Igaming Focus: UK Gambling Commission observes gambling behaviour during lockdown By Hannah Gannagé-Stewart, CDC Gaming Reports May 27, 2020 at 1:58 pm Another month, another post-apocalyptic column. Just six months ago, it would have seemed absurd to ponder the effect of a global pandemic on the gambling industry, a most esoteric public-health study, but here we are. It’s tempting to believe, as we all search for silver linings, that something good may come out of the way the industry handled COVID-19. Regulators were quick to strengthen the rules as lockdowns were imposed across the globe, for fear that otherwise unengaged minds would turn on mass to vice. South Africa went as far as to ban cigarettes and alcohol during lockdown. It is a small mercy that the same was not true in Europe, where instead we have witnessed the rise of the ‘Quarantini’, an alcoholic concoction comprised of whatever liquor remains in the house. It is now more than two months since the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown on 23 March, followed by a statement from the chief executive of the Gambling Commission (GC) Neil McArthur on 25 March. “We are already seeing reports of an increase in online slots, poker, casino gaming and virtual sports”, he warned somewhat ominously, adding, “If we see irresponsible behaviour, we will step in immediately. So, whilst I know that the current climate is unprecedented, gambling operators must play their part in making sure that people are kept safe.” As such, he reiterated basic customer-protection principles. Operators were reminded that “consumer protection must be paramount”, “marketing must be conducted responsibly” and that compliance with licence conditions and codes of practice should be upheld. However, the European Gaming & Betting Association (EGBA) took a slightly different tack at this time, insisting it was cynical that COVID-19 would usher in an online gaming boom, dubbing sch claims “unfounded”. The EGBA did call for diligence and integrity when advertising gambling products, however, releasing guidance on 30 March that highlighted some dos and don’ts of marketing gambling products during a pandemic. For example, it asked that “advertising does not refer to the coronavirus, World Health Organisation (WHO) coronavirus-related statements and/or any other coronavirus-related developments” or “portray gambling as a solution to social, personal or financial problems”. The guidance went on to remind operators of their responsibilities regarding customer protection, but did not suggest anything beyond what is already expected of them in normal times. Looking at data being tracked by the GC during the pandemic, it appears that the EGBA’s reading of the situation was pretty accurate. Having tracked data from licensed operators and conducted a survey via polling company YouGov, the GC has concluded that in the first four weeks of the lockdown, “the crisis does not appear to have attracted many new consumers to gambling”. The YouGov research from 16-17 April found that just 0.2% of all adults surveyed stated that they had started gambling for the first time during the previous four weeks. Meanwhile, operator data on overall active player accounts indicated a 3% decrease, attributable in part by the lack of real-event betting, as the chance to bet on professional sport disappeared. The loss of live sporting events saw a reduction in active players of 11%, although the GC said this figure was probably mitigated by the fact that the major horse racing event, the Cheltenham Festival, went ahead just prior to lockdown. Meanwhile, virtual betting increased by 88%, albeit from a lower base, according to the GC’s data. The YouGov research showed that a third of past four-week gamblers had tried one or more gambling activities for the first time during lockdown. Operator data backs this up, showing that certain products also saw active player increases compared to this time last year (some from low comparative bases of players). These were generally those games with a faster play cycle, such as slots. If anything, what this information provides is intelligence on the type of player that gambling attracts, rather than how a pandemic affects the general population with regards to the appeal of gambling. The YouGov data also revealed that those who gambled in the four weeks prior to 16-17 April were more likely than the national average to have partaken in a number of other screen-based activities. They spent more time on online entertainment (17% of gamblers compared to 11% of all adults), more time watching TV (58% of gamblers compared to 42% of all adults) and consumed more on-demand entertainment (51% of gamblers compared to 35% of all adults). Overall, the greatest increase in money spent over the four weeks in question, according to the YouGov survey, was on National Lottery products. The data shows 12.8% spent more on tickets for National Lottery draws and 3.6% more on online instant win games available on the National Lottery website. Online slot machine-style games or online instant-win games were reported to be the next biggest increase in spend, but the rise was just 2%. In all, the GC’s data appears to reveal that if you gamble, you may well gamble a little more when you have nothing else to do, but operators are still competing with the draw of other screen-based entertainment, such as TV and on-demand services. Perhaps one takeaway from this pandemic is that vulnerable and problem gamblers must be protected at all costs, but they are in the minority. Much as the GC’s and EGBA’s advice for operators reflected broad common sense during the pandemic, the approach should remain so afterwards. The GC is yet to release its figures for April, and while it is possible that they will reveal a different picture, it seems more likely that moderate increases in gambling by those already familiar with the products is the worst-case scenario. The next issue to deal with is what operators will do to make up the shortfall during COVID-19. H2 Gambling Capital forecast an 18.6% revenue hit to global gambling revenue. Will unscrupulous operators put integrity aside to rebuild lost business? Or will a tolerance of moderation endure?