowhere near even thinking about.

But, with Bengtsson telling Gambling Insider a 50-50 split between UK and international revenue is “not unreasonable” long term, there is a valid threat here for those safeguarding gamblers in the UK.

If a time comes when multinational corporations like William Hill, GVC Holdings, Flutter Entertainment and more can make as much internationally under far less complicated conditions than in the UK itself, what incentive is there to continue prioritising the market as heavily?

The eventual outcome will be a shrinking of the regulated market without a shrinking of player demand. At the risk of repeating myself, where will bettors then turn? Why, to the illegal market, of course.

That underlying reality, though some way off still, is what’s at stake when it comes to reviewing online procedures properly and thoroughly in the UK. If severely punitive online stake limits are imposed, and the situation is handled as chaotically as fixed-odds betting terminals were, we’ll likely witness the timeframe for that underlying reality escalating rather quickly.

That’s exactly why the enthusiasm of the William Hill CEO is so encouraging. “Sensible and evidence-based” are not words we can honestly attribute to how the gambling industry has been treated within the UK in recent years.

Here’s hoping that’s in the process of changing.

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