UK Tells Online Betting Industry to Clean Up Promotions or Else

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is ordering the online betting industry in the UK to clean up its promotional practices or face regulatory action from the UK Gambling Commission (UKGC).

In a statement published on 1 February, the CMA named and shamed three operators but did not take action against them. Instead, the CMA said Ladbrokes, William Hill and PT Entertainment (parent company of the Titan Bet and Winner brands) have “formally committed to change the way they offer bonus promotions to ensure players can always access and release their own money.”

Although these three companies received the brunt of the damage from a PR perspective, the CMA found troublesome promotions “common across the £4.7 billion online gambling sector.” The CMA is now warning operators that they better clean up their acts when it comes to promotions or face the wrath of UKGC, which has strong regulatory powers up to and including the ability to revoke any betting site’s license.

Ladbrokes, William Hill and PT Entertainment have all agreed to make their promotions clearer to customers and to ensure they do not offer promotions which:

  • Force players to play multiples times before becoming eligible to withdraw their own money
  • Enforce confusing and unclear restrictions on gameplay or use vague terms to confiscate customers’ money
  • Force customers to participate in publicity

2016 Investigation Wasn’t Exactly a Secret Affair

Last week’s decree comes after an 18-month investigation into industry practices surrounding bonus offers uncovered widespread use of unfair promotions. The CMA launched this investigation in October of 2016 at the behest of the UKGC.

After reviewing a database of complaints submitted to the UKGC, the CMA became concerned that three issues in particular may be negatively affecting online gambling customers:

  1. Promotional terms and conditions that lock players into complex and strict requirements that are difficult to understand and possibly unachievable
  2. Betting sites reserving broad powers to cancel or alter odds after bets have been accepted
  3. Terms and conditions that limit customers’ ability to challenge company decisions

None of this should be particularly surprising for operators, because the CMA issued a press release at the beginning of the investigation detailing the concerns that drove the CMA to launch the investigation in the first place. The three concerns noted above were plainly stated in the press release way back in 2016.

And if that wasn’t clear enough, CMA Senior Director for Consumer Enforcement Nisha Arora said at the time:

“Gambling inevitably involves taking a risk, but it shouldn’t be a con. We’re worried players are losing out because gambling sites are making it too difficult for them to understand the terms on which they’re playing, and may not be giving them a fair deal. We are now investigating to see whether firms are breaking the law.

“Around 5.5 million Britons gamble online and they must be treated fairly. We’ve heard worrying complaints suggesting people may be lured into signing up for promotions with little chance of winning because of unfair and complex conditions. We’re now working closely with the Gambling Commission to examine this more closely.”

The UKGC and CMA then followed this up with yet another announcement warning operators that it is time to fix their promotional offerings. In the latest update, the UKGC and CMA explained exactly what they expect from promotional offers and what is not permitted.

What is surprising is the seemingly complete lack of preparedness from industry operators. It would be one thing if smaller, lesser-known operators were caught off guard, but companies as large as Ladbrokes and William Hill should never have been caught so flat-footed. All of the operators named in this most recent proclamation had plenty of time to get ahead of the issue.

Additional Demands Laid Out in Plain English

Fortunately for operators, the CMA and UKGC are giving them even more time to get it together. The Gambling Commission is giving operators advance notice right now that they all need to address the concerns noted in last week’s press release. The UKGC also laid out a series of demands detailing what it expects from operators:

  • Players should never face unfair restrictions that prevent them from withdrawing their own money.
  • Betting sites must never stack the odds against players by putting unfair obstacles in their way or making it difficult to stop gambling when they want to
  • Gambling firms must treat customers fairly and not attach unreasonable terms and conditions to their promotional offers
  • Gambling firms must also drop other policies that make it difficult for customers to withdraw or keep their own money. This includes terms and force winners to withdraw their winnings in small installments over long periods of time and terms that state betting sites may confiscate account balances if customers have not been active

None of these demands is terribly onerous and all of them could have been anticipated based simply on the concerns noted in the original press release announcing the beginning of the investigation. Any licensed betting sites in the UK that fail to address these issues now, after multiple warnings, will have no one to blame but themselves if they are slapped with a major penalty.