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Coronavirus: Could a lack of live sport lead to problem gambling?

24th March, 06:04

We're all now well into this period of social distancing and virtually no live sport when a Paddy Power tweet pops up on the timeline. "The Belarusian Premier League starts today, and the excitement is palpable," it reads with a link to the market for blockbusters such as FC Energetik-BGU Minsk v BATE Borisov and Shakhter Soligorsk v Torpedo BelAZ.

A couple of scrolls further down reveals a Ladbrokes preview of the same upcoming Belarusian action. Where could they possibly have procured a Belarusian football expert from?

It's no coincidence that there has been an increase in ads and emails to customers from bookies with free bets for the likes of online casino and roulette - which have much higher rates of addiction than sports betting - while, on Monday, Paddy Power were offering €25 free bets to the first three people who could guess how long Paddy Power himself could juggle three eggs for.

Last Friday they opened markets to decide, via various Twitter polls, on Ireland's greatest ever international goal. The winner, at odds of 2-1, was Robbie Keane's equaliser against Germany at the 2002 World Cup, narrowly pipping Ray Houghton's winner against England at Euro 1988.

These are lean times for betting companies and anything will do. They are also times of boredom and isolation for lots of people and that could result in a dangerous combination.

The majority of betting shops around the country have been closed since the middle of last week and all live sport in the UK and Ireland, bar one behind closed doors Irish race meeting per day and some greyhound racing, is cancelled, making for a very unwelcome combination for bookies everywhere.

Flutter Entertainment, the parent company of Paddy Power Betfair which took in about €1.8 billion through sport revenues alone last year, initially said that the hit to their business would probably be in the region of €100 million to €120 million for this year and that was assuming that shops would stay open and racing in Britain would continue behind closed doors. But with shop doors now firmly closed and British race meets - including the Aintree Grand National in April - cancelled until the end of April at the earliest, it's estimated that earnings could fall by a further €30 million per month.

There's always some live sport to throw a few quid on no matter what time of day or night it is and even during a global pandemic

The likes of Ladbrokes and William Hill have said that they fear similar drops in earnings and indeed William Hill has been hit particularly hard with share prices falling from 192p to around 50p.

And while sympathy, even at the best of times, is in short supply for the gambling industry - particularly as they managed to cash in on the biggest gambling week of the year at Cheltenham just before everything shut down - shop closures mean thousands of cashiers are out of a job until further notice.

The vast majority of gambling is, of course, now done online and there is no fear of websites closing but with nothing to bet on, what do people bet on?

Well, the first point to make is that there is never actually nothing to bet on. There's always some live sport to throw a few quid on no matter what time of day or night it is and even during a global pandemic. Aside from the Irish horse racing that is still going on, the top markets on the Paddy Power website at the time of writing remains football. This would usually be dominated by Premier League or Champions League action but on this day the top billing is taken up by the (now vitally important) Belarusian Premier League, followed by the Singapore S-League while there are also games coming up from the Palestinian West Bank League as well as some live in-play action from the Belarusian Reserve League.

Slim pickings, to say the least.

Indeed it has been interesting to look around the various betting websites over the last week to see the tabs for online casino and virtual sports creeping up the sidebar. With so little real-life sport on these markets could prove crucial for bookmakers in these times, particularly for some, such as Paddy Power, who generate far more revenue from sport than online gaming, unlike companies such as William Hill and Ladbrokes whose revenues are more evenly split between the two areas.

Most companies are now tweeting advertisements and links to virtual markets. A quick scroll through Boylesports' Twitter feed shows messages such as "You can bet on virtual events every minute 24/7!" alongside a link to the nine different virtual markets they offer while Ladbrokes were among those pushing Sunday's night's virtual Bahrain Grand Prix.

Boylesports themselves have said they have seen a "modest increase in betting on online gaming and virtual sports".

Virtual horse racing first started appearing during the foot and mouth disease outbreak in 2001 when all live racing, including the Cheltenham Festival, was cancelled around Britain and Ireland. The virtual market has now moved on to include the likes of virtual football, virtual motorsport and virtual cycling.

I've worked with a lot of people over the years who are into virtuals whether it's in the shop or online and it's a step away from slot machines

The system behind it is essentially a visual representation of a random lottery, weighted overall in favour of the bookmaker, meaning that there is no form to study or research to do, so races can happen much quicker and, of course, punters can bet on them much quicker.

On most websites virtual races take place every two minutes while virtual football matches and rugby league matches are every three minutes, each lasting less than a minute. All day, every day.

The concern is that the faster events, and the less time between them, could lead to problems for some people, more so than would be the case for regular horse races or football matches where bets can't be placed quite as frequently.

"That is not what you want to be getting sucked into. That is extremely dangerous stuff," says Barry Grant, CEO and founder of Problem Gambling Ireland. "I've worked with a lot of people over the years who are into virtuals whether it's in the shop or online and it's a step away from slot machines, which are the most addictive form of gambling you could possibly imagine. It's that high frequency form of betting where it's just bang, bang, bang, like roulette or something similar.

"It would concern me big time let's say if the Government pull the plug on horse racing and greyhound racing in Ireland, then basically there's no live stuff on anymore, apart from some obscure countries around the world. So you're looking at the virtuals where you're gambling more money at a higher frequency - every two minutes if you're talking about virtual races."

Some bookies, such as Unibet, have only added virtual sports in the last week or so to attempt to curb potential losses during the ongoing pandemic while Betfair, to give one example, have been emailing out free bets for their online games with the condition that you must wager three times the amount of the free bet before any money can be withdrawn.

In the UK, where updating and tightening gambling legislation is moving at a much faster pace than in Ireland, MPs have called for gambling companies to impose a cap of £50 per day on customers for fear that increased isolation and boredom could lead to gambling problems during the current period of little or no live sport.

Nothing of the like has been proposed in Ireland and, even if it was, it would be up to the bookies themselves to impose it as there is still no gambling regulator here, with the updated Gambling Control Bill still stalled in the Dáil - and presumably now a long way down the list of priorities - since 2013.

When contacted by The Irish Times about how the current pandemic would affect business and whether online gaming and virtual activity had increased in recent days Paddy Power declined to comment, while Boylesports - who have said they will continue to pay all staff during the time that their shops are closed - said that, as Ireland's largest retail bookmaker, "shop closures will have a significant impact on our business".

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