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Coronavirus: The 'perfect storm' for betting addicts

April 14, 2020

With the coronavirus pandemic stopping nearly all live sport, bookmakers are looking to online casino games and virtual sports. Though the football matches and horse races may be virtual, the dangers are all too real.

Betting during the coronavirus is potentially dangerous
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Persch

As long as there have been sports, there have been bets on the outcome, but what happens when there's no sport to bet on, or no physical spaces in which to place that bet?

For the bookmakers and gaming companies confronted with the loss of major markets, the answer is straightforward: You offer your customers virtual sports, as well as slot machines, bingo, poker and casino games.

But, for those who struggle to control their gambling, the current climate could be even more devastating.

"I think it's the perfect storm," said James Grimes, a recovering gambling addict who now campaigns against gambling sponsorship and advertising in football through his organization The Big Step.

"For people that don't normally gamble, they might see gambling as a pastime to fill the void, but there are also a lot of people who will be adversely financially affected by this, and gambling advertisement creates the mistaken belief that gambling is a quick way of making money," Grimes told DW.

"There's a real danger of casual customers replacing their relatively limited sports betting with virtual casino games and sports, which are not only relentless but are unlimited, have no relationship to sport. My worry is that people don't understand the addictive nature of these products, don't understand that a small casual bet on them can lead to some sort of problem or addiction."

Restrictions and refocusing

Some governments agree with Grimes' assessment of the current dangers. Belgian betting authorities recently announced a deposit limit of €500 a week on locally hosted sites. The Spanish government imposed a restriction on gambling advertising to a four-hour window between 1 and 5am, and Latvia has banned online gambling until coronavirus restrictions are lifted.

The Grand National
The Grand National was replaced with a virtual version this yearImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Stacpoole

However, these are exceptions. Most countries have made minimal changes, if any. One industry insider, who works for a payment supplier who deal with 50 betting sites across the world, says the shift to casino, virtual, and skill based games like poker and backgammon has been swift and near universal.

"There's been a clear shift in people's mentality, because they haven't got sports," he tells DW under the condition of anonymity. "Most large operators will run a sportsbook (a place where a gambler can wager on various sports competitions) and casino, only a few will be sportsbook only.

"They're probably taking an 80 percent loss on the sportsbook – there are still some games in Belarus and a few horse races - but making some of it up elsewhere. Most overall losses are probably around 25 to 30 per cent at the moment."

Rapid rate

A recent study by the UK's Gambling Commission, which regulates the industry in that country, found that 1.2 percent of people who gamble have developed a problem. When just online sports betting is considered, that figure rises to 2.5 per cent. For online games like roulette, slots and virtual sports, which are basically number generators, it's 9.2 percent.

On Bet365, one of the world's largest betting sites, at the time of writing this article, a customer can bet on various outcomes of a virtual match between Chelsea Pensioners and Manchester Blues, entirely fictitious football teams. Bets can be made on the match outcome, correct score, number of goals, which team scores first and a variety of other markets.

The matches comprise of about three minutes of computer-generated highlights, and as soon one finishes, another starts. The frequency at which a gambler can stake is the main reason for the sky high addiction numbers for these type of games. Rather than watching a match play out over 90 minutes, or waiting half an hour or so between horse races, losses can be chased immediately.

Betting on eSports and virtual sports has grown in popularity
Betting on eSports and virtual sports has grown in popularityImage: picture-alliance/dpa/TASS/M. Japaridze

Once the niche preserve of regular gamblers, these type of games are being pushed in to the mainstream. Earlier this month almost 5 million people tuned in to UK public broadcaster ITV to watch the Virtual Grand National, about half the expected audience for the real race, which it replaced in the Saturday afternoon schedules. Profits of €3 million ($3.3 million) went towards the UK's National Health Service (NHS).  

But advocates of legislation designed to curb problem gambling believe there was an ulterior motive at play, to get new customers signed up.

'In the bookies' crosshairs'

"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," says Charles Ritchie from Gambling With Lives, an organization set up by the families and friends of young people who have taken their own lives as a direct result of gambling.

"We know that people will gamble because of that. So firstly, it introduces people to virtual gambling, which the vast majority of people don't even know exists and secondly, it will put people in the crosshairs of the gambling industry. People will be targeted."

Bookmakers and gaming companies point to their membership of, and contributions to, various regulatory bodies designed to curb addiction, but recovering addict Grimes is concerned that the combination of isolation, financial worries and the inability to undertake displacement hobbies might lead to relapses - as well as new people developing problems.

"Some of my worst gambling was when football was off during the summer and I was replacing it with all sorts: online casinos, slots, virtual sports,” he recalls. "Because it wasn't about the sport I was betting on, it was the idea of gambling itself, that was the thing I was addicted to. It could have been anything."

Though it's hard to gather direct statistics, the impacts of gambling addiction are enormous, with mental health problems, suicide and bankruptcy common in those who develop problem gambling. While many will be frustrated by the absence of sport, there are a significant amount of people for whom its absence could have a far more serious legacy.

Gambling addiction - An expert’s view