Sports betting, everyone loves a winner, right?

Sports Betting Cap

Sports betting is presented as a fun and, as long as players don’t overspend or develop addictions, harmless way to enjoy sporting events. But any player lucky enough to have a few winning bets will soon experience a very different reality, says Dominic Gates.

The prospect of having your betting account shut down for winning too often is one of the realities of being a regular sports betting punter in 2018. If such a trend sounds weird to the uninitiated, it is because, quite frankly, it is.

The premise and appeal of sports betting is that as an average punter you can pick your wits against bookmakers, use your powers of observation to place a winning bet and spice up a live sporting event with a flutter that could bring in a few quid.

The reality of the situation is that as soon as a player wins a few bets, their account is shut down by the bookmaker, with an asterisk placed next to their name and an operator note saying it mustn’t accept business from this customer.

The sums involved don’t even need to be very high. A player who ends the year as a ‘winning punter’, with a credit balance of say £1,000 (often less), will have their account shut down by the bookmaker.

Taking in the whole picture

The trend of widespread account closures has attracted lots of media coverage in recent months, but it has been going on for the past five to six years already.

From reading accounts of account closures of fairly knowledgeable players such as this one related to the Guardian newspaper in 2015, it is clear bookmakers take a dim view of punters winning too often.

But if we delve further into this player’s story it is possible to see why his account was closed: he ended 2014 with a very healthy profit of £18,000. On that basis, one could argue the bookmaker was within their rights to close the player’s account and that the action was wholly justified. After all, if all punters ended up with such healthy profits, the bookies would be losing money hand over fist and soon going out of business. However, looking at the player’s previous years’ activity, a very different picture emerges.

“In 2010 I won £700 and the following year I won £2,079.61. 2012 was a disaster: I lost £6,626.68. In 2013, I fared better and won £451.56”, he says, before explaining why his winnings jumped so spectacularly the following year: “2014 was – by my modest standards – a remarkable year: my Cheltenham Festival winners included Sire de Grugy, backed at 28-1 for the BetVictor Queen Mother Champion Chase, and my Aintree winners included Pineau de Re, backed at 40-1 for the Crabbie’s Grand National. I finished the year exactly £18,012.92 in profit.”

So clearly this player was knowledgeable enough to spot a great horse at a great price, but that was only because he started going to racecourses at a very young age and had followed the sport ever since. How many others like him are out there? Not that many, as viewing figures show the average age of racing fans constantly rising and younger audiences gravitating towards football, tennis or even the NBA. In addition, the bookmaker could have taken his entire playing history into account rather than that one major win.

Long term questions

What this means for the industry’s long-term viability is harder to determine. Firstly, the trend isn’t confined to horse racing and happens across any sport where a punter might be successful. Secondly, bookmakers (and casinos, but to a lesser extent), show no sign of cutting down on the practice. At a parliamentary discussion held at the start of the year, acting as representatives for players, the Horse Racing Bettors Forum discussed the issues with a number of industry stakeholders.

Sky Bet chief executive Richard Flint certainly did not apologise for the practice, and said: “We run a business, not a public service. We run it to be a commercial success. We must have the ability to say no to customers who we believe will be unprofitable for us in the longer term.”

To be fair to Flint he was the only top executive present and willing to discuss these issues, even if it didn’t make that much of a difference.

But when viewed through this perspective, the appeal of having a flutter on the gee-gees or the weekend’s league games changes drastically. In effect the bookmakers are telling players that their money is welcome, but only as long as they keep losing and their funds go through straight to the bottom line; and forget about ever picking up winnings with any kind of regularity, even when the sums involved are low.

Industry should act – before it is forced to

This leads to all kinds of shenanigans from banned players who go to quite extraordinary lengths to place their bets, roping in their family or friends to place bets for them; and in case a bet comes in, getting the winnings back from those people can be a whole other story. Meanwhile some affiliates have to spell out some of the far-fetched tactics players need to adopt if they want to get their bets on. After reading such articles, the cheeky weekend flutter takes on a very different complexion.

In this observer’s opinion, there are two key takeaways to remember from the issue of account closures. The first is that by adopting the practice in such a widespread manner, the bookies are near enough removing the appeal of winning out of the equation. If as a sports bettor your account is to be closed after a few winning bets, even when the amounts are very low, and this is replicated across the majority of the bookmakers, then what is the appeal of playing?

Secondly, and most importantly for the sector, there is a risk that the issue will continue to simmer and discontent will grow to such an extent that the government will eventually step in and legislate against the bookies, much as with what happened with fixed-odds betting terminals. And we all remember how the industry came out on the losing side with FOBTs.