Sport may have been on a long break but gambling on the whole did not stop. Online poker is currently enjoying a mega boom and so, incidentally, are online casinos. For bettors, virtual sports and e-sports have provided events that have teased simulated action designed to make us part with our money. So, too have the duel home darts competitions that are currently playing online and streaming through online betting sites.
But at the end of the day, there is no substitute for real live competitive sport. Witness the crowds at Cheltenham just days before the lockdown was enforced as evidence of live action favoured over risk. Even at the time, we knew that, as much as we love this event, going ahead with it was crazy given the circumstances but attendance was huge nonetheless.
That is why the government’s plans for an early but tentative lifting of the lockdown, even in the midst of the UK posting one of the highest death rates in the world, will bring peace of mind to the high street bookmakers, particularly those without the reinforcing backup of an online presence.
When Will The Bookmakers Reopen?
On the 25th May the government gave us an update to say non-essential retailers, a category bookie shops certainly fall into, have been given a provisional date of the 15th June for potential reopening.
Paddy Power have announced that they will reopen all of its betting shops in England along with 150 premises in Ireland on Monday 15th. The opening is timed perfectly for Royal Ascot running from Tuesday to Saturday, which the company hopes will drive people back to the bookies. Alongside they have launched a campaign called ‘Do Your Brit’ promoting safety and hygiene.
The government have asked retailers to review shop layouts to encourage social distancing. Betting establishments are traditionally small single lot spaces and this may prove difficult for operators to manage, especially as many punters that use them often spend time in the shop either researching bets or watching live sport. If this facility is removed then betting shops could lose the charm that attracts those that use it.
Shops are being encouraged to use a one-way flow system with signs and floor markings, reduce movement within the store and use multiple entry points, all of which will prove difficult for betting premises given the nature of how they are usually used.
Shops are generally staffed by one or two people and so for the employees it will be relatively easy to maintain a safe working environment. Stores have been asked to use screens and barriers where possible and this is something already installed in betting shops. Staff will however need to clean surfaces, such as fixed odds betting terminal screens (if they are allowed to be used) and tables used for writing out bet slips.
It is possible people will need to bring their own pen with them if they want to write out bets given the potential contamination hazard from passing around the little blue biros usually available in shops. Alternatively customers may be given disposable gloves to wear inside or a pen they can keep or bin after use. Cash will also be problematic for shops considering it is used more commonly for placing bets compared to other retail transactions.
Customers will be asked to use contact payment methods where possible although betting in cash is one of the primary reasons many people use a shop and if cash betting is stopped this will not be good for business.
Retailers have also been asked to use a queueing system to regulate entry, however, with most bookmaker shops being crammed into busy high streets it will not be an easy process for many. That is without the consideration that many people would not queue to go inside, either because it is not convenient or because they don’t want to be seen queueing outside a bookies.
The UK Gambling Commission has also published information for operators on reopening, reinforcing that guidelines in place to protect vulnerable and underage groups still apply. For example, staff can ask people to remove a mask for the purposes of age verification or if they believe that person has previously self-excluded.
If betting stores become too transactional because of all of this then people will see little benefit of using them compared to the ease of placing a bet online.
Bookies In Scotland To Reopen For Transactions Only
The Scottish government have been more specific with guidance that will allow betting shops to reopen from the 29th June but for ‘transactional services’ only.
This means shops north of the border will not be able to show live sport or races, even virtual racing will not be shown with TV’s likely turned off or showing simple messages. Fixed odds betting terminals will also be turned off and cannot be used. The Scottish parliament has also banned sitting in shops to prevent people from gathering.
The inconsistency between Scottish and English policy regarding reopening has angered many of the biggest betting companies, such as GVC, who own Ladbrokes and Coral. Shops in England can open with less restrictions as long as social distancing and hygiene measures are followed.
Making shops tranactional could significantly drive punters away from shops, many of whom go to premises for reasons other than to simply place a bet, which can be done with much less hassle online.
William Hill Announce Staged Reopening
William Hill announced on the 15th May that they are unlikely to reopen all shops at once with CEO Ulrik Bengtsson stating they are ‘planning for a staged opening of the UK retail estate in the second half of 2020’. It is expected the company will reopen bigger centre of town shops earlier than smaller suburban shops and it is possible your local William Hill may not reopen until the end of the year (if at all).
Alongside the announcement on reopening retail the group also issued a trading statement. This showed in the period from 11th March to 28th April retail revenues were down over 85% while at the same time online revenues fell bt 33% in the UK due to a lack of sports, however, online revenues did actually grow internationally, helped in part by the recent acquisition of online gaming site Mr Green.
It is likely William Hill, and other high street operators, will focus initially on increasing online revenues when major sports restart before they prioritise retail. Online revenues are expected to grow sharply on the return of major football and horse racing in June whereas shops will have increased costs and reduced custom initially.
WH also announced cost cutting measures that they hope will save them £15M, this includes freezing staff salary increases and bonuses, reducing recruitment and continued use of the government furlough scheme and business rate relief. Investors have also been told that dividend payments will be suspended, however, shares still rose by 4% on the news.
Irish Betting Shops Expect 50% Drop In Trade
Betting shops in Ireland can begin reopening on 29th June following an a meeting between major bookmakers, such as Paddy Power and Boylesports, and independents. An 8th June date for reopening had been floated but a later date was settled on due to the difficulties in restarting with workers utilising government employee payments.
While the news was well received it came with a stark warning from independent bookies that business could be severely dented. Paul Tilly, the largest Irish independent with 16 premise and 60 staff said he expects business will be “down 50 per cent” in the following months.
The major bookmakers have been able to supplement revenues with online operations and will continue to do so, independents on the other hand have little scope in this area and will struggle for the immediate future. The uncertainty around operating practices and revenue for the coming year could force many to close. Betting shops in Ireland employ over 6000 people and contribute over €85,000,000 in taxes to the Irish government.
An Excuse To Close More Shops Permanently?
Of course, those with an online presence, the big boys such as Ladbrokes, Coral, William Hill, Betfred and Paddy Power will, more or less, return to normal operations. These guys have deep pockets but, even then, may well view this as an opportunity for an outlet cull, something that they have desired to do for a long time now but was accelerated even further by the lowering of the maximum FOBT stakes last year.
There is, after all, far more revenue online these days and shops have become increasingly less profitable since the FOBT limits. Up to now the bookies have feared the inevitable backlash of closing high street shops and the impact this would have on local community jobs.
William Hill had already announced they were closing shops well before the current situation and so it seems likely they will continue to make further cuts once the lockdown ends.
Tough Times Ahead For High Street Bookies
Times will be tough for any surviving independents though. To be fair, there will be universal problems also, even for the likes of Paddy Power, whose parent company Flutter Entertainment have now fully completed their merger with Stars Group to create the world’s largest gambling provider.
Social distancing is the new order of the day and betting shops, hardly the size of superstores, are a place for people to meet with friends, mingle and generally talk rubbish while the races go off. For part of the day, bookies, as shops have done, could try implementing a capped number of people in a shop at any one time. However, this won’t work for those that want to stop in and watch the greyhounds and horses in real time, rendering it an impractical solution for bookmakers.
For years bookmakers have relied on cash transactions to conduct their business, but cash less and contact free payments will be popularised going forward, something that, again, independents might struggle to provide. Account linked cards, such as Ladbrokes The Grid or Coral Connect, which allow money in and out of a betting accounts live or online are all well and suitable for those two GVC Holdings’ brands, while Paddy and Hills offer similar products also, but the indies do not have these facilities either.
As for staff, you would be hard pressed to find a betting shop that wasn’t already using glass screens prior to the outbreak, something which supermarkets have been swift to replicate. You would imagine that hand sanitizer dispensers will be common place going forward for those that can afford them while staff, and quite possibly punters, sharing pens and shop provided papers, will be forced to wear gloves at all or most times.
For socially distant and cash free betting at any time of the day, everything points online, indeed as it has for years but there remains a demand for a high street presence from punters, looking to socialise, and staff, in need of the work, alike so there is likely to further pain ahead in these uncertain times.