Those old enough to remember a time before the internet will be familiar with the thriving days of the good old high street bookie. When you would walk through the town and see the queues forming outside the likes of William Hill, Ladbrokes, and Coral; the ‘Big 3’ UK bookies.
It was hard not to notice the distinctive and trademark branding of each one, the yellow of the WH for William Hill, the iconic red and white of Ladbrokes, and the yellow, blue, red, and white of Coral, colouring almost reminiscent of a travel agents branding.
Almost a British institution; these were the days when the high street thrived. You could buy a pint of bitter and have change left from £1, smells of old tobacco and fish and chips filled the air and you had to jostle to get into the newsagents to buy your copy of the Racing Post before it sold out.
When 2002 rolled around, this signalled the beginning of the end, especially for the bookies. William Hill floated on the London Stock Exchange, going public and along with others, began to focus on its online strategy.
Fast forward almost 20 years and it is hard to remember the ‘good old days’. Sports betting has shifted almost entirely online with corporate deals right at the centre of growth. Coral and Ladbrokes merged before being bought out by publicly listed global gaming corporation, Entain.
It begs the question, are there any independent British bookmakers still remaining and if so, for how long? There may be at least one that springs to mind.
Arguably, Betfred has one of the most interesting history’s of any bookmaker, especially in terms of how it came to be.
It was 1966 and Fred and Peter Done, like many entrepreneurs of the 20th century, were both active go-getters, with a philosophy of ‘living in the moment’ and making the most of opportunities that appeared to be smart.
So how did Betfred come about, you may ask? While many business owners saved or borrowed to acquire startup capital, the Done brothers took a highly unconventional route. With England hosting the 1966 World Cup, they were clearly swept up in the feel-good atmosphere that was engulfing the country.
It was this that inspired a considerable bet on England to win the most-watched football tournament in the world and the rest, as they say, is history.
With the winnings they amassed from the country’s dramatic extra-time triumph over West Germany in the final, they used to start Done bookmakers, which paid for premises in Salford and everything else that was required for a bookmaking operation.
Peter had previously worked in this environment as a board boy, updating bets and odds in his hometown. It was a bookmakers with an emphasis on quality customer service, calling their customers “sir” and serving complimentary hot drinks to enhance their experience. Word of mouth quickly spread.
In the space of two years, they had expanded, opening a second shop, following exactly the same blueprint.
Fast forward 30 years to 1997 and the brothers had 100 shops under their purview, though by this point, it was mainly Fred who was in charge of operations, with Peter running a highly successful legal firm.
By the mid 2000s Betfred had grown exponentially, especially around the north west. Staying true to the business’s identity, established over 30 years earlier, the same basic customer service principals have served the company well, turning them into one of the most respected bookmakers on the high street.
It was important to Fred that the company stayed local, with corporate headquarters in Warrington which employs in the region of 400 staff in its head office alone.
Digital Boom Takes Betfred to the Next Level
Following suit with their competition, Done was keen not to be left behind and was quick to develop the digital arm of the Betfred operation.
As a business, while still adhering to quality customer service, Betfred prides itself on being innovative, constantly initiating market-leading ideas to differentiate itself among its competitors.
The introduction of the highly popular ‘Goals Galore’ feature amasses over £1 million in revenue every week, which very quickly prompted competitors to follow suit and incorporate the idea into their business models.
Done’s lifelong love of Manchester United and horse racing helped to foster a friendship with ex-Red Devils manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who spoke candidly about his friend when he lodged a bid for a percentage of the Tote in 2011.
“We want to get a fair product for the punter,” the former Manchester United manager said at the time. “[Fred] can do that. He’s honest, straight as a die, and doesn’t let himself or anyone else down.”
It was perhaps his love for the football club which inspired Betfred to pay out early for Man Utd to win the Premier League title twice over the last two decades.
In 1998, they were beaten to it by Arsenal, reportedly costing the bookmaker £500,000, while during the 2011/12 season, they were pipped by Manchester City on goal difference.
Without a doubt, Fred is the face of the brand; a big feature in the rename of the company in 2004 and as a result he took on multiple publicity stunts to help grow its profile.
While he frequently appears in promotional material, he has dressed up in various costumes for television adverts and named one of his horses the ‘Bonus King’ – a self-proclaimed nickname he gave to himself, based on the bookmaker’s model of adding extra payouts on multiple bets.
Perhaps, most famously he offered a private wager to other bookmakers in 2004 for United to finish higher than Chelsea (when Roman Abramovich invested millions into the London club). Only Victor Chandler took him up on the offer, which ended up costing him £1 million.
Now, Betfred is arguably the biggest flagship British independent bookmaker as far as having high street shops go. However, have there ever been others, and what happened to them?
What about Jennings?
Perhaps one of the lesser-known bookmakers, they are predominantly based in the southeast of England, with only a handful of betting shops in the north. Founded in 1961, by a man called Tom Jennings, he was the first person to open a betting shop in the southeast of England.
Very firmly sticking to their roots, Jennings did not really show much inclination to expand outside of the M25 commuter belt, though they were and still are a name that emblazons the high streets of Essex.
While they still have in excess of 100 stores, they do not have the financial muscle as some of the bigger names, though they do have Jennings Bet, which is essentially a separate entity but owned by the same umbrella company.
This operates as an online sportsbook that, while maybe not as robust as some of the other big players is still an admirable site.
Staying a small, family business has always been the goal of the Jennings family. Despite several buyout offers from competitors, these have been swiftly rejected, citing that it was important to them to stay true to their roots.
Victor Chandler (BetVictor)
Now known in gambling circles as BetVictor and operating solely online from their base in Gibraltar, this was once a company with proud British roots and a collection of betting shops.
The grandson of William Chandler, who founded the family bookmaking business, Victor inherited this, but during the nineties was quick to realise the importance of online betting and how successful this could be, if offered to foreign markets.
Chandler swiftly closed all of the company’s betting shops in the UK and registered for a Gibraltar Gambling license, moving the entire company there, employing over 400 staff. Now operating as BetVictor and with Chandler no longer in the company, the days of the company’s modest roots are a distant memory.
A betting firm that has almost come from nowhere over the last decade at least, this certainly has a very interesting history. Starting in a Portakabin in a car park in 2000 this was the brainchild of Denise Coates who has been on the end of much criticism.
The daughter of Stoke City football club supremo, Peter Coates, there have been allegations that her success would not have been possible without the backing of her father.
While this is fundamentally, solely an online business, it has rich British roots and now has its headquarters in Stoke, where it is the single largest employer in the city. It wasn’t really until 2010 when its publicity began to increase when they secured the naming rights and sponsorship of Stoke City, leading to much criticism about nepotism.
As a result, though, the company witnessed explosive growth, though it would be unfair to put this just down to the firm’s allegiance with the football club. A lot of hard work went into developing a top class website and mobile app and it continues to earn plaudits from many industry insiders. They were also luminaries in the inception of live betting, which saw many other gambling companies follow suit and which has since been a revelation and without a doubt, the most popular sports betting market in recent times.
Such has been the firm’s huge success, that Coates has recently been in the line of fire again, due to her personal income over the last few years exceeding £1 billion in the form of salaries, bonuses and dividend payouts. A recent report indicated that her 2020 earnings of £421 million helped her surpass the £1 billion mark, taking her to 16th in the country’s Rich List, published by the Sunday Times, with a personal fortune of over £7 billion.
That said, however, the gambling firm is also the country’s leading taxpayers, contributing £500 million per year to the UK economy.
Shedding light on recent critcism, Luke Hildyard, the director of the High Pay Centre said recently:
“Of course rich people pay more tax, they have grossly disproportionate incomes.”
“What’s relevant is how much money they have after tax and in her case it’s more than anyone can spend in multiple lifetimes,” he continued.
“It’s appallingly inefficient for single individuals to hoard wealth in this way when fairer systems of taxation could mean the wealth is instead used to support better public services or raise living standards for low- and middle-income earners.”
Still, the counter argument is that at least she chooses to pay tax in the UK, at a very high level. Most people in the same position have moved their tax residency offshore and so pay little or nothing on the vast amounts of personal income they make from the UK. The fact that she is one of the countries highest earners is in part because the other high earners avoid tax in the UK. Bet365 are also a massive employer in the UK with huge offices here, again most big gambling companies have moved offshore to low income tax locations. From personal experience we also know bet365 look after their staff very well too.
Whatever happens in the future though, it appears, based on recent years and successes that Bet365 could well remain in private hands for a long time to come, staying loyal to its British roots.
Decline of the Betting Shop
Following the recent acquisition of William Hill by US entertainment company Caesers, this has almost signalled an end to the betting shop as we knew it. A name that was almost synonymous with the UK high street, is no longer, with these vacant properties now the subject of multiple bids.
Curiously, Betfred had expressed their interest which provoked rumours that the company was looking to expand their high street empire. However, with so much emphasis now online and new generations digitally focused, it could mean that in just a couple of years the days of ‘popping down to the bookies’ are no longer possible.