Simon Rowlands On Restrictions: Interview With The Horseracing Bettors Forum Chairman
As part of our Better Betting Campaign we recently interviewed the Chair of the Horseracing Bettors Forum (HBF), Simon Rowlands to find out his organisations take on some of the key issues confronting punters.
Chief amongst these is the issue of betting restrictions and closures, which is the topic HBF receives the most communication about. To understand HBF’s position and work thus far on this and other issues relevant to our Campaign, we posed a number of questions to Simon Rowlands who was kind enough to answer them all in detail.
Below you can find the full interview, which can also be found in the FREE ‘Getting On’ Report available via the Better Betting Campaign page.
The HBF is a voluntary body setup in 2015 by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) by its chief executive, Nick Rust to represent the interests of those who bet on the sport. You can read more about HBF at http://ukhbf.org/ including the results of their own restrictions and closures survey from earlier in 2016.
SBC: Can you summarise HBF’s current position as per bookmaker restrictions/closures and your recent survey findings?
Simon Rowlands: HBF has heightened awareness of this issue, which is the subject above all others that the betting public has been in contact about, through our survey/website and through the media, including during an interview on Racing UK on 7 September 2016 which can be seen here [http://www.racinguk.com/
In addition, it wrote to the CEOs of around a dozen leading bookmakers, sharing concerns and inviting those individuals to engage with us about this matter, though the response was mixed. HBF understands the commercial imperatives driving bookmaker activity in this area but believes that the reality is that many bettors, who are also customers or potential customers of horseracing itself, are being turned off betting on the sport by trading policies which are unsophisticated and customer-service experiences which are unsatisfactory. It is important that betting on horseracing is seen as aspirational and distinct from games of blind chance: skill and discipline should make it possible for a bettor to succeed, or at least to get by, even if the majority of punters will undoubtedly be losers, for that is what drives many of us on. HBF hopes to have face-to-face discussions with the UK Gambling Commission seeking justification for that body’s stance of non-interference in this area.
SBC: How concerned are you about the impact of account restrictions and closures on horse racing as the results of your own survey (as ours) indicates it is driving people away from the sport?
Simon: Concerned. It is not just the experiences of those individuals directly affected (which bookmakers claim are few in number) but the perception of betting on horseracing as being a “winners not welcome” game these days which is potentially very harmful. The funding of the sport is threatened by such a scenario.
SBC: The BHA chairman Nick Rust, who set up the HBF, is on record as stating he wants to see a 5% increase in those betting on racing. Are the powers that be at the BHA aware of this issue and are they not concerned as to the wider impact it is having in terms of racing interest?
Simon: He/they are aware of this issue, though HBF felt it had to emphasise the gravity of the situation. BHA has a lot on its plate in dealing with Authorised Betting Partner strategy and securing funding through means other than the Levy, and it would be understandable if it does not currently wish to tackle this. But BHA has not in any way been obstructive to HBF and our desire to shine light on this matter.
SBC: Do you feel there is a genuine appetite for change amongst the bookmaking fraternity to actually take more bets from all punters? If so, why have we yet to see any evidence of this aside from Corals recent shop-only offers?
Simon: Not widely, but in a few areas. HBF has emphasised that there may be an opportunity for enterprising bookmakers to cater for a disenfranchised section of the betting public, and Coral/Black Type have made welcome moves. Unfortunately, bookmakers have been pandered to for decades and many of them believe racing needs them more than they need racing (it is possible they are now right, but things should not have got to this stage).
SBC: What do you understand to be the roadblocks to change preventing bookmakers from taking more bets?
Simon: Some of them refusing to engage with a body (HBF) representing their customers. A betting landscape in which bookmakers are tempted to use racing as a loss-leader for cheaper/easier ways of extracting money from its customers. A body (UKGC) which has, at least until recently, had a remarkably laissez-faire attitude towards requiring bookmakers to act in a certain way. Successive governments which have failed to see the harmful consequences of FOBTs etc and what should be a clear distinction between them and the game of skill that betting on horseracing can be.
SBC’S 6-PART FOOTBALL COMPENDIUM
Click on each image below to read more about all 6 parts
SBC: In your recent statement following the release of your survey, you made it clear that only a few bookmakers were co-operating with you on this issue. Are you able to provide details as to who is co-operating and how they are helping?
Simon: Not fully at this stage. A CEO of a leading bookmaker attended part of our June meeting, pledged to improve trading practises and, particularly, customer communication, and we hope to have him back in December to see how things have progressed. Unfortunately, the reality is that these things take time and organisation, and HBF (voluntary, unpaid) also has other claims on that. But we are in this for the long haul.
SBC: Are you able to list those bookmakers that are not co-operating? What reasons (if any) have they given for not wishing to discuss it?
Simon: Not yet, but we may do. Ideally, we would give them another chance to respond, but that has not been easy to arrange in the time and with the resources available.
SBC: What proposals to enable punters to get their bets on are you discussing with bookmakers and which of these appear most likely (if any) to be realistic options? Simon Rowlands post on the Betfair Forum lists a range of ideas such as offering a ‘no-frills’ service through to agreements to meet a certain liability on any bet as Coral now offer, but which of these are viable ideas?
Simon: The no-frills service is essentially what Black Type is adopting (we have little knowledge of their operation otherwise but have received favourable reports on this score to date). Coral have essentially chosen to honour an obligation, albeit only in shops, which is also to be welcomed. In addition, we have recommended a “right to review” rather than people summarily having their accounts closed/restricted and its being clearer to customers when opening accounts what activity may prompt censure.
SBC: What are your thoughts on implementing a model similar to that seen in New South Wales, Australia whereby bookmakers have to lay all punters a set amount. Do you feel this model would work in the UK?
Simon: We think it would require legislation (unless most/all bookies miraculously got behind the concept) and be difficult to achieve but that that is no reason not to try. UK Gambling Commission does not see it as their place to “interfere” in this area, but has indicated it would talk to those representing customers, which we see as us. We have issued an invite for the UKGC to attend our December meeting to discuss this and other matters.
SBC: Upon creating the HBF, Nick Rust promised that you ‘will affect policy’ at the BHA. What evidence do you have on this so far and what powers if any do the HBF have to take action on the issue of restrictions/closures?
Simon: We have influenced BHA policy less than we might wish in our first year, but that has been in part down to considerable other claims on BHA time (Lohn, Levy, ABP etc), as well as our own. The silver lining is that we have managed to assert our independence from BHA more than might otherwise have been the case, and that is positive. Account restrictions/closures is just one of several things HBF is tackling. Data provision, Non-Runners, the starting-price process and the discredited body which oversees that, establishing a website, engaging with influencers (I have written five times to Alex Salmond without a single reply, which all takes time). HBF has no statutory powers, in this or in other areas. That was made very clear at the outset, and yet some in the public have chosen to ignore that and vilify the body for failing to change things by fiat. Heightening awareness, lobbying those who can affect change, establishing evidence that may influence decision-makers, and, occasionally, calling out those who do not shape up is all that we can realistically do. But that is proving worthwhile, or should prove worthwhile ultimately.
SBC: Ultimately many punters are pinning their hopes that the HBF might finally be able to help force through change on this issue. How confident are you that a solution can be found?
Simon: HBF takes this matter very seriously, but does not have the powers to force change. I would not be confident that a widespread solution will be found when no-one is obliging bookmakers to act in a certain way or even to engage with those representing its customers. But HBF can certainly make a meaningful contribution to the debate, and feels it already has. But, I must emphasise, account restrictions/closures is just one of the areas in which HBF is active. It must not, and will not, simply become a one-issue organisation. In recent weeks it, or some of the individuals on it, has/have been asked for feedback about Non-runners, race-day data, accuracy of going descriptions and much more besides. That is over and above more clearly betting-related matters.
SBC: There has been lots of debate about the usage of ‘tracking software’ such as IEsnare – whereby bookmakers are allegedly tracking and logging the activity of those betting with them without permission. What is HBF’s stance on them?
Simon: HBF is very concerned that tracking software may be being used in a manner that is, at the least, unethical and has drawn that to the attention of the UK Gambling Commission. Establishing the facts is proving difficult, but HBF is active in this area. It is one of the main things we wish to talk to UKGC about in person. This may, or may not be, less important than tackling account restrictions/closures but it is certainly important.
SBC: What impact if any do you feel FOBT machines and other similar machines now so prevalent in all bookmaker shops have had on this issue? Many commentators feel that until sensible limits are placed on both the number of FOBTs and stakes that can be risked (and thus the huge sums of profit they generate), many bookmakers will have only a limited interest in Horse Racing. Does HBF have a position on this?
Simon: HBF does not have a formal position on FOBTs, mostly because it has been busy establishing its position on other matters, but I personally agree with the implication of your above remarks and feel confident I reflect the general feeling of HBF. As stated earlier, horseracing should be seen as very distinct from such mindless games of pure chance. British racing’s support of FOBTs under Rust’s predecessor Paul Bittar was nothing short of a disgrace, in my opinion. I am surprised no-one has demanded BHA clarifies its position in this area now, but everything about Nick Rust’s stewardship indicates to HBF that he understands the implications in this area, as you would expect of someone with his background. We are encouraged.
Read More In Our Free ‘Getting On’ Report
This and a series of other interviews with betting industry experts and professional punters can be found in the Free ‘Getting On’ Report we have just released as part of our Better Betting Campaign.
It’s freely available to distribute and can also be accessed via the Better Betting Campaign webpage.
What Is The Better Betting Campaign
The Better Betting Campaign has been set up to tackle the huge increase in problems that punters are suffering at the hands of bookmakers. We are campaigning on 3 key issues:
1. The increased restriction and closure of betting accounts,
2. The widespread use of unauthorised tracking software
3. The steady increase in bet disputes by bookmakers acting without proper regulation.
This Campaign has been developed as a central resource to drive awareness of the issue, educate punters as to how they can take action and provide practical advice on how they can get their bets on.
You can read more about the Better Betting Campaign at https://smartbettingclub.com/better-betting-campaign/