Gambling Commission (UKGC) CEO Andrew Rhodes has criticised the Racing Post for “imbalanced” reporting on the topic of financial vulnerability and risk checks.
So-called ‘affordability checks’ – more accurately referred to as financial vulnerability and risk checks – were a key element of the UK government’s white paper review of the 2005 Gambling Act, which is expected to bring about several changes to gambling regulation in the country moving forward.
The UKGC is currently engaged in a public consultation with gambling industry stakeholders and customers in order to understand how best to implement the checks.
UKGC snaps back
The UKGC said that in recent months, the Racing Post has on a daily basis “provided readers with imbalanced stories about the ongoing financial risk consultation and frequently failed to seek a right of reply from the Commission”.
“The Racing Post has refused to publish the letter despite its content being highly relevant to readers,” said a statement on the UKGC website.
“Considering this blatant lack of balance in a newspaper we have decided to publish the letter on our website.”
The accompanying open letter from Rhodes addressed readers of the Racing Post directly and invited them to engage with the ongoing consultation on financial vulnerability checks and other updates to UK gambling regulation.
The paper’s reporting has suggested that “under the proposals a good proportion of gambling consumers would have to be handing over payslips or bank statements when they want to place a bet,” Rhodes wrote. “This is not true.”
Instead, he offered, it is estimated that just 3% of accounts would need to undergo financial risk assessments under the proposals, while just 0.3% would be subject to checks that were “not frictionless,” such as those carried out via credit reference agency or open banking data.
“This means 99.7% of customers would not be asked to directly provide any information,” he added.
The Gambling Commission therefore invited Racing Post readers to share their “views on how the 0.3% of account holders could have their financial risk assessed if they are not asked to directly provide the additional financial information.”
Rhodes added that the vast majority of assessments (some 90%) would be carried out via credit reference agencies and open-source banking data.
The checks would not give operators access to customers’ full bank account data, while the information they do receive may only be used for assessing risks of harm – not for practices such as identifying and restricting winning accounts.
Further to these arguments, Rhodes added that checks would only be applied online – not at retail or on-track bookmakers, for example – and that any checks carried out by operators would not affect customers’ credit scores.
More misused statistics
Rhodes further added clarity on often-misused statistics around gambling harm in the UK, having previously called on the media to avoid spreading “misinformation” on the matter.
The Health Survey for England 2018 suggested that “the percentage of people who have bet online with a bookmaker in the past year and are experiencing problem gambling is 3.7%. And a further 5.2% are at moderate risk of gambling harm,” Rhodes wrote.
The government’s white paper intends to tackle those figures by implementing financial risk checks, he added, while “most customers would not undergo checks under these proposals.”
Racing Post reporting
A search of the Racing Post’s website shows no lack of reporting on the matter of the Gambling Act review and proposed introduction of financial vulnerability and risk checks.
Headlines from recent months include the following:
- ‘Many will have their joy of following racing changed forever’ – readers’ views on affordability checks
- ‘An ill-targeted, blanket, one-size-fits-all policy’ – Conservative peer hits out over affordability checks
- It’s D-day for punters as Gambling Commission chiefs face grilling from MPs over affordability checks
- Racing Post readers: ‘Affordability checks are a devastating threat to my punting passion’
- Sir Mark Prescott on affordability proposals: ‘It’s very dangerous and they may well achieve everything they don’t want’
- ‘The sport we love is being targeted by people who have no understanding or concept of racing or betting’
Racing Post response
In response to the letter, Racing Post editor Tom Kerr posted on X that the paper “told the Gambling Commission we welcomed a letter about its proposals, just as we routinely approach it for comment on relevant stories.
“However, we told the GC we were unwilling to publish a letter if it misrepresented disagreements over our coverage as errors of fact,” he added.
That, Kerr said, is what the regulator’s letter did, by repeating “contentious assertions from the white paper and consultation without engaging with the numerous concerns raised by Racing Post readers and contributors.”
Kerr concluded by inviting Rhodes to join him for an in-depth interview, in order to allow him “to communicate directly with Racing Post readers”.
The Gambling Commission (UKGC) has made a call for opinions on government proposals in several areas of the UK Gambling Act review.
The regulator has requested responses from gambling businesses and consumers alike, as well as any other interested groups wishing to have their say on the proposals.
The opening of the consultations “marks a really important moment in turning the commitments in the government’s white paper into practical reality,” said UKGC policy director Tim Miller in a video calling for responses.
The consultations will remain open for a period of 12 weeks, Miller added, “and I want to encourage as many people as possible to respond so that your views can shape our next steps in making gambling fairer and safer.”
The consultations will take place around how the UKGC intends to implement government proposals put forward in the Gambling Act review.
Key areas of focus include financial risk and vulnerability, specifically the government’s plan to introduce “risk-based and proportionate checks” to better understand individual customers’ risk of experiencing gambling harm.
Another area open for consultation is on the design of online gambling games, and proposals to reduce the speed and intensity of some products “while making them fairer and increasing consumer understanding about game play.”
Direct marketing is another area on which the UKGC has requested opinions, as the Gambling Act review set out proposals to require operators to allow customers to opt in to receive certain kinds of marketing related to certain kinds of products.
With this proposal, the UKGC said, “the aim is to empower customers by giving them more control over the direct gambling marketing they wish to receive and ensure they do not receive marketing that they do not want to receive.”
Other proposals on which the regulator is seeking feedback include changes to age verification processes in land-based gambling venues, clarifications on which roles within operator companies require personal management licences, and the composition and decision-making processes of the UKGC’s regulatory panels.
Separately, the UK government has launched its own consultation on the issue of stake limits for online slots.
It is currently assessing the impact of stake limits set between £2 and £15.
An industry-specific approach to ESG reporting and compliance has the potential to result in improved equity allocation and liquidity, as well as a lower cost of capital and a revitalised reputation for gambling companies.
This is the primary finding of a white paper released today (19 June) by Robert Montgomery, CEO of investment and advisory firm First Maximilian Associates, and Steven Myers, managing director of Praxis Consulting and Advisory.
In an exclusive upfront interview with iGaming NEXT, the authors, who have been working on a product called ESG FiNTEL, detail their approach and explain how it could restore investor confidence in the sector and help gambling firms to overcome their mounting ESG challenges.
In summary, the authors argue that “substandard ESG compliance and performance” could be costing the industry “billions of dollars of value” but stress that “moving the dial slightly will create opportunities potentially worth billions”.
The status quo
Montgomery and Myers emphasise the overall poor reputation of the gambling industry regarding ESG compliance and performance, despite requirements that already exist across anti-money laundering, compliance, reporting, and licensing.
Montgomery explains how this subpar ESG performance is having a negative impact.
“Institutional investors, such as pension funds and sovereign wealth funds, increasingly allocate their funds based on ESG compliance criteria,” he tells iGaming NEXT.
“Similarly, in the credit markets, large gaming enterprises rely on debt financing, and favourable ESG scores play a crucial role in securing lower-cost capital.
“Companies with inadequate ESG compliance and performance face higher costs of capital, which hampers their margins and overall sector productivity.
“This raises the question of why the gaming industry struggles with ESG compliance, while companies in other sectors, like alcohol, excel in this area,” he added.
The authors argue that instead of fighting the ESG movement, the gaming industry should leverage ESG to improve capital allocation and debt pricing by presenting itself more effectively to the world of corporate finance. In effect, by “weaponising ESG”.
ESG performance is also crucial in M&A, and can even influence transaction outcomes for better or for worse, the duo hasten to add.
A customised toolset
Montgomery notes that many industry insiders perceive ESG as a burdensome “red-tape” requirement, rather than as an opportunity to outperform their rivals in the competitive clamour for capital.
The co-authors believe that better industry-specific reporting tools, in tandem with improved performance, are required to help change this perception.
These reporting tools would provide a comprehensive view of a gaming industry company, including insights into its strategy, actions, reporting processes and overall ESG behaviour.
Regulatory settlements and pending investigations created by poor governance or safeguards are two of the primary reasons for the industry’s reputational damage, the authors allege.
ESG FiNTEL – a dashboard-style product – will aim to support gaming industry companies’ ability to optimise compliance and performance”, and will also support how a company deals with the aftermath of compliance headwinds.
The white paper identifies critical indicators for ESG reporting in the gaming industry, such as aligning with relevant United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, disclosing financial performance, considering market exposure, promoting responsible gambling, evaluating board and governance practices, addressing regulatory compliance, assessing operational performance and shareholder risk, and understanding societal impact and reputational risk.
The white paper identified the below critical indicators for ESG reporting in the gambling industry:
The idea, according to Montgomery and Myers, is that gambling companies can benchmark themselves not only in terms of their ESG goals, but also against one another.
The duo acknowledge that the information required for this type of ESG reporting is already publicly available, although private operators might be reluctant to embrace the level of transparency it requires.
“We hope that in future, operators will feel more comfortable sharing even more information, such as anonymised data if they are seeing the benefits,” says Myers, who hopes to kickstart this conversation at iGaming NEXT Valletta 23.
“However, for now, one can still develop an understanding from open-source data, including company reports, regulatory documents, and media reports,” he adds.
The pair hope the white paper will make essential reading for C-suite gambling executives and investors in the space. Their intention is to push the discussion about how better ESG compliance and performance can enhance capital flows higher up the agenda.
“It’s one of the industry’s biggest open secrets that it lacks sufficient capital allocation, so we believe that anything with the potential to expand that pool of investors deserves attention,” Montgomery concludes.
The full white paper can be accessed here. Alternatively, please reach out to the authors, Steven Myers and Robert Montgomery, for an executive summary or the full report.
Following the release of the Gambling Act review white paper last month, the UK Gambling Commission has identified six key areas where it needs to gather additional evidence before implementing new policies.
“We recognise that better data, better research and better evidence will lead to better gambling regulation and better outcomes for consumers who gamble, their communities and the gambling sector itself,” said executive director for research and policy Tim Miller in a statement.
As a result, the regulator has identified its most important evidence gaps and priority areas to work on between 2023 and 2026.
Below, iGaming NEXT sets out a rundown of the key areas to be explored.
1. Early gambling experiences and gateway products
The Gambling Commission understands that children and young people are more vulnerable to gambling-related harms due to the stage of biological and neurological development they are in.
It is common in the UK for children to have some exposure to gambling or gambling-related activity, with 31% of 11- to 16-year olds saying in a recent survey that they had spent their own money on gambling activities in the prior 12 months.
Products which are not age-restricted, such as ‘penny pusher’ arcade machines, activities which cannot be regulated such as casual bets among friends, and gambling-adjacent products such as loot boxes in video games, are often the first interaction that children or young people have with gambling.
Other activities, such as choosing lottery numbers together with family members or backing horses in popular races such as the Grand National, are also common ways children are exposed to gambling before the age of 18.
In order to better understand the topic, the Gambling Commission will aim to answer several key questions, including what prompts different people to start gambling, how gambling behaviour changes as children grow into young adults, and what impact major betting events such as the World Cup and Grand National have on new gamblers.
The regulator will therefore continue its research with children and young people and build on existing research exploring the gambling journeys of young people, to further develop its understanding of how consumers are introduced to new gambling products and activities.
2. The range and variability of gambling experiences
This topic relates to the fact that “every gambler is different”, and the Commission therefore aims to better understand the different experiences people have with gambling, acknowledging how it fits into their lives and overlaps with other behaviours and experiences.
To do that, the UKGC will explore consumer journeys and motivations, and how gambling habits and behaviours change over time.
A deeper understanding of the range of gambling experiences will help the regulator to better address those experiencing harm while also deepening its knowledge on the positive outcomes of gambling, therefore better “reflecting the range of [its] regulatory duties.”
A greater understanding of low and high risk players could be beneficial to the regulator, it said, as gathering more information from ‘average’ gamblers will contribute to improved regulation for all, on matters such as bonus offers and available products.
Under this topic, the regulator will ask what it knows about the spectrum of gambling activity and what constitutes safe gambling, how gambling fits into a consumer’s wider online activity or life, and how and why people’s gambling habits and behaviours change over time.
3. Gambling-related harms and vulnerability
With this topic, the Commission aims to better understand the different ways gamblers can experience harms, and improve its ability to identify consumers who are more vulnerable or at risk.
One of the Gambling Commission’s three core licensing objectives is to protect children and other vulnerable people from gambling harm, “and this has been at the heart of many regulatory changes in recent years, informed by a wealth of research on the topic,” it said.
In spite of that, defining vulnerability can be challenging, it added, and the vulnerability of a given consumer is not necessarily static throughout their life.
Previous research has shown links between gambling and harms such as financial losses, depression, intimate partner violence, and others.
At its most extreme, gambling-related harm has been linked to increases in suicidal ideation, suicide attemps and in the worst cases, completed suicides.
Still, gaps remain in the research due to a lack of quality data, as the impact of gambling cannot always be readily assessed due to existing correlations between the above-mentioned harms.
The regulator also notes that other external factors including bereavement, relationship breakdown and poor health can all contribute to an individual’s vulnerability to gambling harm, and it therefore wants to establish better ways of offering timely protections against increased risk.
In addition, the Commission will aim to establish deeper research on varying experiences between people with different demographic characteristics such as gender, age, socio-economic group, ethnicity and neurodiversity.
The theme of gambling-related harm and vulnerability brings up perhaps more questions than any other, the Commission said, but some of the core ones to ask include which individual circumstances increase vulnerability to gambling harm, what is the impact on ‘affected others’ of gambling harm, and what interventions are effective in reducing gambling harm.
4. The impact of operator practices
In this topic, the Gambling Commission aims to understand how common operator practices influence consumer behaviour, while assessing the effectiveness of interventions designed to detect and reduce gambling harm.
While operators have a responsibility to protect their customers, “given the inherently risky activity of gambling, and the unusual adversarial relationship between gambler and operator, our research into exploring the information needs of consumers found that gamblers feel a tension around trust which risks undermining safer gambling messages,” the Commission said.
Operator practices which impact consumers include advertising and other communications that encourage gambling (or gambling mitigation), the presentation of information about products or offers, the way games themselves function, and the location of gambling opportunities either in-person or online.
The Gambling Commission therefore wants to improve its understanding of the impact of direct and indirect advertising, how people living nearer to land-based gambling premises are impacted by their proximity, and what impact the increased uptake of safer gambling tools has upon consumers.
In order to better understand the overall impact of operator practices, the Gambling Commission will ask questions such as how marketing and safer gambling practices can be incorporated together, how well consumers understand the information provided to them by operators, how effective online harm detection algorithms are, and what factors influence consumers’ perception of whether gambling is fair and trustworthy.
5. Product characteristics and risk
The Commission recognises that different product types carry with them different risk profiles for consumers, as different combinations of characteristics either add or mitigate riskiness for different types of gamblers.
As a result, it will seek to better understand which products and behaviours carry greater risks, for whom, and why.
It also aims to gain a deeper understanding of how consumers interact with different products, and areas of new or emerging risks, by building a strong understanding of developments within the market.
Some research has been conducted in recent years, such as into slot games and gameplay factors including frequency, audio-visual elements, rewards and information provision, as well as into the structural characteristics of sports betting products.
Given that “there is no single homogenous gambling journey,” the Commission suggests that further recesearch is required to establish connections between product characteristics and the risk of gambling harm.
It will therefore ask questions including whether certain product characteristics are associated with gambling harm, whether those characteristics disproportionately affect certain types of gamblers, how games can be designed to mitigate the risks of certain characteristics, and how people’s patterns of play differ between products.
6. Illegal gambling and crime
Preventing gambling from being a source of crime or disorder, or being used to support crime, is another of the Gambling Commission’s three core licensing objectives.
Crimes related to problem gambling such as fraud and embezzlement, as well as money laundering and match-fixing in sports, must all be considered by the regulator to ensure the industry is not funding or benefitting from crime.
Establishing causality for individual crimes can be difficult, however, given that there are many contributory factors, while understanding the scale of crime’s impact also presents significant challenges for the Commission.
In addition, the regulator is keen to better understand the extent and impact of the illegal gambling market in Britain, with further research required to confidendtly estimate the actual rate of channelisation in the country.
The Commission will therefore ask questions including what the extent of gambling activity funded by criminal activity is, the size of the illegal gambling market and its impact on consumers, what motivates consumers to gamble on the illegal market, and how easy it is for consumers to know they are using an unregulated operator.
Research on all of the above themes will help to inform the new regulations eventually introduced as a result of the Gambling Act review.
After the white paper was first released last month, UKGC policy director Miller acknowledged that the overhaul would “likely take a number of years to fully complete.”
As the dust settles on the UK government’s white paper, gambling industry stakeholders have had their say on the biggest proposed shake-up of regulation in nearly two decades.
The long-awaited review proposed a string of measures, including a statutory levy on operators to fund public health programmes, a stake cap for online casino spins, and more stringent financial evaluations for individuals struggling with gambling addiction.
From supportive statements to critical comments, the responses to the white paper have been vivid and varied. iGaming NEXT has collected some of the most noteworthy below.
Flutter Entertainment, the parent company of Paddy Power, Betfair and Sky Bet, was among the first to react to the white paper.
The company said it had already lost £150m in annual revenue from its UK business in response to the proposed measures by pre-emptively introducing safer gambling restrictions, with a further £50m-£100m hit likely to be felt sometime in 2024.
Flutter also welcomed the review of the UK’s gambling regulations and said it was necessary for raising industry standards and prioritising responsible play.
Flutter CEO Peter Jackson urged the regulator to tackle the growing number of unlicensed and unregulated gambling companies targeting at-risk gamblers.
“It is important to get new regulation right from the start, as it will ultimately provide the certainty our industry needs to continue investing in jobs and in further growing the UK’s lead in digital innovation in our rapidly evolving market,” he added.
The company said it has already taken steps to introduce player protection measures and, along with Entain, Bet365 and 888, pays a voluntary levy of 1% of its annual gross gaming revenue for research, education and treatment.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Jackson said he hoped the funds generated from the industry’s contributions would continue to be used for research, treatment and education around addiction, rather than for campaigning to stop gambling completely.
He argues that campaigners have had ample opportunity to make their case over the past two years, and it is crucial to avoid repeating those arguments.
However, Will Prochaska, strategy director of Gambling with Lives, which does not receive funding from voluntary contributions, insists Jackson is trying to influence how the money is spent in future.
Meanwhile, Entain, the parent company of Ladbrokes and Coral, stressed that it too had already implemented several player protection measures, such as the introduction of affordability checks on customers from as low as £100 and the termination of its UK VIP scheme in 2020.
Entain expects the proposals outlined in the white paper, materially mitigated by the proactive actions it has already taken, to have an impact of less than 1% on group online net gaming revenue in financial year 2024.
Entain CEO Jette Nygaard-Andersen commented: “The UK Gambling Act Review is an important step towards having a robust regulatory framework that is fit for the digital age and creates a level playing field for all operators.
“We are firmly in favour of regulation that preserves the market for the vast majority of customers who enjoy recreational betting and gaming, while also ensuring appropriate protection to all players,” she added.
Alun Bowden, senior consultant at Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, wrote in his blog The State of Online Gambling that the white paper “is more the end of the beginning than the beginning of the end for the UK online gambling sector”.
Bowden also disputed reports that major operators have already made necessary changes. “This is just patently not true,” he said and emphasised that there is still much to be decided upon.
“There are a dozen headline consultations and quite a few smaller ones and there are around 60 projects for the Gambling Commission to work on as a result of the white paper.
“All of this is intended to be completed before the 2024 general election and most of the consultations are set to run concurrently during summer 2023.
“You don’t need to be a natural born pessimist to think this is unlikely to generate optimal outcomes for anyone,” he added.
Bowden also said that “the most extraordinary aspect” is how advertising and marketing effectively gets a total wave through, with no new limitations being proposed.
Dan Waugh, partner at advisory firm Regulus Partners, shared his analysis on GB News UK.
He gave the white paper an eight out of 10.
However, he said the most worrying element is that given the large number of consultations, the bulk of the work will need to be implemented by the regulator (which has a poor track record in his opinion) and outside of parliamentary scrutiny.
Numis director Richard Stuber agreed with Waugh and also pointed to the 260-page report and the fact that most of the proposed measures will require a further consultation in the summer.
However, Stuber noted that the announcement is not hugely price-sensitive, with the exception of the Rank Group, which is likely to see material earnings upgrades given that it generates the majority of its revenue from land-based venues.
Rank Group CEO John O’Reilly stated that while their UK digital business will be impacted by new regulations, their land-based operations will benefit from the proposed changes.
O’Reilly believes that swift implementation of these regulatory changes is crucial for the land-based sector to meet the needs of today’s consumers and uphold their commitment to safer gambling.
Matt Gaskell, head of the NHS Northern Gambling Service, disagreed with the proposed measures and argued they will not do enough to prevent harm caused by addictive products.
Writing in the Guardian, he said that evidence of harm has been submitted to the government.
Gaskell believes the threshold for affordability checks (after £1,000 is lost in 24 hours) is too high and suggests this figure should be lower.
He also advocated for a ban on all gambling advertising and stake limits of £2 per spin on online slots.
Neil Banbury, Kindred’s general manager for the UK, shared his interview with Sky News on LinkedIn.
During the interview, he stressed that the most important thing is that the money raised as a result of the new statutory levy goes to fund charities that “are already doing very valuable work”, and also that it funds truly independent and evidence-led research.
However, he avoided answering questions about how much Kindred spent on lobbying ahead of the publication of the white paper publication.
Betting and Gaming Council
Michael Dugher, CEO of the Betting and Gaming Council trade body, stated that the BCG needs time to consider the full detail and impact of the proposals.
However, he also said that now is the time to look forward.
“This white paper is a once in a generation moment for change and its publication must draw a line under the lengthy and often polarised debates on gambling,” said Dugher.
“Betting and gaming is popular, contrary to misconceptions, the numbers of people betting are stable and not increasing, problem gambling rates are stable and low, and our members are a genuine British business success story, ploughing billions into the economy.
“The focus should now be on continuing to drive higher standards, while investing in jobs and businesses in the UK’s world-leading regulated industry,” Dugher concluded.
Much like the 24/7 operations of the Hippodrome Casino he opened in 2012, Simon Thomas doesn’t stop.
When he isn’t roaming the venue’s plethora of gaming, hospitality and entertainment options to ensure things are running smoothly, he’s just as likely to be meeting with politicians and industry stakeholders to help them understand the importance of the Hippodrome as a linchpin of London’s bustling nightlife.
The historic venue welcomes some 1.5 million customers every year and employs 725 staff across its range of gaming floors, bars, restaurants and theatre.
iGaming NEXT editor Conor Mulheir joins Thomas on a walking tour of the Hippodrome, to discuss the landmark venue’s past, present and future, and how it’s helping to make casinos “more acceptable” in 21st century London.
A history lesson in the Hippodrome
The London Hippodrome was opened in 1900 and sits on the corner of Cranbourn Street and Charing Cross Road, right in the beating heart of England’s capital.
The venue first opened as a “completely bonkers” indoor circus, Thomas explains, with a giant water tank occupying the space where the modern day casino’s main gaming floor now sits.
At that time, it was home to performers including “Charlie Chaplin, Houdini, high-diving dwarves, lions, sea lions…” before becoming home to the Swan Lake ballet in 1910 and eventually becoming a music hall, where the first jazz ever performed in Britain was seen in 1919.
From the 1920s to the 1940s, the venue continued to operate as a music hall, before rebranding as the Talk of the Town under Bernard Delfont and his partner Charles Forte in 1958.
“Stringfellows was a brilliant nightclub in the 80s, so-so in the 90s, and awful in the 00s. And it lost its alcohol licence in 2005, coinciding with the Gambling Act, which was the first time casinos were allowed to be fun.”
There, the pair created an 800-seat dinner dance venue home to performers including Sammy Davis Junior, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Stevie Wonder, Cliff Richard, and a host of other musical legends.
“That was great until the late 70s, when television took over,” Thomas explains, at which point “all that talent went to TV, and along came Peter Stringfellow who turned the venue into Stringfellow’s nightclub, the first superclub in the country.
“He spent a million pounds on lighting alone in 1983,” says Thomas. “It was off the charts.”
However, outrageous investments in decor notwithstanding, the nightclub eventually had to face the music.
“Stringfellows was a brilliant nightclub in the 80s, so-so in the 90s, and awful in the 00s,” Thomas recalls. “And it lost its alcohol licence in 2005, coinciding with the new Gambling Act, which was the first time casinos were allowed to be fun.”
Time to spin the wheel
With the introduction of the Gambling Act, which revolutionised the UK’s gambling industry and set the stage for the sector we see today, Thomas saw the opportunity to undertake the Grade II-listed building’s most recent transformation.
One of the biggest changes brought about by the Gambling Act was that “casinos were allowed to promote, have live entertainment, and serve alcohol on the gaming floor,” he explains, in stark contrast to the highly restricted options they had previously been allowed to offer.
In addition to changes in what services casinos could offer, the new rules also meant “you didn’t have to be a member before you walked in, so it became much more like the international casinos.”
A whistle-stop tour of the Hippodrome
Thomas had seen similar changes play out before in the bingo hall industry, where a comparable deregulation took place around 1990.
In his previous life as a bingo operator, he explains: “I took bingo from being a converted cinema with 300 old ladies playing ‘housey housey’ for a fiver, to a huge flat bingo floor of 65,000 square feet, with three bars, two restaurants, two cabaret stages, a wedding licence, 800 car park spaces, and 265 slot machines. It was brilliant to learn how to run a multi-discipline entertainment venue.
“When I started, bingo was the king attraction and had just a small bar and a small restaurant. When I’d finished, bingo was just one part of a much bigger entertainment complex. And in 2005, the opportunity came to do the same thing in the casino sector.
“I didn’t know casino, but I knew how to take all the disciplines and make them work together.”
Thomas sold his bingo business in 2005 to start work on the Hippodrome.
“I got the building in 2005 and the gaming licence took three years. The planning was quick, and we started work physically on site in 2009.” The build took three years and the renovation cost around £45m.
Through the extensive renovations, Thomas created the Hippodrome which can be seen today, boasting three casinos, two restaurants, a theatre, eight bars (with a ninth in the works), a cocktail lounge, rooftop terraces and more, all set out over 80,000 square feet.
Adding some Magic
Today, one of the Hippodrome’s key attractions is its resident theatre show, Magic Mike Live.
The show was opened by Hollywood darling Channing Tatum, lead star of the Magic Mike film, in 2018, before going on to break West End records for advance ticket sales.
Thomas says of the event: “It’s one of London’s best shows. It’s had 1,440 performances, and it’s still full – I think we have two tickets left this week, for example. It’s extraordinary, and we get massive PR and press from it.”
The show’s audience, perhaps unsurprisingly, is made up primarily (though not entirely) of women, a demographic not always linked to the world of gambling and casinos.
Actress Kristen Bell provides the Hippodrome with free PR on The Kelly Clarkson Show
Of course, that’s no accident, as Thomas explains: “It really adds to the whole atmosphere and character of the Hippodrome. Casinos traditionally are quite male dominated, and this helps rebalance it, by having a more balanced environment which attracts more people.
“The ‘talkability’ of the show gives us great PR, and it also makes the whole building more acceptable, and more normalised.”
Giving Magic Mike a home at the Hippodrome was nothing short of a master stroke, as evidenced by the show’s now years-long sellout run.
Back when Thomas and his team were considering the best ways to make use of the building’s theatre space, however, it wasn’t the first thing they had in mind.
“Naively, we started by trying to get a show that was going to pull in gamblers,” he says. “But we actually realised, after a while, that no such show exists.
“What does exist is a show that makes the building more acceptable.
“Naively, we started by trying to get a show that was going to pull in gamblers. But we realised, after a while, that no such show exists.”
“It’s a stunning product in its own right, just the most incredible show. It’s high energy, and everyone comes out with a big smile on their face. There’s nothing rude or crude, but it’s sexy, it’s funny, it’s edgy. The guys are super talented, and we have people come back to see it again and again.”
Ultimately, Magic Mike serves to bring in an audience that may not otherwise consider the Hippodrome as their London destination of choice.
The building’s diversity of entertainment options is one of the keys to its success, says Thomas, as it helps to bring in an ever broader range of people into the venue for a variety of different reasons.
Ultimately, Thomas adds: “The more people you get into the building, the more money they spend. And I don’t really care which product they spend it on, as long as they have fun… And talk about the place.”
What’s next for the Hippodrome
As with all gambling businesses operating in the UK, change is afoot for the Hippodrome this year.
As chairman of the casino group at the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC), Thomas has consulted extensively with the government in recent years, on how best to make the upcoming Gambling Act review work for businesses and customers alike.
His key priority for the casino sector is to help bring it in line with its counterparts in gambling jurisdictions around the globe, so doing away with regulations which are no longer fit for purpose is top of the list.
“By law, we’re only allowed 20 slot machines, which is a throwback to the old regulations, and we’re hoping we’ll get that changed in the white paper,” he explains.
“At peak times, I have 1,500 customers here in the building, and just 20 gaming machines, all with queues.”
The shortage of slot machines is one of few complaints Thomas regularly receives from visitors.
“I get negative social media on two things in particular. One is when the doormen don’t let people in because they’re drunk, and the other one is people complaining about the lack of slot machines. ‘You call yourself a casino and you’ve only got 20 slot machines. Why don’t you put more in?’ they say. Well, it’s the law.”
“In terms of what we’ve done for the casino industry, I think we have demonstrated quite well what casinos are capable of being, which is a really integral part of the whole night time economy.”
In addition to allowing for more slot machines, Thomas hopes the white paper will also bring about modernisation around payment methods (the Hippodrome remains a primarily cash-driven business), permission for the introduction of a sportsbook offering, and the ability to extend credit to high net worth overseas players, “as is normal in casinos all over the world.”
Those changes would allow Thomas to continue on his mission for the Hippodrome, which is to hold up the casino as a key offering in the plethora of options available to London’s residents and visitors.
“I’m so excited for what we’ve done to the West End of London,” he says. “We were the catalyst for the whole redevelopment of this area, and we’re an important part of the local community.
“In terms of what we’ve done for the casino industry, I think we have demonstrated quite well what casinos are capable of being, which is a really integral part of the whole night time economy.”
If the steady stream of customers coming into the casino this evening is anything to go by, the Hippodrome has definitely demonstrated that, and then some.