UK online gambling ops warned not to exploit coronavirus crisis


uk-online-gambling-warned-exploit-coronavirusThe UK’s gambling regulator is warning its online licensees not to abuse opportunities provided by the COVID-19 pandemic, while the industry’s lobby group is slamming the government for abandoning the retail betting industry.

On Wednesday, the UK Gambling Commission (UKGC) reminded its licensees to “continue to protect consumers” during the coronavirus crisis. The UKGC specifically warned online licensees about the fact that so many individuals are now practicing ‘social distancing’ that may keep them from patronizing retail gambling venues.

With so many white-collar workers now toiling remotely from home, the UKGC said online licensees have an obligation to monitor customers’ activity for signs that individuals are going stir crazy and spending more time and/or money than they normally would.

The UKGC said online licensees “must continue to act responsibly, especially in regards to individual customer affordability and increased social responsibility interactions.” With many individuals “experiencing disrupted income,” operators are advised to “assess individual affordability on an ongoing basis.”

While some online poker, casino and bingo operators are reporting strong growth in recent days, operators are advised to “onboard new customers in a socially responsible way and not exploit the current situation for marketing purposes.” (So no marketing your sites as a ‘corona-free’ gaming environment.)

Both online and land-based operators are also advised to ensure they have “sufficient management, staffing and oversight” to honor the terms of their licenses. If licensees have doubts about their ability to maintain compliance, they should “consider voluntary or full suspension of their offerings” until such time as a “fully compliant service” is once again possible.

The UKGC has made social responsibility a key plank of its recent enforcement actions, so operators would be well advised to take the UKGC at its word that it will be watching closely to ensure none of its licensees lower their standards during these uncertain times.

Sadly, the UKGC also stated that it lacked the capacity to reduce license fees for the duration of the crisis “due to the way that our fee system is structured.”

UK gambling companies had a relatively good day Thursday in terms of their share prices. GVC Holdings closed down less than 1% after three days of double-digit declines. Playtech also fell 1%, while William Hill was blissfully flat after losing nearly two-thirds of its value this week. Rank Group failed to shake off the gloom, falling nearly 19% on Thursday after warning that its UK retail business had fallen off sharply and its Spanish and Belgian retail ops had closed outright.

Flutter Entertainment went the opposite route, rising 11.3% on Thursday to close only 4.3% down from its Monday opening price. 888 Holdings also had a good day, rising over 14%, although it’s still down 13.6% for the week.

Shares could head south again Friday after it was revealed that retail betting shops and casinos won’t be eligible for the business rates relief plan unveiled earlier this week by UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak.

After initially praising Sunak’s efforts to exempt retail and hospitality businesses from paying business rates for a year, Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) chief exec Michael Dugher slammed Sunak for dealing “a hammer blow to an industry that pays billions in tax [and] employs 70,000 hardworking, decent people in this country.”

The Racing Post quoted Dugher saying the BGC would continue to press the government to “reconsider this hugely damaging and frankly rather stupid decision.” Dugher also warned that “without any form of support or help we will see the wholesale collapse of a number of businesses in our industry.”