Growth, Regulation, and The UK Gambling Review, In Conversation with Ralph Topping, ex-CEO, William Hill

Ralph Topping ex ceo of William Hill

Despite the many setbacks the UK iGaming market has experienced; increased regulation, negative PR and of course the Covid-19 pandemic, it has still managed to remain buoyant and has a future abundant with opportunity.

Technological innovations that align retail with the online experience, and an industry good enough to export overseas, may not be your primary thoughts when it comes to growth opportunities. We caught up with industry pioneer and former William Hill CEO, Ralph Topping, to get a better understanding of why those aspects are so important to what the future holds for our iGaming industry.

The current William Hill CEO, Ulrik Bengtsson is best known for his digital knowledge and experience, and it’s clearly the direction the industry is going. Do you think there’s still a place for retail gaming or will iGaming completely takeover in the next few years?

RT: The accelerating presence of portable technology in our lives and the increasing ease of digital activity has changed much of what we all do, including when and how.

An upsurge in new digital only entrants to the gambling market in the U.K. grew the size of the market but retail betting, though diminished, has remained a significant contributor to long established businesses providing a multichannel service.

However, over the last six or seven years, investment in retail has severely diminished.

Boards and Chief Executives understandably baulked at developing or upgrading retail outlets when faced with rising costs not offset by meaningful top line growth and the real threat to an avenue of income, the machines.

There’s been scant investment on upgrading estates as they are in effect now treated as cash cows. The Retail division is not front of mind.

That’s no surprise given the growth in digital betting and the current focus on internationalisation.

Directors and indeed some Chief Executives may not have been in a betting shop in recent years!

As a consequence, it’s clear they haven’t really spent time thinking about what replaces the machines, or how to make better use of emerging technologies to give an attractive retail experience but with substantially reduced overheads.

Retail betting will still have a significant presence in the next few decades not only in the U.K. but in large parts of Europe and of course the USA.

The costs of running Retail outlets are high, but emerging technologies and developments in models for retail operations in other industries point the way ahead for executives and boards if they engage their minds on this subject.

Increased self-regulation measures have become a growing trend in the industry. Is this the key to protect our industry from excessive government intervention? How can we as an industry better protect ourselves from overbearing regulation?

RT: I don’t think you can.

The gambling industry is a relatively easy target for politicians.

If you work on the theory, as I do, that you get the politicians you deserve in life, I think we’ve seen that certainly in the UK.

We’re fundamentally getting the politicians we deserve, as politics with its relatively low pay cannot and does not attract the most able people in our society.

If you can’t solve the global warming crisis, if you can’t come up with answers for Covid, then politicians tend to turn to areas where they think can raise their profile.

We’re seeing pressure on the government on a whole variety of issues. And one of them is gambling.

There’s an exaggeration, there’s a lack of knowledge, there’s a lot of moralising of the subject.

The review on gambling should be an opportunity to have a rational discussion on where the industry goes.

I somehow doubt that it will happen, as we’re politically in genuflection mode where second rate politicians and, of all people, the Bishop of St Albans are engaged in projecting doom and gloom around gambling rather than looking at it for what it actually is for the mass of people – diversion, entertainment and enjoyment.

There are of course areas that were acceptable many years ago that need to be examined and perhaps reconsidered

For example, the issue of VIP’s.

I’m very sorry to say to the government, but there are a few people who earn more than the average wage and therefore have a higher disposable income than other citizens. Shock, horror, probe but that’s the reality.

There’s been an attack on bookmakers that they’re making these “poor” folks spend more money than they have. But the truth is that they have a higher disposable income, and they like to go to events.

If legislation comes in and says you can’t do this or that, then bookmakers will need to shrug and adjust to that.

But perhaps more pressing is the need for politicians to adjust to the real world outside Westminster and provide serious and substantial solutions for the real challenges citizens are facing.

Voting against feeding needy children during school holidays during a pandemic endorses a view that too many are hugely out of touch with the real world.

You mentioned recently that UK bookmakers are in demand globally and could be even more successful as an export with better government support. What sort of support do you think the government could give to help the UK bookies reach their full potential?

RT: I don’t think we’re really looking for government support in that context.

It’s recognised that well-regulated gambling has political appeal to many countries and in the UK, despite what people say, we have a well regulated environment where people are protected and enjoy gambling.

There was an opportunity for a UK based framework to allow people to access UK gambling. That opportunity is gone.

So what bookmakers are now doing is taking their products, services, skills and 50/60 years of experience and exporting it to various other countries.

It’s in the form of individuals and companies seeking additional rewards and markets.

They’re well run businesses and they’re taking skills and practices that they’ve learned in the UK, to places such as the US and applying them.

We’ve got a huge wealth of talent in the sportsbook and gaming sectors especially in digital. It is therefore natural for others in the world to turn to the UK.

Gambling is a serious, grown up business run by experienced professionals. I think our government is wasting an opportunity in not recognising or supporting that, and what the industry is doing and will continue to do in terms of global reach and influence.

Editor’s Note: After catching up with Ralph, it seems the future for UK iGaming is actually of our own making. It’s up to us as industry leaders to take advantage of emerging technologies and take note of the developments in models for retail operations in other industries.

Adaptability will be the key to exploiting the opportunities. This will, for sure, be the way ahead for executives and boards once they focus on this subject.

We need to accept the ‘hard to swallow’ truth that government policy on our sector is inherently tough, and considering the political climate, it’s most likely going to stay that way.

Again, adaptability will play a key role in managing this and is perhaps a driving factor in why we are seeing elements of our industry being heavily exported to new jurisdictions, such as North America.

Perhaps a trend we can expect to grow in the future?

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