In the moaning and whingeing stakes, bookmakers are the thoroughbreds. The government expects us to pay too much tax! Horseracing is always asking for too much money! Sporting results have gone against us!
These are familiar refrains that usually provoke cheers rather sympathy. So, last week, one of the trade tried a new one: revenues had slipped, Paddy Power Betfair sobbed, because, er, the bookie had been winning too much off its punters. As sporting excuses go, it is right up there with goalie David James blaming his butterfingers on his PlayStation or Zambian tennis player Lighton Ndefwayl putting a defeat down to his underwear and his opponent’s flatulence. (“He beat me because my jockstrap was too tight and because when he serves he farts,” Ndefwayl explained.)
All of which brings us to what defence William Hill might employ this week when the old bookmaker takes its turn to update the market on trading.
Paddy Power’s argument was that its punters had lost so much money by the first part of the reporting period that they had been put off betting. Combined with the chill of the “beast from the east”, the business was knocked sideways.
William Hill has been operating in an identical environment so, one assumes, will have faced similar pressures. But there are far more pressing issues for the firm than seasonal fluctuations, which tend to even out over the long term.
First, we are approaching the point (possibly on Thursday) where a decision will be made on stakes allowed on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) – the addictive gambling games in UK bookmaking shops.
Last month, shares in the UK’s biggest bookmakers fell sharply on reports that chancellor Philip Hammond had accepted the need for a £2 maximum FOBT stake – which, if true, analysts at Canaccord reckon would hit William Hill profits by a further £65m.
Second, William Hill shares are so depressed at the moment that the City reckons that the whole company is in play – just as a trend is emerging for consolidation in the industry. Sky Bet has just been sold to Canada’s Stars Group – the owner of the PokerStars online cardroom – in a deal said to have created the largest publicly listed online gaming company in the world.
Third, and perhaps most intriguingly, the US betting market is nearing a watershed liberalisation moment (again), as the supreme court considers whether to repeal the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (Paspa), which effectively outlaws sport betting across much of the US. A decision is expected any time between now and the end of June.
Curiously, considering the amount of excuses William Hill has had to trot out of late, it has a decent story to tell here. It owns a sizeable operation in Nevada, where sports betting is permitted, operating more than half the casino sports books there.
It also has a betting operation ready to go in New Jersey in partnership with Monmouth Park racecourse and says it could be ready to take bets “within days”. The firm is in negotiations with potential partners in several states and believes the US could eventually become its most profitable territory.
Still, veteran industry watchers will know that bookmakers have been talking about US liberalisation – and the fortune it is going to make them all – for decades. It has never quite come to pass, although there has always been an excuse for that too.