WORST BOOKIE 2013

We couldn’t end the year without awarding Fair Wagering Australia’s “Worst Bookmaker 2013”.

We determine the worst bookie to be the one that is the most unfair to punters – particularly those that happen to win more often than they lose.

It was a very strong field this year, headed by UK-owned Ladbrokes, Bet365 and Sportingbet, but honorable mentions also go to the homegrown Luxbet and Betezy.

But there can only one winner. Envelope please.  Drumroll…..

And the winner is…. Bet365!!! To accept the award, please welcome American film and television actor Samuel L Jackson.

samuel_l_jackson

Thanks Samuel, short but sweet.

Bet365

An unethical bookie where winners are shown the door with astonishing haste.

Winning accounts are closed, successful clients are offered minuscule bets.

Bets are rejected, prices are cut.

Restrictions are placed, bonus winnings are removed.

Bet365 operate under an appallingly one-sided set of terms and conditions which even in the words of the compliant Northern Territory Racing Commission are “harsh” and “restrictive”.

The same regulator even hauled a representative before the commission to fully explain their practices.

Advertising

It has also become clear in recent times that Bet365 is to TV cricket coverage what Tom Waterhouse was to the NRL. You can’t watch a boundary scored without a Bet365 logo in your face or a Michael Clarke century without a follow up Samuel L Jackson TV spot.

Waterhouse at 8pm on the NRL is one thing, but copping it in the middle of the afternoon during the country’s most popular national family sport is another thing altogether. Targeting kids? Doubtful. Irresponsible? Absolutely.

How have Bet365 largely escaped the tirade directed at Tom Waterhouse after his irresponsible over saturating advertising? Cricket Australia and Channel Nine must assume some of the blame as well.

The Company

While it’s clear that operations in Australia haven’t all gone according to plan – the local arm is believed to have lost AUD$36 million in its first year (in-play restrictions hurt immensely) – the company certainly is a Goliath.

On figures from its last financial year of reporting (ending March ‘13), operating profit was up 54% to AUD$327 million on a staggering turnover of in excess of AUD$36 billion from over two million active clients.

Previously, the non-listed privately-held company has rarely shared its financial numbers.  The family behind the multi-billion dollar enterprise – Peter Coates, his daughter Denise (CEO), and son John, are worth over AUD$1.7 billion – just 13 years after they launched the firm.

The family’s controlling interest in Premier League football club Stoke City actually drained the company of over AUD$50 million last year. But the most mind-blowing number is that the company is sitting on over AUD$780 million of cash reserves. Sheeeeeshhh! indeed.

Apparently, one doesn’t accumulate that sort of wealth by betting both winners and losers. It’s more a case of one winning family and millions of losers.

We say that having a bookmaker’s license in Australia shouldn’t just be a license to print money. It’s a form of gambling where winners have to be tolerated. Bookmakers must be forced to bet both losers and winners to win a reasonable amount.

Bookmaking needs to get back to being a duel between oddsmaker and punter, not a one-sided massacre.

So congratulations go to Bet365, Fair Wagering Australia’s Worst Bookmaker 2013.

Stay tuned to the FWA in 2014 as we continue our quest to bring back fairness to wagering in Australia.

Regulatory changes on the horizon?

Racing punter Richard Irvine has been in the media recently with appearances in the Sydney Morning HeraldToday Tonight and the ABC’s Radio NationalWriting for Fair Wagering Australia and supporting our quest for fairness, Irvine expands on the huge issue of Australian online bookmakers banning winners and betting only losing clients. Could Federal regulation of sports and race betting in Australia be on the horizon?

Media outlets are reporting that Sportsbet have signed a $40 million, 4 year sponsorship deal with Channel 9 to be their wagering partner for their Rugby League coverage. It is interesting Channel 9 are still pushing ahead with having a bookmaker as part of their coverage considering the backlash against Tom Waterhouse last year.

Of course it as all about revenue for Channel 9 and $40 million goes along way to offset the $1.1 billion they paid for the rights to the NRL in 2012. The Sportsbet revenue also comes in handy for the impending float of Nine Entertainment Corp.

Sportsbet and various other bookmakers are determined to become part of our sporting culture because in their opinion they offer an enhanced entertainment experience by giving people the chance to make money whilst supporting their favourite football team. But can Australians really make money off these organisations?

Bookmakers are in the business of selling people the opportunity to make money. If you are shut out by these bookies as soon as you turn a profit (no matter how large that profit is) more consistently than having one or two winning days aren’t they in contempt of their product offering?

So where is the evidence of how ruthless I claim these bookies are? You don’t have to look far.

ABC’s Four Corners did a story in May this year on the public backlash against Tom Waterhouse and his advertising. It was a well-put together, interesting story.

The Ringleader

Cormac Barry, CEO of Sportsbet was interviewed for the story. He painted Sportsbet in a positive light, as if they were the good guys of the bookmaking industry. It was difficult for people who understand the industry implicitly to watch, as we all know there is no more ruthless corporate bookmaker than Sportsbet. I would have loved the interviewer to ask Cormac Barry why profitable punters are shown the door by Sportsbet and only losers are welcome. Of course the interviewer was not aware of this and it was never asked.

Interestingly, Cormac Barry inadvertently admitted the ruthless approach of Sportsbet on Four Corners. Whilst giving reporter, Marian Wilkinson, a tour of Sportsbets plush headquarters trading floor he commented that his team of “analysts” spend their days “monitoring customer behaviour, monitoring customer bets and looking for patterns in their bets”.

This admission by Cormac Barry is actually the modus operandi for virtually all the corporate bookies in Australia. Gone are the days where if you were an analyst for a corporate bookie you would spend your days analysing the odds of a horse or sporting teams chance of winning an event.

Now, due to the reach of the Internet, corporate bookies sit back and copy odds from other betting markets and bookmakers all over the world. They then let all their losing clients bet off those markets.

The analysts then trawl through all bets on these markets looking for punters who back winners or worse still have a bet at the top of the market (where the odds shorten after their bet). When these punters with an edge are found they are shown the door.

The old school skills of bookmaking are lost on the new breed of corporates. As business men and women they obviously have acumen, but as bookmakers they can only be considered as lazy, passive and talentless.

The NRL place paramount importance on their image and reputation within the community. I would like to know what they think about their telecaster having a corporate relationship with an organisation that offer the community an opportunity only to lose money, and hence advancing the prospects of problem gambling in the community.

Problem Gambling

So why do the bookies actions lead to problem gambling? I see it pretty simply. Problem gambling is when punters bet outside their comfort levels and financial means. As punters, we all know the feeling of when you just can’t back a winner. You get angrier and often try to bet your way out of it. Even the most experienced, successful gambler would have experienced this feeling. By the bookies only letting people experience the feeling of losing, it drastically increases the chance of a punter betting beyond their means.

Further, if governments, via their regulatory bodies, condone an industry in which people can only lose money, isn’t that a problem?

I have tried to get this issue some exposure within mainstream media. It has got its fair share, considering that there are much bigger issues in Australia.

The disappointing aspect I find is that the racing mainstream media won’t touch it. You only have to watch an ad-break on TVN or Sky to figure out why. Luxbet, followed by Sportsbet, followed by Sportingbet, followed by Bet365 entertain us with their nauseating adverts.

This absolutely is a big issue for racing. NT bookies have a growing 22% of the national wagering market. Sky and TVN should have enough independent journalistic integrity to at least allow some debate over the issue on their flagship programs, Racing Retro or Racing Review. Much smaller issues get a lot of airtime on these shows.

Bookies Response

With the reasonable amount of media coverage I have received, the corporate bookies, when asked to comment in response to my claims have mostly ignored the requests or used the same disappointing, embarrassing line, “we ban a very small amount of professional punters to protect the odds for our valued recreational gamblers”.

Firstly, the vast majority of the “very small amount of punters” they ban are not pros, just recreational punters who spend a bit of time working out what horse, dog, etc. to back, and hence find an edge. Often they are punters who will bet small amounts like $20.

Secondly, the bookies don’t care at all about preserving odds for their recreational gamblers; they care for their recreational punters as long as they’re long term losers. That’s the embarrassing aspect of their comment – that they “care” for their recreational punters. If they care for their punters why don’t they let them win if they are good enough, especially considering that is the product they offer for sale, the opportunity to win money?

Australian Wagering Council

AWC

Australian Wagering Council

Corporate bookies in Australia have a peak body, the Australian Wagering Council. After much media pressure the AWC released a statement on the issue of banning punters saying –

“Bookmakers will occasionally decline bets placed by professional gamblers. This is because their bets can distort a betting market. In such instances, the odds change, meaning average punters get worse value. Bookmakers protect the interests of average punters by restricting bets from a professional. Roughly one in every 10,000 bets is declined.

Take a typical horse race, for example. Lots of people may want to stake $10 or $20 on the favourite at odds of, say $5. If a professional gambler comes in and backs the same horse with a $5,000 bet, the odds could be reduced to $3.50. The bookmaker may restrict or decline the bet from the professional punter, so the majority of their customers get a fair deal, rather than get short-changed with worse odds.”

This statement is an insult to the intellect of all Australian punters.

My response to this statement is as follows –

The bookies the AWC represent feel they can go against rules that have been in place for over a century for on-course bookmakers. On-course bookies are obligated to bet all comers to ensure a fair marketplace for all. Australia’s leading racing regulators and politicians have installed and maintained this practice for all of time.

AWC bookmakers don’t feel they should offer the same fair conditions. It is fortunate for AWC bookies that they found a tax friendly government and supportive regulator in the NT that allows them to behave like this.

All bookmakers represented by the Wagering Council already have the odds in their favour. By banning the minority of Australian punters who are smart enough or lucky enough to beat the percentage already against them, means that the majority of punters who lose, will only ever be able to lose. As soon as they become winners they will be banned. All losing punters aspire to win, that’s why the industry exists. That’s why people continue to bet. No one is betting to lose.

AWC’s example of a pro asking for $20k/$5k bet is unrealistic. It is in no way a reflection of how the industry works. Further, all I am asking is for all punters to be bet to win a minimum of $1k.

That bet would be $1k/$250 at the odds they describe, some 5% of the wager they use as an example. This would have no impact on the bookies books liability. I am not asking to win $20k, just to win $1k. I feel that is a fair request, no one expects or wants to put a bookmaker out of business.

Also, if bookies were to lay $20k/$5k in a bet from a pro and be forced to shorten the odds to $3.50, wouldn’t the bookie then push the odds of other horses out creating value for recreational punters on other horses? Or would they just leave all other horses the same price and have even more percentage in their favour? I think they would push the other horses out. That is how bookmaking works. Punters love fixed price markets because they move all the time. It’s all part of the fun of fixed price bookmaker betting.

Maybe the AWC should say this –

“The bookmakers we represent only want to bet losers and whilst the regulations we are bound by allow us to do this we will continue to conduct our business in this manner. If you are not happy with the regulations, talk to the Northern Territory Racing Commission (NTRC).”

At least no one would be able to argue with them then.

The Regulator

I have talked to the NT Government (who oversee the toothless regulator, NTRC) on many occasions and on many levels and got nowhere. The Minster for Business in the NT is the Honourable David Tollner. He has the power to change legislation. He has responded to me via email once when he told me to take my concerns to the NTRC. I did that and they knocked me back. In fact after my submission they my made it easier for bookies to pick and choose their clientele.

Mr Tollner also advised me that there were plenty of alternate betting operators available to me. To that I say – If BP is selling petrol 20 cents cheaper than Caltex, as a consumer don’t I have right to shop at BP? Not to mention I am subjected to their endless advertising during my quality time with friends and family watching horseracing or sport in general on TV.

The Northern Territory Racing Commission has a series of "objects" under the Racing and Betting Act - "fairness" being one of them.

The Northern Territory Racing Commission has a series of “objects” under the Racing and Betting Act – “fairness” being one of them.

After Mr Tollner and the NTRC knocked me back I put the story to the media. Three significant media organisations picked up the story. I thought this media attention warranted me re-engaging with Mr Tollner and requesting a phone conversation to discuss the issue. I did this in writing. His office acknowledged receipt of my request and said they would be in touch. A month has now past and I have not heard from Mr Tollner.

Aside from the banning punters issue you have to query the revenue corporate bookies in the NT actually raise for Mr Tollner’s government – especially if you are a resident relying on tax revenue to help improve basic amenities such as hospitals and schools.

The NT-based bookies have paid a pittance in tax to the State Government since the first bookie, Centrebet, opened for business in 1992.

Amazingly as their turnover grew, the NT Government saw fit in 2010 to reduce their turnover tax. Admittedly, they reduced their tax in the face of competition from Tasmania trying to lure the bookmakers down to the Apple Isle. Tasmania offered bookies a deal where their turnover tax would be capped at $258,000. The NT Govt. shot back with a cap of $250,000. They all stayed.

This tax concession meant the NT Government went from receiving $11.3 million in 2009 in tax to a paltry $2.35 million in 2012. In the same period the bookies turnover grew by $1 billion from $4.7 billion to $5.7 billion. Yep, that’s right, grew by a billion to $5.7 billion.

Governments allow gambling as it produces revenue for them and creates jobs within the allowed gambling industry. They usually take their fair whack, but the income the NT Government receives off $5.7 billion of bookmaker’s turnover seems a little light. Territorians are being massively short changed, not to mention the rest of Australia who are seeing potential revenue for their state governments leaked up to the NT.

To put it into context, the NT lotteries turnover was $50 million in 2011/2012, the NT Government. saw fit to tax that turnover some $15.8 million. The bookies turned over $5.7 billion and payed $2.35 million in turnover tax. I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves.

The only possible argument I can see that NT bookies and NT Government can use to defend the tiny tax the bookies pay is that they pay race fields fees to all racings peak bodies, and pay GST to the Federal Government. But none of this revenue goes directly to the NT Government.

They could claim the industry creates jobs. The bookies employ 300 people in the NT. Every job in Australia is valuable but 300 is not exactly an amount that would cripple NT if the industry upped and left for Tasmania.  They used to employ a lot more than 300 people but the bookies have moved a lot of their infrastructures, and therefore jobs, to Melbourne and Sydney. I guess there is more fun to be had in Sydney and Melbourne.

NT bookmakers paid nothing by way of turnover tax to Australia’s peak racing bodies up until 2012 when forced to by the High Court. Peter V’Landys, Racing NSW CEO, fought hard for the turnover tax model he thought was right for the industry and won. I emailed him asking for his opinion on the issue. This was his response –

Thank you for seeking my input on this matter.

Racing NSW does consider this to be a very important issue and is fully appreciative of your views on this matter.

I was surprised and disappointed that the Northern Territory Government recently introduced a ruling that corporate bookmakers are not required to accept bets to a minimum amount and could further close the accounts of anyone they chose.  Unfortunately, Racing NSW has no control over the regulatory requirements that the Northern Territory imposes upon wagering operators licensed in its jurisdiction. 

I agree with you that it does seem incongruous that, in this day and age of responsible gambling, successful punters can be shut out.  It is unfair not only on the punters but also means that the wagering operators that operate in New South Wales and other States that are quite properly required to bet minimum amounts are at a disadvantage.  In my view, the fairest approach would be for all States and Territories in Australia to have the same minimum bet requirements and wagering operators not have the ability to close an account, or restrict its operation, simply because a punter is too successful.  That would ensure that the punters are given a fair go and that there is equality for the wagering operators”.

Having arguably Australia’s most prominent racing administrator take time to give me his thoughts on behalf of Racing NSW makes me feel the principles of what I am campaigning for are right.

NT bookies are 80% owned by European companies. They are bringing their business model to our shores and dictating to us on how to run our industry. Just ask any expert on the UK racing industry if the model has worked for the betterment of UK racing. Don’t be surprised if the term “dire straits” is used to describe the UK industry.

These European companies have paid huge amounts of money through company acquisitions and big advertising spends to get access to the Aussie market. I feel they have massively overestimated the viability of the Australian marketplace.

Sure we love a punt, but we have a population of 23 million not 500 million like in Europe. The market was pretty established and set before they came. I do not wish failure in business on anyone but I think some of these organisations are going to go back to Europe lighter in the pocket and with their tail between their legs.

Mind you, when Ladbrokes, the biggest bookie in the world, opens for business here and some punters are not even allowed to open an account with them because one of their industry experienced bookmakers has recognised their name (yep, that happened to me), it is hard to have much sympathy for them if they fail. They’re a $2.7 billion company though, I’m sure they will be okay no matter how their down under experience turns out for them.

TABCORP take a stand

Interestingly Tabcorp has taken aim at the corporates in the NT recently. Tabcorp CEO David Attenborough, during his annual address said this:

I would now like to address the issue of wagering regulation.

Wagering in Australia is currently regulated on a state-by-state basis. Tabcorp has long held the view that a consistent and national approach to wagering regulation is necessary. Not only is it in the public interest, it is also in the interests of the Australian racing industry and sporting codes, and will deliver a better outcome for government.

In the 2013 financial year Tabcorp returned more than $725 million to the Australian racing industry through wagering and contributions from our Media and International business.

The regulatory regime for corporate bookmakers licensed in the Northern Territory is very different to the states’ framework. These differences have driven the increased activity of the Northern Territory licensed corporate bookmakers, who do not have the same licence commitments that Tabcorp does. Indeed, up to eight cents in every dollar spent with the TAB on a totalizator bet goes to the racing industry. This compares with only 1 to 2 cents in the dollar for bets placed with corporate bookmakers licensed in the Northern Territory.

In the 2012 financial year, wagering taxes collected in the low-tax Northern Territory regime were a little over $2 million, despite more than $5.7 billion in turnover attributable to the Northern Territory licensed corporate bookmakers. In the same period, Tabcorp paid $292 million in state wagering taxes in NSW and Victoria on turnover of $10.8 billion, a proportion which is 77 times greater. Given one of the primary aims of licensing gambling products is to return a fair share of the proceeds to the community, the Northern Territory is grossly under taxing its licensed corporate bookmakers.

I would also like to talk about tote odds products offered by corporate bookmakers licensed in the Northern Territory. These are products derived off our totalizator dividends. In simple terms, totalizator dividends are calculated taking into account Tab’s funding commitments to support the racing industry.. The low level of racing product fees and taxes paid by the Northern Territory-licensed corporate bookmakers, combined with the fact that they don’t have obligations to share revenue derived on tote odds betting products with the industry, enables them to offer enhanced tote dividends to punters. Over the medium to long term this regulatory difference will undermine racing industry funding”.

I agree with Mr. Attenborough completely on all counts. His comments will cannibalise Luxbet (Tabcorp owned) a bit, but Luxbet’s plight is insignificant when compared to funding that the TAB provide to racing. The TAB needs to be allowed to protect this revenue. Without tote revenue staying at about 75% of the wagering market the industry in its present form isn’t sustainable.

I also agree that corporates should not be allowed to bet tote odds. It won’t help me or other punters, getting best tote plus 5% is great, but it is not the corporate bookies product to bet on. The TAB administers and promotes their tote odds at their own expense, so why should NT bookies just be allowed to copy them? It really is the TAB’s intellectual property.

Mr. Attenborough never addressed the issue of NT bookies banning punters. That’s because Tabcorp are right into it as well. Luxbet get rid of winners and now the Tab’s own fixed odds section go to great lengths to weed out winners. Surely Tabcorp has a responsibility above all others in the industry to give punters a chance to win?

The Future

I think you will find the Federal Government will step in soon and announce nationwide regulation of the horseracing gambling industry. The economics of the situation will be too compelling for the Government to ignore.

Hopefully the Federal Government will address punters being banned at the same time.

If they need something to compare it to they could ask the Australian Stock Exchange. The ASX appoint market makers like Macquarie Bank to their derivatives market. Market makers are bookmakers of the financial markets. Market makers are obliged to transact with any investor who wishes to place a derivative trade with them. If they refused someone’s custom, they would be hauled before ASIC and be in serious trouble. It all sounds familiar, right? Right up until the bit about being hauled before the industry regulator.

I have a phone conversation scheduled with Independent Senator, Nick Xenophon in early December. It will be interesting to get his thoughts and hopefully get the ball rolling for change. Not just change so punters can’t be banned but also change so that racings revenue is protected so racing can continue to grow and prosper.

We have the best industry in the world; let’s keep it that way. The rest of the world are welcome to get involved but on our terms, not theirs. Because the way racing has been run in this country for all of time has led to the vibrant, rewarding industry we all love. Of course we can always improve and keep learning, which goes without saying.

Maybe this is a rant or maybe I’ve hit the nail on then head. All feedback (positive or negative) is welcome below.

Cheers

Richard Irvine