Coronavirus has put everything on hold. Sports stadiums bare; casino doors shut; slot machines switched off. The global economy is also on lockdown. People are either temporarily or permanently unemployed – an immense financial strain. All of these implications would surely see gambling put on hold, no? Not in the slightest. Covid-19 has in fact heightened many of the issues that trigger gambling problems. Things have gotten worse.

The modern gambler is unmoved by a global pandemic. Bookies may be closed, but phones provide instant access to roulette wheels, poker tables and some of the most bizarre sports imaginable. A pandemic is easy work for the modern gambler. The fact is, people will always find something to gamble on. And with the advancements in technology, these unusual betting forms can be used and abused wherever and whenever – all at a finger’s length. People are currently vulnerable, and betting firms are fully aware of this. In the absence of football and horse racing – which make up 75% of the UK sports betting market – people are looking elsewhere. But the absence of sport, means some of these alternatives are being created from deep and dark places. In Russia, some gambling sites are offering customers the chance to bet on coronavirus related issues.[1] Dark and desperate.

Gambling issues are an increasingly worrying reality – people will always find a way to bet. A gambling addiction is not addiction to sport, or casino rooms; it’s an addiction to gambling. As coronavirus continues the gambling problem will likely get worse. People who find themselves with nothing to do will turn to betting as a solution. It’s important to understand how coronavirus is affecting the betting industry, and what is being done to address the issue in these most unusual circumstances. Here, we take a look at both.

Migrating Online

Everything is currently moving online. Shopping, socialising and jobs are all adapting to the new environment and the general consensus is that this is a good thing. It signals a sign of things to come, and shows that we are capable of adapting to the proposed digital age. For most industries this is positive; for gambling, the implications for customers may be disastrous. Gambling is an addiction and addictive behaviours will do their best to explore every avenue available. Wall Street Journal columnist, Jason Gay, described recent events as “the most seismic disruption in the history of sports.”[2] A disruption for sport, but an unlikely opening for betting. Sport may have disappeared, but the online world has filled the void. In Las Vegas, casinos have closed their doors, but crowds will flock to online alternatives. Alan Feldman, who controls responsible gaming at the University of Las Vegas, recognises that while casinos are closed “the reality is that they’re probably out there looking for whatever else is going to give them that rush.” He adds “that could be alcohol, that could be drugs, that could be any other number of potentially dangerous activities.”[3] In this case these are all valid, but the biggest threat is a continuation of betting itself, made possible by online formats.

As mentioned, betting is made easy by its accessibility. People can bet on a multitude of virtual sports or casino games, all from the comfort of their sofa. In the UK, there has been a considerable increase in people gambling online during coronavirus. A quarter of those who typically bet at least once a week said they were still doing so, while 28% had increased their activity, and 11% said they were gambling a lot more. In addition to this, 41% of people who bet had opened a new online account since the outbreak of the pandemic.[4] Despite sport’s absence, the appetite is still very much in place.

Joe Asher, the chief executive of William Hill’s U.S. arm, explained how “Without sports, there is no sports betting.”[5] This isn’t necessarily true. Online betting is the host to virtual sports. These types of sport are in demand and betting sites are one of the only visible ways to watch. Betting site Bet365 – ‘the world’s favourite online company’ – recently offered customers the chance to bet on a virtual football match between Manchester Blues and Chelsea Pensioners.[6] This may appear fictional fun, but people are relying on this as a way to obtain a ‘rush.’ It's a virtual sport, with real consequences. We should avoid encouraging it. The UK Gambling Commission recently revealed that for online games like roulette, slots and virtual sports – which are basically number generators – 9.2% are likely to develop betting problems. This will only increase as more people turn their attention online.

A Dark Marketing Ploy

Right before lockdown was announced in the UK, sport began to disappear daily. As the rest of the world closed borders and industries, all eyes turned to the UK for all the wrong reasons: The Cheltenham Festival. Over four days, 251,684 racegoers attended, with a crowd of 68,500 watching the Gold Cup on March 13.[7] There isn’t enough data yet, to suggest this gathering acted as a ‘super-spreader’, but it went against what the rest of the world appeared to be doing. Horse Racing – a fairly divisive sport anyway – became an even dirtier word overnight. To redeem itself, the Virtual Grand National was presented, from which all proceedings would go to the NHS. 5 million people tuned in and over £3million was raised for NHS efforts against Coronavirus.[8] A fairly innocent and seemingly thoughtful gesture. But there is growing suspicion that this event was in fact a way of marketing virtual sports and online betting to the new gambler. Charles Ritchie, from Gambling With Lives (GwL), outlined his concerns: “There'll be a whole set of once-a-year betters who, as a result of the Grand National, are now on the bookmakers' mailing lists, receiving marketing material.”[9] This all goes back to vulnerability. People are frightened, confused, stressed and ultimately fed-up. The Virtual Grand National was an insight into online betting and the impressive realism or virtual betting. It would have appealed to both gamblers, old and new, and will likely hook a number of people currently missing sport and in need of a kick. The same UK Gambling Commission outlined that 1.2% of people who bet, develop a problem.[10] Online betting is a doorway to gambling problems – events like the Virtual Grand National simply crank it open.

What is being done about it?

It’s taken a while, but action is finally being taken. The UK – in traditional UK fashion during this pandemic – has been relatively slow to address the threat gambling poses. GwL have voiced their concerns and outlined what they think should be done: “we know that this is a really dangerous time for people with gambling disorders or who might be at the start of that fateful journey into addiction – drawn into online slots and casino games, or gambling on virtual sports.”[11] In April, they called for all gambling advertising to be banned; weekly and daily deposit limits to be enforced more stringently and stop all ‘free bet’ or ‘free spin offers.’[12] It was an effective campaign. Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) announced they would voluntarily remove all TV and radio product advertising during the Covid-19 lockdown as addiction experts describe this as “an unprecedented step in unprecedented times.”[13]

Across the world, Belgian betting authorities announced a deposit limit of €500 a week on locally hosted sites; the Spanish government restricted gambling advertising to hours between 1 and 5am and Latvia has banned all online gambling until coronavirus restrictions are lifted.[14] Organisations like GwL and UK Addiction Treatment (UKAT) have applauded these announcements. There are, however, questions on why these restrictions and measures have not been introduced sooner, and whether they should return once coronavirus passes. Eytan Alexander, of UKAT, outlined how “those most vulnerable and susceptible to betting and gaming adverts right now will still be susceptible to them once this is all over.”[15] Progress is being made, for what is a problem likely to develop. You cannot help but feel that right now, these are only baby-steps.

Gambling is always a potential issue, whatever the circumstances. Amidst this pandemic, it is a serious issue. Despite the disappearance of sport and closure of casinos, modern day betting has an alternative way triggering addictions. Virtual and online betting is currently surging in popularity as people look for sport and gambling alternatives. Issues that make someone vulnerable to a gambling addiction are currently heightened by the implications of Covid-19. It is something that governments, and individuals and companies like ourselves must keep a firm eye on as more people turn to gambling. Action is being taken, but we can and should be doing more.