Monday 22 December 2014

How the bookies have died and gone to betting heaven

Nothing these people do, no matter how crass, is ever done without calculation

Published 09/03/2014 | 02:30

Illustration: Jim Cogan

On the wall of a pub in Dublin there's an old ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes. "Lucky Strike," it declares, "Will Not Affect Your Throat".

There are times when the gambling industry seems to be roughly at the same stage of awareness as the tobacco industry was, when it was boasting that cigarettes "will not affect your throat".

With the arrival of online gambling, we have seen the rise of what is effectively a new industry, one that governments have struggled even to tax properly, let alone to comprehend on any intelligent level. The media, likewise, have been largely clueless.

It is a business that is still in its Wild West phase, and in that relatively lawless atmosphere there are men out there living on their wits, getting rich while they can.

It is still remarkable to recall that in the Seventies, if you wanted to go to a betting office to put a pound on a horse, you needed an extra 20 pence in betting tax, whereas today if you want to have a euro on the Oscar Pistorius trial with Paddy Power online, you will need just a euro.

That old industry was regulated in a way that reflected not just the government's endless desire for tax, but also a sense that society had formed the view that betting was not an entirely safe pursuit, and that a 20 per cent slap in the face might serve to discourage some of us at entry level.

This new industry has no barriers, none of that old unpleasantness. The punter doesn't even need to get up out of bed, let alone to stand in some dismal turf accountant's office handing over €1.20 in real cash money for every €1 he wants to wager. The bookies, essentially, have died and gone to heaven.

Up there, they don't even call it light touch regulation, it's more like soft touch regulation.

So even these cold-blooded card players would hardly be human if they did not get a bit excited now and again, letting out the odd "yee-haw" and blasting off a few stray shots. Paddy Power did that when it collaborated in its own garbled way with the regime in North Korea just before Christmas, and again last week with the Oscar Pistorius money-back special.

By an odd coincidence, I had suggested only last Sunday that some day, somehow, the bookies were going to have their Liveline moment – and it turned out to be last Monday.

And yet nothing that these people do, even the stuff that is so crass it gets them on Liveline, is ever done without calculation.

There's the obvious calculation that the publicity will rope in a load of chumps for Cheltenham – "making people aware of our novelty bets" is code for "rounding up the chumps".

Paddy Power might also point to the fact that other bookies already found a way for people to bet on whether Obama would get shot – they did this by offering odds that Hillary Clinton would be the next President, at a time when Obama had defeated her in the Democratic primaries, and one of the few ways she could become president was if he was assassinated.

There is also the calculation that horrible advertising never did Ryanair any harm, allied with a Ryanair-like zeal to keep making more money than anyone ever thought possible. Though Ryanair is unlike the bookies in the sense that you may not enjoy your flight, but you will hardly find yourself with a one-way ticket to Palooka-ville.

And there is a deeper level of risk analysis at work here, which goes something like this: there are some seriously dark sides to this trade, issues of addiction and exploitation that are rarely addressed with any sincerity either by the industry or by commentators. In such a setting, if bookies are going to be attacked merely on grounds of bad taste, they'll probably take that.

Michael O'Leary was able to take it, all the more so when he looked at his profits, or his profitability as these guys like to call it.

Meanwhile Tony O'Reilly, the former An Post manager in Gorey, is still in jail having lost roughly €1.7m of his employer's money betting with Paddy Power, during a period when he was also their guest at major sporting events.

When you've got that sort of thing in your out-tray, accusations of insensitive marketing are probably not going to break you.

Nor is there any sign that our culture in general is becoming more sophisticated on these matters. Hilariously, on the very day that Joe Duffy was excoriating Paddy Power, the FAI and its "betting partner" Bragbet launched an initiative which included an endorsement of Bragbet for "spearheading the development of gambling as a force for social good".

Yes, it may be a young industry, but it's hard to envisage a day when gambling in any of its present-day manifestations might become "a force for social good".

Indeed, we may eventually view such statements in the same light as that old Lucky Strike ad, boasting of a product which "will not affect your throat", hinting at many other benefits for your health and well-being.

Until then, there is money to be made. And some folks are going to make it. And some folks are going to get hurt, real bad.

Sunday Independent

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