Gustaf Hoffstedt: Europe’s neglected consumer experience as outdated as black-and-white TV
A few weeks ago, I unexpectedly found myself having a ‘Grandpa moment’ as I attempted to place a wager on the outcome of the Euros quarter-final between Sweden and Belgium.
The bet didn’t work. The door to my usual sportsbook account was slammed shut while I was vacationing in the North of Spain.
That’s when my Grandpa Arne, who loved to watch tennis matches, came to mind. Grandpa has been dead for decades, but he lived to experience the golden generation of Swedish tennis in the 1970s and 1980s. I have countless memories of our family enjoying summer lunches on the patio, eating herring and new potatoes, while Grandpa stayed inside, watched the tennis, and grumbled about the fact we hadn’t yet bought a colour TV.
Grandpa devotedly followed Björn Borg’s matches, right up to the final round, which was often too much for his nerves. At this point, the TV went off, at which point it didn’t matter that ours was the last house in the neighbourhood still with a black and white TV.
As I tried to watch the football match between Sweden and Belgium, I thought of Grandpa Arne. For starters, the Swedish broadcast was blocked at my temporary home in Spain. This was unsurprising, given the immense intellectual property values that govern who gets to broadcast what in different jurisdictions.
“It’s odd that an activity like online betting, which is so cross-border in nature, is, simultaneously, very localised.”
More frustrating was the inability to access my usual sportsbook, which is of course licensed by the Swedish Gambling Authority. Things only got worse when the final score would have returned a handsome win (Sweden beat Belgium in extra time), enough to treat myself to a couple of glasses of cava and as many pintxos as I could’ve eaten. If only I’d been allowed to place my bet.
It’s odd that an activity like online betting, which is so cross-border in nature, is, simultaneously, very localised. As someone who contributed to the implementation of Sweden’s national licensing system, it is not without some self-criticism that I reflect on this situation.
How did we end up here? I can shop almost anything I want on my smartphone in Spain and now roaming costs are no higher than at home, thanks to forward-thinking politicians in the European Commission and the European Parliament. The EU loves to tear down barriers between its member states, except for when it comes to gambling.
I am often told that both gambling regulators and industry insiders neglect the consumer’s perspective, but I rarely hear any concrete examples. Nevertheless, there is much truth to that observation, and my involuntary Grandpa moment can serve as an example.
Sweden has signed half a dozen MoUs with other jurisdictions, including the UK and the Netherlands, since the Swedish gambling market was re-regulated in 2019. But while these MoUs are not short on language that benefit the state, usually involving taxation, there is a blatant lack of provisions that serve the consumer interest, for example allowing me to access my Swedish betting account when visiting the Netherlands.
For a moment, I was tempted to turn to the unlicensed market on the night of the match or to ask my partner back home to place my bet for me. In the end, I did neither. Partly because, in my profession, I can never allow my own conduct to be questioned. Partly because I asked myself: wasn’t unlicensed gambling and messenger betting exactly what the politicians wanted to move away from when Sweden chose to re-regulate its gambling market?
It is right and proper that EU countries have increasingly abandoned outdated gambling monopolies in favour of national licensing systems, but in the long term, we must strive for a single legal EU market. When we do, let’s also invite EFTA members like Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway to participate, just as border controls have been abolished for these Europeans when crisscrossing the continent.
“It is right and proper that EU countries have increasingly abandoned outdated gambling monopolies in favour of national licensing systems, but in the long term, we must strive for a single legal EU market.”
Such a move towards a single EU license system would surely please many compliance officers who are pulling their hair out in despair over the special requirements imposed by individual jurisdictions.
But that is beside the point. The most important thing is the consumer experience, both from a user perspective – “I should be able to gamble on my holiday in Spain” – and from a consumer protection perspective. An EU-wide voluntary self-exclusion scheme would also be much more powerful than disparate national lists.
I never did watch that match on 22 July and I didn’t get to place any wager. Instead, I followed the match on the radio – a rather exciting experience in itself. Sports reporters who only have the radio as a means of describing what happens on the field are an underestimated group of professionals. I suggest you try and listen for yourself the next time your favourite team plays.
Gustaf Hoffstedt is secretary general of BOS, the Swedish Trade Association for Online Gambling. The association represents 20 gambling operators and suppliers in Sweden’s regulated market.