When William Hill released a trading statement at 8am last Friday which showed a 57% drop in total net revenue in what the firm described as the “coronavirus-impacted” seven weeks from 11 March to 28 April, the news had an interesting effect on its share price. Within an hour, it was up by 9%. Numbers that would, at any other time, have seemed unthinkably, impossibly bad were actually not quite as bad as the market had been expecting.
A bookie’s share price going up might seem like an odd cause for optimism as British racing works towards what is still only a possible return to action two weeks from today. Yet betting is a vital revenue stream for the industry, worth £100m in Levy yield alone in 2019-20. That is roughly £8m a month, while a big Festival meeting like Cheltenham, Aintree or Royal Ascot could be worth at least £1m in Levy income on its own.
And since racing will be behind closed doors for the foreseeable future, the country’s second-biggest spectator sport will depend more heavily than ever on revenue generated from its off-course customers. In other words, everyone who bets on it, which remains a considerable number of people.
Hills’s trading statement states that racing contributes “nearly a third of online UK sportsbook” in terms of revenue. It also shows that the firm’s online revenue from gaming products (mostly roulette and other fixed-margin casino games) was up in the seven weeks to 28 April – but only by 6%. This might suggest that even during a lockdown, a significant chunk of Hills’s client base decided that if they could not gamble on sport, they were not going to gamble at all.
Football is the biggest money-spinner for the bookies these days, accounting for “approximately half” of Hills’s online UK sportsbook. Yet if racing is responsible for “about a third” of what is now an immense market for betting on sport, it is still going to be an essential part of their business as sport slowly resumes, with racing leading the way and, who knows, possibly having the sporting stage almost to itself for several weeks at least.
With spectators barred from racecourses, meanwhile, the humble high-street betting shop, so often written off as out-of-date and in irreversible decline, could also have a role to play. A quarter of a century ago, online betting was ready to usher the high-street shop into the history books. This time last year, it cut the maximum FOBT stake from £100 to £2-per-spin.
Yet the betting shop has proved remarkably robust, and William Hill’s trading statement implies, with a little reading between the lines, that the impact of the cut in FOBT stakes has not been quite as devastating as the industry’s lobbyists spent many years telling us that it would be. While all its betting-shop staff are furloughed, Hills has been “topping up payments to ensure they receive 100% of their pay”, and the firm is planning a “staged opening of the retail estate in the second half of 2020” assuming that the lockdown continues to ease.
Racing will be in a deep financial hole as it emerges from nearly three months of suspension, and it will not be unfolding in front of packed enclosures for many weeks, and possibly many months, to come.
Football will be in the same position. But while football behind closed doors is a strange and rather unsettling viewing experience, racing, for the purposes of watching and betting at least, packs its action into a few minutes and the spectacle – and excitement – is much less dependent on the surroundings.
So, like it or not, it is good news for racing if a big betting firm like Hills has come through lockdown in (slightly) better shape than expected. Because if either racing or betting is to clamber back to something that approaches normality over the months ahead, the two industries will need each other like never before.