THE NFL draft is always a huge sporting event in the US every April, but the 2020 draft promised to be more glamorous and glitzy than usual — because it was being held in Sin City.
Young American football players drafted by the 32 NFL teams were expected to be shaking hands with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on the Las Vegas stage in front of the Bellagio Fountains, with thousands of fans packing Vegas’ iconic strip.
The Covid-19 pandemic though, meant the draft was held remotely, with teams joining a conference call with the NFL and Goodell announcing picks from the basement of his home in Westchester County, New York.
The virtual draft certainly wasn’t as attractive for fans, but the lack of sport drove the viewing figures through the roof — it drew in 55m viewers across the three days, with an average audience of 8.4m, representing a 35% increase on 2019 figures.
With those viewing figures, the draft was always bound to provide a financial bonanza for bookmakers. The increase in turnover from 12 months earlier was five-fold, and the amount of money wagered on the event was the equivalent of a Thursday night American football game.
It wasn’t a surprise — because the virtual draft was as close to watching live sport as it is going to get for the foreseeable future.
Recent figures released have highlighted the surge in online gaming during the coronavirus lockdown. Online poker and virtual sports increased by 38% and 40% respectively in March; online slot machines increased by 25% in the same month; 64% of “more engaged gamblers” reported that they have increased the time or money spent on online gambling since the lockdown.
Problem gamblers are certainly more vulnerable in the current environment. Sport may have gone away, but for those people with gambling addictions, the problem certainly has not.
Treating the underlying reasons for gambling addiction is the only way to really address the problem. But those problems are harder again to solve when the bookmaking industry’s only bottom line is — the bottom line.
They can chase that bottom line whichever way they choose because the industry regulates itself. In that regard, it’s no surprise that Ireland are third in the world per capita in how much we spend on gambling. We spend more money per capita on gambling than any other country in Europe.
It’s easier again for problem gambling to spiral during the lockdown when the dysfunctional legislation in place is an open door to online gambling addiction.
The 2013 Gambling Control Bill originally piloted by Alan Shatter when he was Minister for Justice is still in the works having made extremely slow progress so far. Before the general election it had finally reached stage three of a five-stage process, before facing another five stages in the Seanad.
Yet that bill, which was designed to redress changes in gambling such as online gambling, contains no reference to credit card betting, which is a trap for problem gamblers.
Last month, a law banning credit card gambling came into force in Britain. No such legislation exists in Ireland. Worse again, none is on the horizon.
New legislation will be a priority for whoever is the next justice minister, but the archaic Betting Acts of 1931-2015 do not contain any restriction on the method of payment when it comes to placing a bet.
In that regard, any reform along those lines would be a matter for the finance minister.
The change in legislation in the UK should be a catalyst for change here. But a self-policing industry desperately needs an independent regulator.
That has been on the agenda of various governments and lobby groups for a long time — a body with the power to impose huge fines on firms that fail to prevent money laundering or protect vulnerable gamblers.
For example, the National Lottery’s online service has imposed a mandatory deposit, for cash or credit card, so that people cannot go beyond that point during a certain time-frame.
Yet no such restrictions exist for online gambling firms. And with no restriction on credit card betting in sight any time soon in Ireland, the problems are mounting up.
Gambling addicts have the highest rate of suicide of all the various addictions. It is a silent killer at a time when gambling addicts are more vulnerable than ever before.
Michael Guerin, a senior addiction counsellor with Cuain Mhuire, recently said that while gambling has historically been a problem area for men, the expansion of online betting platforms has seen as many women as men contacting Cuain Mhuire for help with gambling addictions.
With most people having more time on their hands now than ever before, that time can be a silent, but deadly, attraction — a lure for something that could lead to literally anything.
“Some people are in different circumstances to others, some don’t have work or know what’s going to happen with work when things start to open up again,” said Davy Glennon, Galway hurler and himself a recovering gambling addict, during an interview last week.
“They’re having a few bets in the morning then going again because they have nothing else to do.
“They’re on their phone and they’re doing more than what they were before all this.”
Fianna Fáil says that it intends to appointing a gambling regulator should they form part of the next Government coalition.
But that talk has gone on long enough. Establishing an independent regulator, and then changing the legislation, needs to happen sooner rather than later.