Gambling industry walking a fine line during sporting lockdown

‘You don’t solve a gambling problem by taking away sport’

 Real Esteli FC play Walter Ferreti FC play a behind closed doors first division match  at the national soccer stadium in Managua, Nicaragua. Photograph: Jorge Torres/EPA

Real Esteli FC play Walter Ferreti FC play a behind closed doors first division match at the national soccer stadium in Managua, Nicaragua. Photograph: Jorge Torres/EPA

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It’s Thursday night and the darts is on. No, really. Martin ‘Wolfie’ Adams is taking on Scott ‘Scottie Dog’ Mitchell in actual live sport that you can actually sit down and watch. Okay, so it isn’t on TV – you need to stream it on a site called Dartshop.tv. And granted, they’re not actually sharing an oche – they’re in their respective houses, throwing at their own dartboards.

Nor, for that matter, can you actually see either of them. Both players have one webcam, zeroed in on their dartboard and nothing else. The screen is split down the middle, with the Adams board to the left and Mitchell’s to the right. There’s no introduction, no wave to the camera, no walk-on music as they stride confidently from kitchen to spare room. There is just this – two rheumy-lit boards, three darts each flying in from off-screen and the players’ hand reaching in to grab them back every 10 seconds or so.

Icons of Darts, for that is what the competition is called, got out of the blocks in the past fortnight and has had games running morning and evening every day. Last night, the PDC started running their version, calling it Darts Home Tour. Some of the biggest names in the game are in, with the likes of Peter Wright, Gerwyn Price and Dave Chisnall all playing.

Martin ‘Wolfie’ Adams has been competing in the Icons of Darts series, where players play against each other from their own houses. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Martin ‘Wolfie’ Adams has been competing in the Icons of Darts series, where players play against each other from their own houses. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Not everybody is rushing to get on board, all the same. Gary Anderson has pulled out because his wi-fi connection isn’t strong enough. The sport’s biggest star Michael van Gerwen has given it a pass too. “It has to be quiet,” he said. “But with a newborn baby, a child of two-and-a-half years and three dogs in my house, it really won’t work.”

Darts Home Tour will be played out for 32 consecutive nights, all of it livestreamed on the PDC website. To take part, each player has to install professional, broadcast-worthy lighting, set up a tripod for the webcam, ensure reliable high-speed broadband to keep the scoring tablet up to date and wear an earpiece connected to a Zoom call for the referee to call the scores. If you’re wondering why go to all this trouble, there’s a line in the press releases that might give a hint.

“The action will also be streamed live on a number of bookmakers’ websites.”

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Sport has stopped. Gambling has not. Only this week, Reuters reported that the owners of online firm 888 Holdings were flagging up the growing risks of problem gambling, even as its share price was falling 7.2 per cent. “With people spending more time at home and with increased levels of stress and uncertainty,” said chief executive Itai Pazner, “we are proactively communicating with our customers to provide information on safer gambling and where necessary, offer support.”

Tony O’Reilly, author of acclaimed memoir Tony-10 and addiction counsellor, knows the territory better than anyone. There was a time in his life when a lack of sport would have paused his gambling and made him think he didn’t have a problem. There was a later time when he would have found a way, regardless of what sport was around. He had the same problem both times, just at different stages along the road.

“I had a client last week who had been a couple of weeks free of it,” he says. “But then, through boredom, through sitting in the house with nothing to do, he was flicking through his phone and he found two semi-finals of a cup competition somewhere. I think it was Belarus. He ended up gambling on the two games. It was available and he needed to get that bet on.

“We’re finding that the number of people seeking support has dropped. That would suggest that the lack of sport has made some people pull back. But the problem hasn’t gone away for those people. The problem is the problem. It isn’t sport and it isn’t betting shops.

“That would be my worry. That people think to themselves, ‘Ah sure the gambling is gone now, I don’t have an issue with it’. But then when sport comes back, they have a false sense of security. I know myself, that would have been me away back in the day if this had happened.

“But I also know that later on, I was sitting up at three in the morning betting €1,000 every 30 seconds on the virtual stock exchange. You don’t solve a gambling problem by taking away sport. If it was that easy, everyone would do it. You have to treat the underlying reason for gambling, otherwise it will manifest itself eventually.”

More than ever, the gambling industry is walking a fine line during all this. In normal times, betting companies can legitimately pass themselves off as part of the entertainment business. Ordinary punters having a bit of fun to go along with watching their sport provides plenty of cover. Just as it’s no harm to like a bet, it’s no harm to facilitate one.

But now that sport has almost without exception gone away, the spotlight shines brighter than ever on those parts of the industry that can still make a crust. On Friday morning, Flutter, the parent group that owns Paddy Power-Betfair, announced that overall group revenue for the first three months of the year rose by 16 per cent. To be able to do so at a time of a global cessation of sport is a fairly awesome demonstration of how nimble the major betting companies can be when it comes to making money.

Flutter have been able to absorb a 57 per cent drop in sports betting revenue partly because of a staggering 200 per cent rise in their American gaming platforms in the first quarter of 2020. For the moment, Flutter have continued to pay all their staff salaries without leaning on the Irish Government’s Covid-19 scheme or its equivalent anywhere else in the world. That may change the longer the crisis goes on.

For now, the bigger companies are muddling through. In the industry, there’s talk of one firm turning over a million euro in a single day during the past fortnight taking bets on efootball – that is, punters betting on strangers with handles such as Dangerdim77 and White_Boy1927 playing Fifa against each other. There are markets on teams of Far Eastern kids facing off in battle games like League of Legends and Dota. It’s not a Champions League Tuesday night but it’s not nothing either.

Lower down the food chain, the picture for the smaller chains and independents is understandably a lot bleaker. Of the 814 betting shops in Ireland, 670 are either Paddy Power, Boylesports or Ladbrokes. The remaining 144 are either wholly independent or part of smaller chains like Bar One and Tully. While the bigger beasts can survive by pushing customers towards online casino, poker, roulette and so on, the small-town local bookmaker is starving for sport.

Stable assistants wear face masks as a preventative measure against the Covid-19 coronavirus at the Sha Tin racecourse in Hong Kong. Photograph: Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images
Stable assistants wear face masks as a preventative measure against the Covid-19 coronavirus at the Sha Tin racecourse in Hong Kong. Photograph: Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images

“I don’t foresee all of the betting shops opening when we come to the end of this,” says Sharon Byrne of the Irish Bookmakers’ Association. “Please God we get out of it as a country with as low a number of deaths as possible. That’s the main thing for everybody. But we’re no different to any business. We’ve had a complete stop and the thing we rely on, the actual sport itself, is going to be slow to come back.

“Nobody could have imagined something like this. We had 1,365 shops before the last recession and we’re down to 814 at the start of this one. There will be a marked decline in consumer spend anyway so all small business will suffer to some extent. The biggest issue for betting shops isn’t payroll because the Government subsidy is a great help on that front. The biggest concern is rent. I have so many members ringing me in huge distress over landlords.”

For those firms with an online presence, the past month has been about casting around for sports on which to offer up markets. While it will seem unfathomable to most of the general public that football in Belarus or Nicaragua or greyhound racing in Australia could be of interest to anyone other than gambling addicts, the reality is that they’re providing a small trickle of income in an otherwise frozen business.

Peter Kingston is a trading and content manager with Bar One in Co Louth. Bar One are down to a skeleton staff across the country, with a handful of operators keeping the website going and a few more manning the phones. Most of the calls are older customers keeping up their lotto bets, full sure that if they skip a week that’s when their numbers will come up.

“There’s Hong Kong racing on this afternoon,” Kingston said when we spoke on Tuesday. “That’s a godsend for us. It’s live on Sky Sports Racing. It has a good reputation, it’s being covered well, you will have lads who have expertise and can tip well so that all helps. The American racing is still going so there’s three race meetings in Florida.

“The football in Belarus and Nicaragua is still going. Obviously it’s not massive or anything but it’s there. In all honesty, I would have never even have noticed it before. You would have found it on our site, from our third-party providers. We would use companies like Bet Radar. They provide a lot of the content that we wouldn’t physically be able to source or manage ourselves.

“They provide our odds for that kind of stuff, as they do for a lot of the smaller firms. So that has been pushed to the top of our site and we are taking money on them. People follow along on Livescore. com. We haven’t grown to the size where we’d be able to provide livestreams for people to watch on our site.

“The likes of ourselves, we don’t have poker or casino games online. We have some esports online but we wouldn’t have had at the start of this. We’re adapting with efootball and the like. But we haven’t the vast area of esports that other firms would have.”

In the real world, sport can’t come back quick enough. Whatever about the conglomerates and their ability to extract money online, the smaller firms won’t survive an indefinite stoppage. The one bit of good news they cling to is the fact that horse racing is likely to return quicker than most sports, thereby providing some measure of bread and butter.

Among the general public, the desperate, the bored and the addicted will always find a way. They don’t need the shops to open, they don’t need the PGA Tour to start up again, they don’t need razzmatazz or normality or any of the million things we think of when we think about sport. All they need is a laptop with a split-screen, glitchy footage of a couple of dartboards and the thunk-thunk-thunk of faceless throwers keeping the whole show rolling.

Welcome to sport in the lockdown. Streaming live on your favourite betting site.

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