When the first UK National Lottery licence was awarded to Camelot in 1994, few would have envisaged how it has grown into the gaming behemoth of today. It is so far removed from the once-weekly draw, delivering dreams to millions of players for a quid a pop, that it’s virtually unrecognisable.
Over the ensuing years that single draw went to two weekly draws, followed by the introduction of supplementary games including Thunderball, Lotto Hotpicks, Set For Life, EuroMillions and EuroMillion Hotpicks. But the real game changer came in 1995 when Camelot unleashed its range of scratchcards followed by online instant wins.
Now this is hardly news to a global lottery business that is well accustomed to a whole host of draw-based and instant win games. But within the context of a UK sector that can’t quite make up its mind on age and access, it’s becoming a bit of an issue, made all the more prominent recently by Conservative MP for North West Durham Richard Holden.
He argues, and with some justification, that the age at which UK National Lottery games can be played should be raised to 18 to align itself with the rest of the gambling industry. In other words levelling the playing field with machine-based gaming, or entering a casino, adult gaming centre or betting shop, all of which require players to be aged 18 years and older.
As things stand, the lottery inhabits a rather privileged, albeit anomalous, gaming environment. Notwithstanding the weekly draws, a 16-year-old may legitimately purchase unlimited amounts of scratchcards from retail outlets to chase life-changing jackpots. And if our fictional teenage punter wants to go online they can bet up to £350 a week on instant win products.
This has left the slot machine industry at a clear disadvantage over the years, with manufacturers limited to offering their products to over-18s and much heavier restrictions on stakes and prizes. The ‘cap-in-hand’ approach they’ve had to adopt to win any concessions has traditionally been met by policy makers with a polite call for more research and evidence – government parlance for ‘piss off and come back later’!
But back to Holden. Writing in the ConservativeHome publication, he offered the view that scratchcards and instant win online games have ‘moved the dial’ far from a ‘bit of fun’ to more than a ‘bit of a problem’, given that they now make up almost as much in revenue terms as the four weekly (two lottery and two Euromillions) draws combined.
Holden said: “The Lottery says that it has very small numbers of 16 and 17-year-old players, but the truth is that they really don’t know because there is no real age breakdown from retail sales of scratchcards. More important still is that all Lottery players, of whatever age, are able to spend £350 a week online.
“It seems clear to me that allowing 16 and 17-year-olds (who we now require to be in education at least part time until they’re 18) to lose £350/week in fixed odds online gambling – and obviously unlimited sums in retailers – is madness. We’ve raised the age at which you do everything from buy cigarettes to the age at which you can serve on the front line to 18, and therefore it appears perverse that we allow the spending of such large amounts by 16 and 17-year-olds.”
He’s right, but the argument that’s held so well for so many years for Camelot is that fundamentally/ostensibly the whole point of a national lottery was to raise money for good causes – which it undoubtedly has. As Holden correctly asserts, though, it’s important to know where that money is coming from.
“The Lottery’s defence is that this all means more cash for good causes but where – or more specifically who – you’re getting that cash from really does matter,” he said. “I don’t think it should be from the pockets of 16 and 17-year-olds gambling up to £350 a week on instant win games.”
Holden’s outpouring, while adding little that’s new to the lottery narrative, is timely in light of the ongoing race for the UK National Lottery licence. We’re not talking about a purely commercial enterprise here, this is a state run beast that’s capable of devouring discretionary public spend at a significant rate of knots.
The point will not have been lost on Sir Keith Mills who recently became Chair of the Sazka Group in its bid for the licence. In his debut statement for the company he said that the Lottery needs to grow and be engaging if it is to continue to fund thousands of good causes every year, adding that it needs to be restored to the nation’s hearts.
He might well take into account that since the National Lottery began all those years ago there are still plenty of people ready to queue up and take their turn for a shot at the dream. As for engagement, the National Lottery is never truly far away from our line of sight so those things should be achievable.
What we suspect he really means, however, is that the Lottery needs to make more money by growing the player base rather than face a similar future to that which potentially afflicts the bingo genre, which increasingly relies upon sweating the assets from a dwindling fan base.
Thing is, the old folks are dying off and even the least intelligent among the UK’s great unwashed are waking up to the fact that the price of a lottery dream these days is starting to look like bad value for money. This is where the real work of revitalising the Lottery begins.
Whether it’s a scratchcard, a weekly draw or an online instant win, it might be you. But the way the game is set up these days it’s less likely than ever. So whoever wins the next licence is going to have to press the reset button and go back to basics, give the punters better odds of winning big and identify a new way of selling the sizzle.
And as for Holden’s original point about kids gambling on scratchcards and online instants? Any CSR professional with a modicum of integrity would concur that there’s got to be a more responsible and sustainable means of raising money for good causes.