Whilst COVID-19 itself may not have vanished altogether, the dark days of the pandemic are largely a distant memory. Amidst lockdowns, social bubbles, and baking crazes, Britain’s gamblers persevered.
When the first lockdown hit, few could have anticipated the wide-reaching implications. For the UK gambling industry, it prompted a seismic shift.
Like many shops, pubs, restaurants and services deemed ‘non-essential’, brick-and-mortar betting shops were forced to close their doors, and in-person betting stopped altogether. As some punters took to online casinos, many feared an adverse effect on the 44% of the UK’s adults who enjoy participating in some form of gambling each month.
Some assumed that with gamblers confined to their homes, a rise in problem gambling and harmful behaviours would be seen with long-lasting implications on a pandemic-bruised population.
The potential economic implications were also cause for concern, given that the UK’s gross gambling yield is worth around £14 billion per year.
Retrospective research found 25% of the UK population believe their mental health was negatively affected by the lockdown. As a result of precautionary measures taken, 40% of people saw a decrease in disposable income. Despite the negative effects of the lockdown, patterns observed in the gambling industry were quite surprising.
With gamblers spending much more time at home, it could have been the case that drastic increases in gambling would eventuate. Initially, this was found to be true, with the decrease in offline betting compensated for by an increase in online betting. However, the longer-term statistics reveal something else.
In fact, YouGov research found that, once the dust had settled, there were, in fact, fewer gamblers than before lockdown. It revealed that, whilst 0.4% of adults had begun gambling for the first time during a 4 week lockdown period, 2.1% had stopped gambling altogether during the same timeframe.
Broadly, the UK’s gross gambling yield dropped by 11% to £12.7 billion for the 2020 to 2021 period. A decrease of almost 16% of brick-and-mortar betting shops was also seen over this same period, whereas the remote Betting, Bingo and Casino Sector saw an 18.4% increase in its yield.
Regarding the shift from gambling in brick-and-mortar establishments to online – each represented around 50% of the UK market prior to lockdown – little ultimately changed. When betting shops reopened, punters who preferred them simply returned.
When surveyed about a particular 4-week period of lockdown, just 2% of gamblers had signed up to one or more gambling sites, and only 1.6% placed a wager online which they would normally have placed in person.
The statistical trends and patterns of gambling behaviour seen throughout lockdown and afterwards are also broadly supported by operator-provided data.
A vulnerable minority
Whilst some of the overall trends appear positive, there are exceptions such as those highlighted by a government analysis of multiple studies and surveys on gambling behaviour during the pandemic.
It found that, whilst over the course of the lockdown an overall reduction in gambling was observed, a small cohort experienced negative effects, increasing their gambling and using new products.
The same report stated that comorbidities had been identified between harmful gambling behaviours and increased drinking, financial difficulties and poorer mental health. This may suggest that the issues of those who were already vulnerable or ‘at risk’ may have worsened by the lockdown and pandemic.
Another study found that problem gaming scores increased significantly, but that the number of gamers with disorders did not change.
These negative trends were seen only in a minority group, consisting mainly of younger males, most of whom attributed their increased gambling to “boredom and more free time”.
The ‘new’ normal & looking ahead
The impacts of the pandemic on gamblers, operators and the industry as a whole will continue to reverberate, and it may well be that future data and studies reveal additional trends not yet identified. For now, it seems that, in some respects, the new normal is largely indistinguishable from the old normal.
On an individual level, whilst, during the lockdown, use of tobacco products, alcohol and some recreational drugs increased, overall online gambling decreased. It remains to be seen whether this trend will continue, and what influences the looming recession, rising cost of living, and impending legislative review will have.
Whilst the pandemic was certainly a dark time for many, there are evidently positives to be gleaned. The wider implications of the information we have collated suggest that, when left to their own devices, the vast majority of UK gamblers are perfectly capable of monitoring and controlling their own responsible gambling habits.