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Lack of live sport may increase risk of problematic gambling, warns charity

20th March, 17:23

Image: Richard Sellers Image: Richard Sellers

THE PITFALLS OF excessive online gambling remain as serious as ever in spite of the cessation of live sport across the world, a gambling charity has warned.

"At the moment it's speculative, but now there is a much higher combination of risk factors that might cause people who are vulnerable to get into trouble", Barry Grant, founder of Problem Gambling Ireland, told The42.

Sports betting is a major part of income for Irish bookmakers, accounting for €4.3 billion of the €9.8 billion wagered here last year.

While there is still some sport available to bet on - bookmakers today offered odds on behind-closed-doors horse and greyhound racing in Ireland, AFL football in Australia, football in Belarus and Ukrainian table-tennis - the vast majority of sports markets have vanished, with efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19 leading to the cancellation of games and competitions across the world.

Grant says that the disappearance of these markets has the potential to exacerbate rather than alleviate problem gambling, however, as it may push people into higher-frequency online games, such as virtual horse racing, roulette, and slots.

"Most people we work with gamble on live sport", says Grant. "The feedback we are getting from some of the people going to our counselling service is that it's a weight off their backs that the bookies' shops are closed.

"It removes that trigger to bet, and we've just come through Cheltenham which is a huge trigger for people in recovery. That's a big relief for a lot of people, but quite a few will just make the switch to other forms of gambling. That high-frequency betting is still there in an online environment. There is a concern that people would still be logging on to their online gambling account out of habit or boredom, and some gambling operators may be tempted to incentivise them to move over to the casino side of things while the live sport is closed.

"It costs them very little to give out free bets, free spins, and other inducements to get people onto online slots and roulette. That's the really, really addictive stuff. I hate the phrase, but online slot machines are the crack cocaine of gambling. That's a bet every one to two seconds, many of them can have high stakes on each bet. Sports betting is a slower burn."

The cancelling of race meetings -including the 2001 Cheltenham festival - due to the foot-and-mouth outbreak forced betting firms to diversify to protect their business, and this led to the rise of virtual racing.

Grant anticipated that bookmakers will again have to get creative to protect their business models amid the Covid-19 crisis.

Source: PA

Grant notes Paddy Power as an example, who offered bet vouchers to users who correctly guessed the winner of an emoji race they ran on their Twitter page.

The working and economic circumstances of the present time may also trigger problem gambling, according to Grant.

"As some people experience financial difficulties, they may view gambling as a way to make money to pay important bills, and we have worked with many people whose gambling increased dramatically after a redundancy payment.

"As many people find themselves working from home, possibly for the first time, they may feel tempted to gamble during work time, with no co-workers there to monitor their behaviour."

Some of the feelings engendered by social distancing - loneliness, isolation, boredom - are also frequent triggers for problem gambling.

Problem Gambling Ireland operates one-to-one counselling services in Dublin and Waterford, and moved to conduct them over the phone or Skype since the government's recommendations on social distancing were issued last week.

Grant is unsure as to whether separate group meetings are continuing across the country, and Gamblers' Anonymous declined to comment when contacted by The42.

"I don't know how that's going to work, unfortunately. There are a huge amount of people across the country who are going to rely on those meetings to support them during their recovery, so that will present a challenge as well."

Grant advises anyone who feels their gambling is becoming a problem to self-exclude from gambling sites, or install blocking software such as Bet Blocker on all devices.

The Problem Gambling Ireland helpline is operating as normal, and details can be found on their website.

Problem Gambling Ireland can be contacted by emailing or by calling or texting 089241 5401.