Bookies tempted by Tiger excesses paying the price
THE betting industry was the ultimate posterboy for the Celtic Tiger, but its excesses simply reflected those of the racing industry generally.
This was exemplified by the Galway Races, where cash flowed freely. On-site air traffic controllers were required to shepherd the swarm of helicopters that descended on Ballybrit as punters popped champagne corks and piled bets on the nags. In 2005, €25m was bet at the race meeting.
Among those who were riding the wave of the country's veneer of prosperity was Ivan Yates, who ditched politics in 2002 to concentrate on running his bookies.
In 2002 he'd just opened his 15th outlet and was gunning for bigger things. He wanted to get to a "critical mass" of about 25 outlets and then go hunting for smaller independent operators that he could buy out.
Back then, it was a plausible strategy. Within the space of a decade the amount of bets staked in Ireland had quadrupled to €4bn. Foreign operators enviously eyed the Irish market and bookie businesses were being sold for what are now unjustifiable amounts of money.
UK-headquartered Ladbrokes significantly expanded its base across the island to nearly 300 outlets, while William Hill secured a foothold when it bought rival Stanley Leisure in 2005. That gave it over 50 outlets in Ireland.
But as the economy soured, so did business. According to Horse Racing Ireland, attendances at race meetings declined 11pc in 2009 compared to 2008, while total betting on those meetings was over 21pc lower at €182m. On-course bookmaker betting fell 27pc to €122m and at the tote the amount bet fell 13pc to €48m.
Last year, William Hill announced the closure of 14 outlets in Ireland and placed the remainder under review, while Celtic Bookmakers also cited high rents and punitive exit clauses for part of its difficulties.
The chill wind of recession has also impacted other domestic players such as Boylesports, the Co Louth-based firm that's the largest privately owned bookmakers in the country with about 140 outlets and which is controlled by John Boyle.
It terminated some of its sponsorship deals last year and was intensifying development of its online business as the high street suffered.
Ladbrokes reported in November that the amounts staked at its retail outlets in Ireland were 9pc lower in the three months to the end of September due to the "continued weakness" of the economy here.
Paddy Power has also had to work hard to keep numbers up at its more than 200 retail outlets in Ireland.
In the first six months of 2010, the amount staked at its shops that had been open a year or more fell 3pc. The total amount staked by customers at its outlets in Ireland was €476m in the first half of 2010.
Bad weather will have done little to help smaller operators that may have been hanging on by a thread. About 25 race meetings in December usually lure about 100,000 people, but most fixtures were cancelled during the month.
Paddy Power reckoned that between St Stephen's Day and New Year's Day, as much as €50m would have been spent on Irish racing, while the company estimated its turnover to have been down by €30m since the first snowfalls in November.