Monday, May 20, 2024

Gambling bill risks ruining Ireland’s racing industry 

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Have you ever felt ill-equipped to voice your opinion? Maybe you think the vitriol you could potentially receive for expressing your views outweighs the benefit of actually speaking your mind.

I would never usually fit this mindset but with one particular topic recently I consciously opted to stand in the shadows, convinced that there were superior minds on the job. What was it Abraham Lincoln said? “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” He would never have become President if he truly believed those words.

Throughout the development of the Gambling Regulation Bill (GRB), I have watched, I have listened and now it’s time to speak up. Why now you might ask? Simply, this legislation could have a seismic negative impact on the industry that has employed generations of Mangans, currently employs most of my friends, and soon our words, opinions, and debates will be superfluous.

I believe the level of problem gambling in this country justifies the need for reformed regulation. This bill brings Ireland’s regulation of this sector up to speed with modern society and the establishment of the Gambling Regulatory Authority allows it to keep pace with the ever-accelerating evolution of technology and its role within the parameters of gambling and gaming.

For transparency, I should make it clear that I am a regular analyst/presenter on RTÉ Racing and Racing TV’s coverage and I feature on past and present promotions for various betting companies — for those reasons, some might read these words as biased. I promise you, this is simply my mind’s logic.

The Gambling Regulation Bill proposes banning gambling advertising pre-9pm on free-to-air television — this makes sense. However, the ban also applies to specialised subscription channels — I fail to see the logic here as there is more than one brush stroke required to accurately paint this picture.

The bill also specifies that you must “opt-in” or “agree” to see gambling advertisements on digital platforms — a brilliant move and long overdue although I suspect it’s not that simple to put into practice.

This brings me back to the advertising ban on specialised subscription channels which by their nature are “opt-in”. So, why does the bill treat them differently to online regulation yet the same as free-to-air television?

Horse racing’s subscription channels also require you to be at least 18 years of age to subscribe and they are by association mainly utilised by industry professionals and dedicated racing fans. Surely it makes sense to align subscription channels with digital media which would require both to have an “opt-in” and minimum age policy?

It’s worth referencing that the Australian government is also reforming its legislation around gambling advertising. Last year, a committee from Australia’s House of Representatives held an inquiry into online gambling and its impacts from which they published a list of 31 recommendations for their government. Amongst their recommendations is an exemption of a watershed ban on gambling adverts for dedicated horse racing channels — all other channels have the ban.

Representatives of Sky Sports Racing and Racecourse Media Group (parent company of Racing TV) have said that the legislation in its current form would render their coverage of Irish Racing “economically unviable,” representatives from RMG citing that they “simply do not have the scale and facilities to regionalise our coverage”. 

We very realistically could have a situation whereby every other country bar Ireland could watch Irish racing.

The prospect of losing television coverage has most of horse racing’s community worried, anxiously awaiting an outcome that has been weighing on their minds for over a year. They are bracing for impact. No coverage, no fans. No fans, no owners, and no investment, thus the Irish racehorse becomes redundant along with those who work with them.

Junior Minister James Browne has championed this bill since its inception. Like any politician worth their salt, he has taken compliment and criticism in his stride. He has taken industry meetings, been inundated with letters and emails from concerned industry stakeholders but I question whether he has truly opened his mind to hear their reason and listen to their logic.

When asked about the racing community’s concerns, he appears completely unfazed by their genuine worries. When the topic of subscription channels is raised, he is dismissive. 

Does he care or is he content that an entire industry could simply become collateral damage in his efforts to reform gambling regulation?

Nobody I know is critical of the bill’s ultimate goal, but the potential destruction of an entire industry could be avoided if section 141 was to be amended to exclude subscription channels and align them with digital requirements. 

The ironic thing is, if racing isn’t on TV it will inevitably drive traffic to online streaming platforms, many of which are provided by licensed bookmakers not to mention the potential attraction to unlicensed alternatives — talk about defeating a purpose.

The government has installed a very capable CEO in Anne Marie Caulfield to lead the Gambling Regulatory Authority. Combined with a staff of circa 100 and a budget allocation of €4m for 2024, they have given her the resources to enforce change quickly but why not give her the scope to manoeuvre the nuances of a bill that covers such a broad landscape? Why not allow her the ability to adapt to circumstance rather than a blanket ban that could dismantle the equine industry?

Time is of the essence in every sense. I look forward to seeing the new face of Irish gambling regulation take effect in 2024 but I hope it doesn’t spell the beginning of the end for an industry that employs over 30,000 people in rural Ireland, generates €2.46bn a year for the Irish economy and is one of our most consistent sources of sporting success on an international scale.

We as a nation take so much pride in our Irish horse racing industry. Nobody produces thoroughbreds like the Irish. Nobody works with them as well as the Irish and nobody can deny that when it comes to horse racing, we are the standard that is admired around the globe.

I may have confirmed myself a fool Mr Lincoln but, if it helps preserve the future of one of Ireland’s greatest assets, then I’ll take the hit.

Jane Mangan is a racing broadcaster with RTÉ Racing and Racing TV

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