Topping looks to 2017: Not the usual suspects?

Betting Business Ralph Topping
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Revered veteran of the bookmaking game and former chief executive at William Hill, Ralph Topping shares his perception of the industry past and present and the changes ahead in 2017.


[dropcap]F[/dropcap]rom humble beginnings as a Saturday boy in a Glasgow bookies, Ralph Topping retired from the top job at Britain’s biggest bookmaker 44 years later. The enigmatic veteran of the industry continues to play a kind of activist alumni for what he describes as the “most noble name in bookmaking,” never shy from offering his old employers even the most scathing of insights.

Topping paints a complex picture of the the industry in 2016, with regulatory sea-changes hanging over firms like a Sword of Damocles. Yet the underlying environment is strong and betting’s prospects could hardly be better, he says. This curious combination of strong growth potential and regulatory uncertainty however, means the current mix of operators and the market share they enjoy today could soon be ripe for substantial transformation.

“Since its legalisation in the 1960s, betting has grown as a popular and strong recreational activity in the UK. Significant regulatory and tax changes since then, the advent of satellite TV and its extensive coverage of football, the arrival of the internet and many developments in technology have combined to deliver a huge increase in markets and betting opportunities and access to them for the customer. More choice too in who to bet with,” sung the former CEO.

While the immediate past is too often thought of as an era of intense consolidation, Topping remembers a time when the betting game was far less diverse. Indeed he views the industry today as still in a wildly competitive phase, and expects the market to be dominated by far fewer firms in future.

“Two or three companies dominated the first five decades of legalised betting. The landscape has totally changed in a relatively short period of time to the ultimate benefit of the modern recreational customer,” he went on.

The prospects for continued growth and expansion are in no doubt for Topping, who sees strong fundamentals in the UK, and increasingly in Europe. This is largely thanks to overtly benign regulation and tax policies, that have helped to maintain recreational gambling’s growth trajectory. Although, he argues, increased regulatory pressure is only likely to incentivise further consolidation.

“Recent and mooted changes in the regulatory and tax environment are a challenge for many and will, I think, bring further industry consolidation,” he added.

Undoubtedly Toppings own perception is framed by a deep understanding of the position William Hill is in today. With new regulation in the wings to curtail the profit power of FOBTs, the firm has long been keen to find a more digital ally to diversify away from such risk. Many bookmakers are already changing their operations in preparation for this new more online marketplace; in this rapidly changing environment, it’s anyone’s game.

“We’re perhaps witnessing the beginning of a process that will in the near- to mid-term see the UK gambling market dominated by three or four huge and predominantly digitally focused organisations,” Topping suggested. “Not necessarily the usual suspects.”

Topping will be speaking more on this and other topics at a dedicated Fireside Chat for ICE VOX in February, a new learning brand which is debuting at ICE Totally Gaming 2017.

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