Why I refuse to cheer the £200m earned last year by Britain’s highest paid woman
B Y ANY measure, it is an astonishing tale. A young, comprehensive school educated woman named Denise Coates starts a business from a Portakabin in a car park in Stoke-on-Trent.
She toils for years to make her company a success. By age 50, she is earning nearly £200million, making her Britain’s highest-paid woman with a net worth of £3billion.
It’s surely a cause for celebration — until you realise that her fortune has been built on the backs of the addicted and the hopeless.
For as founder of bookmaker Bet365.com, Miss Coates is the queen of the UK’s online gambling industry, a parasite that feeds off the dreams of the poorest and most vulnerable with promises of easy money.
Yes, gambling is as old as the hills. Archaeologists have found dice dating back 3,000 years. We are hard-wired to enjoy the adrenaline as the cards are turned or the numbers called.
But in recent years this ageold vice has been turbocharged by modern technology — and it is destroying lives across Britain.
Online gambling addiction is at epidemic levels. The Gambling Commission estimates that the number of problem gamblers has soared by a third in three years, with around 430,000 deemed to have a serious habit.
Problem gambling has been dubbed the ‘invisible addiction’ — with its victims living an outwardly normal life while sinking ever deeper into debt.
Tragically, many gambling addicts are so desperate they see only one way out. The National Council on Problem Gambling has estimated that one in five problem gamblers attempts to kill themselves.
Many are pitifully young. Omair Abbas was 18 when he was found dead in the River Ely in Cardiff, having gambled away more than £5,000 on online betting sites.
Ryan Myers, a 27-year-old carpenter engaged to be married, killed himself in 2014. His parents only then discovered he’d been caught in a web of debts and loans.
Of course, the debt trap has always been a problem for gamblers. The journalist and infamous gambler Jeffrey Bernard once observed that ‘in most betting shops you will see three windows marked “Bet here”, but only one window with the legend “Pay out”.’
The difference these days is that online gambling gives the addict an opportunity to bet 24/7. Now that smartphones are so omnipresent as to be extra limbs on our bodies, the siren call of the slot machine is always there.
And there is the relentless advertising, on TV and social media, to prod you into action. Since 2012, the industry has spent £1.4 billion on advertising, with online casinos doubling their marketing budgets in that time.
What I find most odious is the manipulative style of this advertising. Online bookmakers have a specific target in mind: young men who want to feel more powerful and more attractive. Feeding off the low self-esteem of (often poorly paid) men, the adverts take on a macho, matey tone.
For years the face of Bet365 was rent-a-hardman actor Ray Winstone, who would bellow: ‘Alright boys, looking for a bit of in-play action, are we? Any time, lads!’
Ladbrokes ran a TV campaign urging punters to live ‘The Ladbrokes Life’, shot in the style of hit film Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, featuring a gang of mates who ‘are the dreamers, the glory-seekers, the Wednesday-night warriors’.
One advert for the website 21.co.uk showed a man sitting at a blackjack table in a tuxedo, a voiceover purring: ‘Heart versus head. Emotion versus reason. He makes his move. He makes his own luck.’
Message to the young man scrolling through his smartphone: with a quick bet you, too, can be like James Bond in Casino Royale!
An even nastier side of the marketing game was revealed recently. ‘Affiliates’ are agencies paid to direct gamblers to online casinos.
Earlier this year, some agencies posted adverts that appeared as news stories, each claiming that a man had cleared his debts through online gambling.
One told the story of ‘William’ who was ‘out of pocket for his wife’s cancer-related medical bills’. While in the hospital, he ‘stumbled upon an ad for Sky Vegas’ and a promotion of a free £10 bet.
Lucky William won ‘over 30 times his annual salary in a single spin’, bringing his worries to an end.
The Advertising Standards Authority decided the ads ‘targeted vulnerable people’ and ‘were socially irresponsible’ — and stated that even though the affiliates had placed the ads, they felt responsibility should lie with the associated gambling companies: Ladbrokes, 888, SkyBet and Casumo.
Another cynical practice is the harvesting of punters’ data. Third-party companies use tantalising online raffles in order to glean information from people about their income, credit status and so on. This information is then sold to the gambling firms, in order that they can pick off the poorest and bombard them with ads.
Then there is the devious offering of free £10 ‘teaser’ bets — which come with a serious sting in the tail. Customers may be forced to play hundreds of times before they can withdraw their winnings, meaning they can never quit while they’re ahead.
But perhaps the most worrying aspect of all is that children are now being seduced by the relentless marketing.
Gambling advertisements are already allowed during live sporting events, so kids think that half-time during the football is all about putting a bet on who’s next to score. Nine teams in the Premier League are sponsored by gambling companies, the names of Fun88, Betway and Dafabet emblazoned on the shirts of children’s heroes.
It gets worse. Some online companies are offering games that will clearly appeal to children. Paddy Power offers a Peter Pan game with bets starting at 20p. William Hill has Frozen Fruits, a brightly coloured game which you can play for just 30p. There’s Unicorn Bliss (minimum 1p bet) and Hansel and Gretel, all appealingly cute and cuddly.
Many of these games don’t require age verification and can be played ‘for fun’; however, the Gambling Commission found that 6 per cent of 11 to 15-yearolds have gambled online using parents’ accounts.
By way of the tiniest fig leaf, gambling companies promise to cough up for charities that support and counsel gambling addicts.
In 2007, the industry agreed to give 0.1 per cent of its vast revenues to charities — but guess what? They are failing to pay even this paltry sum in full — just £8 million of an expected £13.8 million last year.
The rot set in with the lax attitude taken by New Labour. The Gambling Act 2005 ushered in light-touch regulation and many of the problems we see today. It seems no coincidence that Denise Coates’s companies have been Labour donors. Certainly, the party has done her own coffers no harm.
The more recent Conservative Government has hardly been any better. No doubt, the tax receipts encourage them to turn a blind eye — but a responsible government would recognise that online gambling comes with massive costs, too.
Indeed, the bill for Britain’s gambling epidemic is estimated at £1.16billion a year.
A government with any guts would step in. Ban gambling advertising altogether. Limit the stakes allowed on online casinos. Outlaw the games which are clearly child-friendly. Take regulation out of the industry’s hands.
With the millions rolling in to companies such as Bet365, will the industry find its own moral compass any time soon? I wouldn’t bet on it.