| Bookies hope
punters will open up to esports betting as share prices fall with no regular
sport on the horizon
Since the essential
raw material of their business is chance, bookmakers tend to assume that they
will, for the most part, enjoy an unlimited supply. For more than 200 years,
through periods of immense social, economic, political and technological
upheaval, bookies have carried on adjusting the odds on an ever-expanding
number of sports and events, paying out winners and taking a percentage for
Now, at a stroke, the sporting diary has effectively,
and indefinitely, been cleared as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Horse
racing meetings, the weekend-to-weekend routine of the football season and the
big annual or one-off events like the Grand National, the Masters golf and Euro
2020 have all been scratched in less than a fortnight. And what use is a bookie
when there is nothing to bet on?
The share prices of gambling firms are
falling as fast, and in many cases even faster, than the rest of the market.
William Hill closed at 148.85p on 28 February. On Friday, it was down to
39.86p, a drop of 73% in three weeks. Flutter, the parent company of Paddy
Power and Betfair, said on Monday that its profits could be down by between
£90m and £110m in 2020. William Hills latest estimate is a
hit of £100m-£110m, while GVC, which owns Ladbrokes and Coral, put
the figure at £130m-£150m.
Even at the best of times, few
have much sympathy for bookmakers. Now, at the outset of the worst times that
any of us are likely to experience, there will be no sympathy at all
indeed, many will see their collapsing share prices as a small crumb of comfort
as normal life recedes into memory. Yet the gambling industry as a
whole of which bookmaking and betting is a significant part
supports at least 90,000 jobs. Like other major employers, it will have a role
to play in restoring some normality to the economy when the current crisis is
Bet365, the biggest player in the online market but also a
privately-owned business with no shareholders, announced a huge package on
Friday to support more than 4,000 employees at its base in Stoke-on-Trent,
guaranteeing that all salaries will be paid until the end of August.
For employees of their rivals in what was, until recently, a fiercely
competitive market, the future is less certain. Our primary focus
continues to be on protecting the welfare of our colleagues, a
spokesperson for SkyBet said. Of course, the cancellation of sporting
events has had an impact on our business but our customers are still able to
enjoy a selection of greyhound racing, global horse racing and some other
sports that are still taking place around the world.
It is a time
to expect the unexpected. Weve been doing quite good trade on table
tennis, Rupert Adams, of William Hill, says. In terms of live
matches and streaming, theres quite a lot still going on in eastern
Europe at the moment. Its been quite a successful in-play event.
Its good news for us that Irish racing is going ahead, and theres
still racing from South Africa and Hong Kong, but its hard and will
continue to be for some time.
While Ireland is the only major
European racing nation still staging meetings, greyhound racing continues
behind closed doors in the UK, with no fewer than 160 races scheduled in
Britain on Saturday, spread throughout the day from the 8.12am at Harlow to the
10.35pm at Crayford. Crayford, in fact, staged two cards: 14 races in the
morning from 10.36am to 1.57pm, and 12 more from 7.27pm to 10.35pm.
Betting on the dogs is often seen perhaps fairly as a
product for an older generation of punters in the (now-closed) betting shops.
But while turnover on the sport dropped below £1bn for the first time in
2019, that suddenly felt like a market that was worth reassessing. Now
greyhound racing has been suspended as well. One option which all firms are
likely to pursue vigorously is pushing customers towards fixed-margin gaming
products like roulette, bingo, online slot machines and virtual racing.
That side of our business has never been stronger, Adams
says. Ten years ago, before that side was so important, we would be in
trouble, theres no doubt, but I think it is fairly robust, and of course,
across more countries than before.
A gambling medium which seems
to sit somewhere between the two is esports: competitive video gaming which can
be live-streamed for in-play betting. While the action is computer-generated,
though, there are real people pushing the buttons, who have abilities and and
form that can be assessed. This is very much betting and not gaming, while
esports overall is already a robust, billion-dollar operation.