The world of the high street bookmaker has changed dramatically over the last decade or so. The popularity of online betting has meant that the need for the high street shop has diminished and with that, a whole era of bookmaking has changed and in turn, developed.
But, the physical bookmaker isn’t dead just yet. You only need to take a stroll down any major high street and you will see them still going strong, with a faithful following of people who like to bet ‘old school’.
This article will be looking at where they sit in today’s market and also the changes that they have seen since the development and improvement of online betting. We will also be looking at if they still play a significant role in modern day bookkeeping and what the future lies for the high street bookies.
How Many Betting Shops Are There Today?
What may surprise a lot of people is that there are almost 10,000 licensed betting shops still currently operating in the UK. This information was taken in 2014 for the Gambling Commission website as part of the Freedom of Information act, and whilst we think these numbers will be fairly stable as you read this today, there could be some discrepancies.
This shows that the high street bookmaker is far from dead and whilst they may not generate the players and turnover that their online counterparts do, plenty of people are still using the local bookie as a means to placing their bets.
But, and this is a fairly big but, the trade is on the whole declining. The numbers may look fairly impressive, but compared to 10 years ago and 10 years previous to that, the number of high street shops are in a steep decline. Is this the start of the end for the high street punter? Well possibly, but we’re going to look at a little more information before coming to that conclusion.
The Affect of Online Betting Sites
It’s pretty much safe to say that the online industry has been the main reason as to why the number of betting shops up and down the UK are in decline. The ease in which people can now wager from anywhere in the country at whatever time they please makes online betting so much easier and more convenient.
One thing that online betting has done is create a huge amount of competition between bookmakers. If you are betting in your local betting shop, then you are likely going to take whatever price you can get at that shop. There might be occasions where another betting shop is in walking distance and you go and see what their price on your bet is. But, 9/10 a punter will take the price offered in that shop.
Online betting means that people can quickly see a huge comparison of prices fro each bet within a matter of seconds. There are even websites set up to allow you to see dozens of prices from different bookmakers and then within a few clicks be placing the bet with that bookmaker.
But, it’s not the availability of seeing pricing that’s the problem for the high street bookie; it’s the pricing itself. As a massively non-scientific example, a group of us were out for a friend’s birthday and decided to all pitch in £10 each and place an accumulator bet. It was decided that it’s best to place the bet in a bookies so that if we won – which we didn’t – we could then collect the winnings in cash and likely blow it that evening.
After we placed the bet, we then decided to check the price online. We couldn’t believe that our 25/1 shot taken from the high street bookie was pulling in figures in excess of 40/1 online. The numbers were staggering!
The reason behind the massive price difference is that the high street bookmaker has huge financial overlays (wages, rent etc.) meaning that they increase the VIG (essentially the ‘skim’ that the bookmakers takes from each bet) was huge in comparison. They offer up shorter odds on outside bets to hit targets.
Again, we want to stress that this is just an example, there may be times where the high street is better priced, but from the data we have found, it’s usually much, much more advantageous in terms of pricing to bet online rather than bet on the high street.
Who Are The Big Names in High Street Betting?
As we mentioned, there are still almost 10,000 high street bookmakers across the UK, so there’s obviously still a market for these types of stores. Here we list some of the bigger players in the industry:
William Hill – 2,500+ Shops
William Hill are the biggest on our list with just over 2,500 licensed premises throughout the UK. The company are also one of the oldest bookmakers in the world, forming in 1943 and going on to be one of the most recognised brands in the gambling industry.
Ladbrokes – 2,300+ Shops
Ladbrokes have one the biggest presences on our high street within the industry, with over 2,300 licensed premises. The company are also one of the oldest, founded in 1896, but in 2011 it was announced that they would be merging with the Gala Coral Group, and in turn operating under their new name, Ladbrokes Coral.
Coral – ~2,000 Shops
Coral have always been a huge advocate for high street bookmaking and they currently have almost 2,000 licenced premises throughout the UK. The company were formed in 1926, but in 2005 it merged with the Gala Group, and now is widely regarded as one of the richest online gambling companies in the world.
Betfred – ~1,500 Shops
Betfred are one of the biggest in the industry and they currently have around 1,500 licensed premises in the UK. The company were founded 1967 and started off with just one shop in Salford. Since then they have had a thriving business from the high street and the owners acquisition of The Tote in 2011 has also increased their standing within this sector.
Paddy Power – 343 Shops
Paddy Power currently operates 343 licensed premises around the UK, with a good chunk of those coming from their homeland in Ireland. Founded in 1988, they are the youngest of the established elite of high street bookmakers and were one of the first to turn the majority of their attention to online, vastly reducing the number of high street shops that they operated.
Betting Shops & FOBT’s (Fixed Odds Betting Terminal)
A Fixed Odds Betting Terminal is an electronic device that can be found in most betting shops these days. They often include games such as roulette and blackjack, and are often referred to as a replacement for the more traditional ‘one arm bandits’ that used to litter betting shops and pubs throughout the UK.
The terminals are popular due to the speed of play and the ability to wager small amounts for large wins. They are essentially a casino that includes all the top games rolled into one machine. In the UK a high street bookmaker is only allowed to provide up to 4 machines per store, but they are so popular that it’s been reported that over 33,000 of these machines exist in high street betting shops up and down the country. The numbers would suggest that the majority of shops will maximise this usage with on average 3.3 machines to every single store.
The machines don’t come without criticism though and they are often though of as the ‘crack cocaine’ of the betting industry due to their addictiveness. This is the main reason why a limit of only 4 per store has been included. It’s also one of the main reasons why betting shops are still running today. Some bookmakers have reported that over 50% of a stores income can come from a FOBT and that if they could, they would have dozens in each store just from financial implications alone.
It’s often been wondered why bookmakers will open stores within a very short radius between each other and one of the main reason is these FOBT machines. A recent documentary on the bookmaker Coral that went behind the scenes in several of their stores highlighted that they would often open a new store just a few hundred meters away from another of their stores primarily so they could set up 4 more machines, highlighting how lucrative they are.
The FOBT’s have come under for heavy fire from anti-gambling parties stating that they are too addictive and can be unbelievably destructive to people not responsible to be using the machines. This is one of the main reason why a limit was brought in for each store, but still stories arise of players loosing hundreds of thousands just from fairly small bets over a number of years.
The use of the machines in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Republic of Oreland has been discussed at length within each respective parliament, with many trying to ban the use of them altogether. As yet, no law has been passed to ban FOBT machines.
A History of Betting in the UK
What we know about the history of betting in the UK is that it’s been a long arduous task to get to where it is today. The fully licensed betting shops and now online gambling have revolutionised where the industry has come from. Whilst the true origins of where gambling really started will differ from outlet to outlet, here’s what we do know…
It was widely regarded that betting was first to really take shape via that of entrepreneur (although likely now known as this back then), Harry Ogden, back in 1790. At this point, any form of gambling was technically illegal, so Ogden would target bets at racecourses where he could be far enough from the track not to get noticed, but close enough to see what the result of the race was.
Ogden would originally take bets in a pool format, much similar that of The Tote as we know it today. Punters would bet on the horse that they liked and then the money taken from each race was combined into a betting pool and then distributed amongst the winners, not before Ogden had taken his cut, of course.
This process was rife throughout the 1800’s and it took a few years for punters (and bookies) to smarten up on a bet and provide an odds strategy. This strategy would price a return for each horse (the main sport for illegal betting) based on its ability in the race, much as we would wager today.
In 1845 it was decided, by law, that all bets would have to be confined to race tracks in an attempt to reduce the number of people offering up illegal bets and control the whole process. Again, in what are widely regarded as the first steps towards implementing gambling laws, it was then punishable to all bettors and bookies whole illegally influenced a bet to two years in prison.
Whilst the trackside bookie was seen as the legitimate route for bookmaking in those days, throughout the late 1800’s and early 1900’s a huge underground betting market would be operating. These guys took bets anywhere and everywhere they could, from public toilets to simply going from door to door.
The ability to police these kinds of bets and then prosecute them was growing and growing with each year, until 1960 when the government took a huge step and decided to fully license the use of brick and mortar bookmakers. This allowed the then illegal bookmakers to move into betting shops, whilst having to adhere to gambling laws and rules that have been outlined by the UK government at the time.
Whilst this decision had a massive following of people against the decision, the decision ultimately has allowed the use of gambling in sporting events to be controlled and in turn, had seen a huge reduction in the amount of crime and illegal activities that were often associated with gambling. The government also prospered in this as the tax that they charged business to license and operate these premises were substantial to say the least.
Over the next decade the government would amend the original act set out in 1960 and by 1968 have released The Gaming Act. This was brought in to limit the number of casinos and the ways in which they had to apply for their licenses. It was thought that this in turn would reduce the illegal activity that was often associated with these premises, such as underage drinking and prostitution.
Over the next few decades and bringing us into the present day, there have been several acts and commissions that have come to fruition, all in an attempt to tighten the strings on those running these sorts of organisations. One of the main ones was that of the Gambling Act of 2005, which brought in stricter guidelines that bookmakers had to adhere to, with some having to fully reapply for licensing after being refused under the new laws.
There’s also been huge controversy on companies moving offshore to avoid paying taxes from within the UK. In 2014 this was addressed by implementing a law that no matter if you were based in the UK, you still had to pay your taxes if you provided custom to punters from within the country. The Gambling Commission estimated that this would generate around £300milion a year extra in taxes.
This brings us to the present day! You now see a highly regulated betting industry from within the UK, which has seen huge changes from the early days of trackside and illegal betting. The industry makes so much money for the government and these days it’s never been safer for punters to use these high street bookmakers as result.