Whose problem is problem gambling?

The UK Gambling Commission’s consultation on promoting to ‘High Value Customers’ will put more player protection legislation in place, but is the carrot more effective than the stick when it comes to helping ‘at risk’ gamblers?

The gambling industry’s a little like Millwall Football Club.

“No one likes us. We don’t care!” rang their infamous terrace chant from the late 70’s onwards. Despite their atrocious choice in backing tunes (Rod Stewart’s ‘We Are Sailing’…) the Millwall fans were unusually astute in their self-awareness.

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As in football, so in sports betting, casino, bingo, poker and any other betting variant; those who don’t partake in betting as a hobby or work in the industry tend to think ill of those who do — like there’s something wrong with your genetic makeup.

“Why would you throw your money away”?

“Why don’t you work in something less harmful?”

Or the classic:- “I wouldn’t wate my money on gambling — I’ll stick to the Lottery…”

Gamblers, and those who facilitate gambling are, to an extent, social pariahs.

And that’s fine, I guess. As status quos go, it’s nothing new. And we tend to have thicker skin than most.

The industry people I speak with regularly clearly recognise that we aren’t, and never will be, seen as ‘the good guys’. Nobody is getting a Knighthood for services to betting and gaming (OK, maybe a Damehood, if you come from Stoke. And give Squillions to charity…).

Hell, most of our parents probably lie when asked what their children do.

That’s just the way it is.

But if you roll with the generalisation that we’re just not very nice people, some other things just don’t add up.

We aren’t a universally evil industry. The majority of gaming professionals I’ve met over the last 14 years in the business have no desire to see customers becoming addicted to gambling. For one, we have humanity, but people tend not to believe that, leading to reason two, money.

On a commercial level, a self-excluded customer is the ultimate churn — zero chance to retain or reactivate them — a wasted CPA. If we really are money grabbing arseholes, as certain members of the press, parliament and the general public would have you believe, then surely we despise the idea of losing a buck more than anything else? Us marketers can ill afford to throw away customers so frivolously. It’s not good for our KPIs, so it stands to reason we should protect our players and keep them playing within reasonable, affordable limits.

Operators, in regulated markets at least, already have stringent protocols in place, both legislatively enforced and at the behest of corporate governance, to ensure players who are ‘at risk’ have the tools, information and ability to mitigate the risk and cease betting before it negatively affects their lives.

If they choose to do so.

These are adults, after all. Adults who can buy booze, smoke Marlboros, become morbidly obese on fast food binges and ingest enough Prozac to render Keith Richards immobile. All of their own free will.

They can do all this and more within the letter of the law, despite associated risk of developing addicted behaviours. And they can place a bet, too (with some restrictions).

So, laws don’t necessarily protect people from their dankest urges. Addictions don’t care for legislation, although by all accounts they do tend to respond, in some cases at least, to professional treatment.

The new legislation is, as is usually the case, based on the right sentiment delivered in a longwinded way making it potentially difficult for marketing teams to decipher in the heat of battle. The actual wording of the rules seems to have been conceived by Puritans, drafted by politicians and honed by lawyers. As such, they’re onerous and potentially confusing, especially around the topic of ‘affordability’.

In recent years, UK operators have been more proactive in protecting players beyond the wording required by their gaming license. Driven in part by public and media pressure and part by a concern that any action they don’t take now could ultimately become prohibitive law in the future, they’ve built stronger ties with organisations such as GamCare, Gamble Aware and Gordon Moody Association with many now amalgamated under the banner of the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC).

It was recently announced that the BGC’s five largest members will give a massive £100 million to improve treatment services for problem gamblers. GVC, bet365, Flutter Entertainment (including new in-law, Sky Bet) and William Hill announced that they will give the funds to GambleAware over the next four years.

Offering potential problem gamblers a direct line to professional and, if needed, residential treatment solutions seems to be one of the more positive outputs of the responsible gaming movement.

Now, with the launch of new online addiction counselling platform AnonyMind (created by specialist clinic Leon House) operators are able to pay for all ‘at risk’ players to have access to a network of psychiatric consultants 24/7 via video call. As the UK’s first CQC and RET registered gambling treatment facility, this kind of proactive, practical treatment solution looks like a genuine step forward in fighting problem gambling on the front line — a service that can be promoted to players from day one when they sign up and communicated repeatedly when they bet or receive CRM communications. As it rolls out across BGC and UK licensed operators it will mean fewer players fall through the net into a serious gambling problem and if they do, there’s a second net ready to catch them.

Educating players about potential risks and offering direct, real time treatment is more of a carrot solution than the stick of legislation. With the Gambling Commission and Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport being derided as “toothless” and “complacent” with an “…unacceptably weak understanding” of how gambling can harm people in a recent Public Accounts Committee report, it seems both the legislative and operator sides have significant room for improvement.

Moving forward, it seems likely a collaborative blend of both carrot of proactivity offered by operators and the stick of legislation from the government will be most effective strategy if player protection is to be our highest priority.

Harry is the founder of Brand Architects, a UK based brand and marketing consultancy specialising in online gaming and esports.

You can contact him at Harry@BrandArchitects.co.uk or connect on Linked In

I'm a UK based Marketing Director specialising in brand, customer acquisition, PR and copy. I write regular features for Marketing Week and Campaign.

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