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Guns down. We’re into a new era.

Not that I only blog after reading stuff in the Daily Telegraph (in fact, I get the Times!), but there’s a certain irony in the fact that Charlie Brooks’ piece today should argue so eloquently that dealing with the potential black market is ‘not complicated’ and that ‘Customs and Excise would immediately issue an international arrest warrant if a law was passed in this country to make such a transaction illegal’ on the same day that Norway’s gambling watchdog has admitted that despite the introduction of a law which theoretically blocks its country’s banks from making payments into online gambling sites, more than half of internet gamblers play as often as they did before. According to the Norwegian Gaming Board, it was “business as usual” for operators and players in 2011, despite the new laws.

I can understand why racing stalwarts get seriously frustrated by the fact that bookmakers aren’t obliged to pay levy if they’re offshore (although why they should give a tinker’s about their tax position, and why they don’t embrace those who pay levy voluntarily as presenting a route to a possible solution, are two things I don’t get), but railing about it at the politicians misses the point.

If there were a simple solution, then of course they’d have done something about it! The fact is, there isn’t; and the bookmakers are always going to resist, fiercely (and rightly), an imperfect solution which attempts to impose on them restrictions that cannot be enforced on their global competition. There’s little point in saying that it can be enforced on their global competition, when Norway is proving in spades that, even with more draconian laws that would ever be introduced here, the level of enforcement is very inefficient indeed. Who wants a lower than 50% success rate, with the balance going to a black market which does nobody any good? If, as Charlie Brooks himself points out, “this is not about taxing offshore bookmakers. This is about protecting UK punters,” then how can it make sense for us to adopt the system of ‘many other countries’? Whatever the ills of the UK system, its clear upside is that it has by a distance the smallest black market of the lot.

Today’s admission from Norway shows that the whole problem is that it is extremely difficult to stop unlicensed operators, which should make it easy enough to see precisely why the issue is complicated: the more restrictions and costs you impose, the more, in an internet world (particularly), the black market increases. Politicians in France may deny it, but by their own numbers they have captured around 30 licensees among thousands of sites. Scandanavian honesty gives the lie to the more bombastic Gallic rhetoric: the fact is, it’s tricky.

That shouldn’t mean the problem can never be solved; but I would think that the sure-fire way to stop it being solved is to enter the new Bittar-led period for horseracing revisiting the same bombarded battlefield of the last ten years. It must surely be incumbent on all involved – yes, on both sides – to find new ground.

Is that so difficult? I know there are some people out there who just don’t want to pay levy, period; but that isn’t, in my experience at least, true of many bookmaking companies – certainly not among the names you would recognise. Their issue is less about paying than it is about having costs imposed on them which competitors do not have imposed on them in turn, without any realistic enforceability.

The solution, I think, might therefore be found in a change of approach. I’d love to see what impact might be made if Racing were to move away from its long-held view (which I get, but think is outdated for the purposes of negotiation) that “it’s our product, so you ought to pay us”. It seems to me that if today’s consistent umbrage at a perceived slight were instead replaced by some hand of friendship, some carrot alongside the stick, some willingness to work in partnership, some benefit in kind – some recognition, even, that Racing’s is not the only product debated here which can claim to be ‘the best in the world’, then the whole picture might be transformed.

Perhaps I’m naive. But I think the “it’s not complicated” and “we’ll come and arrest you” approach just makes the bookies laugh, and raises their hackles – a downside which I would imagine outweighs much of a racing reader’s immediate satisfaction at the breakfast table. With the gambling industry only needing the status quo, the fact that nothing has actually changed with many years of this sort of support suggests that it is time to move from the pulpit to the negotiating table. However many articles are written, politicians will never be able to ‘stop talking about it and just do it’ because they have two large industries with totally polarised views forever telling them different things. It’s up to the warring parties, not the law-makers, to find common ground.



Posted in Betting industry, Politics, Regulation.

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2 Responses

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  1. bigdipper says

    How can racing’s levy be justifiable over the long term? Other sports, notably football, whose popularity as a betting vehicle is eclipsing that of racing, are not funded by a rights payment. And there is further doubt that the BHA, as the sport’s regulatory authority, are the correct recipients of the levy, which can be claimed with equal justice by the Horseman’s Group and with much more by the major tracks like Cheltenham and Ascot which stage the product the customer wants to bet on.

    Understanding the short shelf life of the levy, racing should (just like ten years ago) take as much of broadcasting (the two fractured pay-tv channels) and betting as it can back in-house. It wants to look as a very low takeout tote, with frozen pools to increasing takeouts during the day, and some sort of tie-up with an exchange operator. Racing won’t do this, because the politics and personalities are adverse and its administrators frankly too short-sighted, but it’s at least a statement of strategy.

    For their part, I think the bookies have got much more than the status quo out of racing. Under Savill’s dispensation they got wall-to-wall filler for their FOBTs and cover for keeping their shops open all hours (with the exception of mornings when they might actually have had to lay questionable or out-of-line prices). They are no friend to at least two types of genuine racing enthusiast–the winning form-student punter, who is limited, and the purist, who resents their interference. Extend a hand to them, one might think, and you get BAGS–a dismal product, an exploitative betting proposition and zero outreach to the wider public.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Talking Turkey | Mark Davies linked to this post on February 8, 2012

    […] see Turkey are the latest country to state, contrary to the counter-suggestion that I criticised last week, that attempts to block websites and limit betting through legislation are a […]

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