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The geography of UK bookmakers: How online betting is changing the high street

July 9, 2017

­­­Sports betting has been legal in a widespread manner in the United Kingdom since the Betting and Gaming Act of 1960 allowed bookmakers to operate away from their previous havens at horse racing tracks.  From 1961, several highly recognizable companies such as William Hill, Ladbrokes, Coral and others grew their presence within UK high streets to a peak of 16,000 retail betting shops during the 1970s.  However, the number of betting shops has since decreased by over 40% to around 9,000 locations.  This decline in betting shops and the jobs they bring to each high street area can be directly attributed to the shift toward online sport betting.  Online betting in the UK began to offer customers significant enhancements with regard to value received due to tax savings, convenience, safety and an improved overall experience.

With the proliferation of the internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the incumbent UK bookmakers recognised the opportunity that the internet presented to their business and took their brands online in order to supplement their existing retail betting operations.  Additionally, several online-only bookmakers opened their own trusted betting sites, providing the incumbents with increased competition, syphoning business away not only from their online operations, but their shops as well.  This period marks the start of the decline in the number of bricks and mortar betting shops.  The decline accelerated in the late 2000s as all these companies took their online businesses offshore in order to avoid paying UK taxes, thus providing UK customers with better value as compared to betting within the UK at retail locations.  Although this tax loophole was closed in late 2014 so that even offshore bookmaker companies had to pay taxes from bets placed by UK customers, consumer behavior had been significantly altered – customers mainly preferred betting online.  

Furthermore, with promotional incentives like sports betting bonuses, ever-improving internet download speeds and mobile infrastructure, customers conti­nue to enjoy the enhanced features available when betting online as compared to frequenting the betting shops.  The benefits of betting online include the ability to use fast and safe payment methods, the ability to bet instantly in-play during an event and the ability to use ­­odds comparison­ sites so bettors can to maximize potential returns.   This safety, convenience, improved value and overall improved customer experience has further diminished the attractiveness of retail betting shops which have gained a reputation as having become dangerous places.  In May of 2016, The Guardian outlined the dangers involved in working and frequenting UK betting shops.  Workers and customers may have to deal with violence or intimidation from angry customers or those that wish to commit theft.  Many betting shops were only deemed viable to be operated with a single employee managing the shop, which was shown to create a more dangerous, vulnerable environment for the lone employees.  For people that enjoy betting but do not enjoy the often depressing or even dangerous nature of the often sparsely visited betting shops, online betting offers a more attractive and safer way to place a bet, as bettors need not publicly handle cash to place a bet, nor collect their potential winnings in front of strangers and face potential intimidation as they leave the betting shop. 

Although their numbers are declining and they may attract largely isolated instances of ill consequences and anti-social behaviour, retail betting shops continue to be an important part of the UK high street from a commercial and community perspective.  There are still a large number of people that prefer to frequent the betting shop, eschewing technology in this regard, in addition to those people that that still find the local bookmakers to be akin to a social club.  Furthermore from a positive perspective, the remaining 9,000 UK high street betting shops continue to provide revenue to local council governments through taxes, they provide a local source of employment and they provide a source of footfall traffic to the surrounding high street businesses that are constantly under pressure, losing traffic and business to big box retailers that are situated away from local high streets. 

In terms of the future of UK high street bookmakers, it is difficult to see anything other than a continued decline in the number of their retail locations.  A review of each of the companies’ public financial figures indicates that their retail location sales are all trending lower, while their online businesses are on the increase, despite an abundance of online competition.  As the older, less internet-savvy generation ages, fewer and fewer customers are likely to frequent the retail shops.  Younger bettors that are more comfortable with technology will assuredly continue to bet online. 

This phenomenon is closely reminiscent of the decline in the number of UK bank branches.  In 1990, before the proliferation of the internet, the UK had over 17,000 bank branches.  By the end of 2018, the number of UK bank branches is expected to shrink to 7,000, a decrease of nearly 60%.  This decrease of course is largely attributed to the widespread public adoption of mobile and internet banking.  People simply don’t need to go into a branch to bank as much anymore.

­Daily life in the UK may now be more convenient due to online innovations, but the UK high street is suffering as a result.  As betting, banking and other forms of consumption move more and more online, the high street will be under continued pressure with ever-increasing vacancy rates.  In 2014, the national high street vacancy rate breached the 10% mark for the first time.  One can only hope that UK high streets can be re-invigorated and sustained with new businesses and new industries, but for now the trends continue to indicate their decline.