For so many of us, placing a bet with one of the on-site bookmakers and getting a fancy little cardboard ‘ticket’ in return used to be one of the many highlights of going to the races. So what’s changed?
According to leading bookmaker, Geoff Banks, there are two key reasons for the recent loss of interest in the betting ring. Firstly, he blames the changing culture in gambling circles. He identifies a difference between ‘punters’ and ‘arbitrage players’. The difference, he explains on his Youtube video, is in the two groups’ attitude to risk.
A Punter, Banks reasons “is somebody that’s involved in the business of risk”. They are looking to place a bet on a horse to win at the best odds. Once the bet is placed, if the horse wins, or is placed (in an each-way bet), the punter wins. If not, the bookmaker makes money.
An arbitrage player, on the other hand, uses the online betting exchanges to try and “place two bets – one with a bookmaker and another…a lay [bet] with the betting exchange…to create a margin on everything that they do. They are looking to profit by every bet that they place.”
The result, Banks argues, is that now betting ring bookmakers are doing exactly the same thing as the arbitrage players. They “create a good book basically by taking cash from the customers and hedging it back onto the betting exchange almost immediately to create margin – to create profit. It works to a degree but for the customer it’s boring.”
As for the odds, there is little value to be had. Banks elaborates, “for the customer who’s looking for the betting ring for [their] fun, [they’re] looking at a row of arbitrage players all offering the same price on every horse. And, the reason for that is because all these arbitrage players are basically following Betfair.”
The second reason Banks gives for the downturn in fortunes for on-site bookmakers is the quality of customer service on offer at the track. He points to some modern bookmakers having a lack of respect for the traditions of the betting ring. Speaking about a young newcomer, Banks was appalled by the disrespect he had shown for the dress-code. “[He] turned up to work the other day at some racetrack dressed in a pair of pipe jeans and loafers to take bets from customers.”
Banks is a traditionalist. “It is just plain disrespectful for a bookmaker to seek to do business with any customer dressed as if they just stepped out of their front room. That’s my belief; it will never change. I think it’s disrespectful and lazy to be honest with you.”
Although he raises some interesting points, Banks fails to mention the impact of the decline in attendances at UK racetracks on betting-ring activity. Before the pandemic crowds were already falling. According to the Horse Racing Betting Levy Board, attendances had fallen from 6,128,072 in 2015 to 5,626,994 in 2019. That’s a fall of more than eight percent.
Furthermore, there are more ways to place a bet than ever before. Banks doesn’t fully acknowledge that. The mobile betting app boom, the matched-betting phenomenon, traditional betting shops, and the tote all combine to restrict the ‘tic-tac’ bookies’ market share.
Some might argue that Banks’ attack on match betting and arbitrage is a failure to understand modern markets; that his approach to bookmaking is rooted in nostalgia and tradition. They may be right.
Just as in many industries, advances in technology and shifts in attitudes have hugely altered the landscape. Sadly, the betting ring will probably continue in its decline. To survive, it will need to do something different. Something to tempt the punters back. If that is simply putting on a smart suit and offering more competitive prices, as Banks suggests, I would be surprised.