The Virtual Grand National

by | Apr 3, 2020

Virtual Grand National– A NHS donation gambling on long term harm

The Virtual Grand National this Saturday is causing much debate, given that customers who lose money gambling on this CGI/algorithmic cartoon horse race will effectively be funnelling a ‘donation’ to the NHS via an online betting account.  The concern of many is that betting companies are basically looking to drive traffic to gambling sites at times where they are seeing an apparent decrease in usage. 

The proposed mass normalisation of virtual racing on primetime TV is therefore very risky during the coronavirus crisis, when much of the public are in home isolation and experiencing various degrees of anxiety and financial challenges.  Whilst the NHS donation is admirable from the gambling industry, it should be reminded that it is coming from members of the public who lose money gambling.  This blog looks to pose some questions of the gambling industry, at what seems a concerning decision.

No Horse-Racing Subsidies

The gambling industry in my view is using the Virtual Grand National as an opportunity to turn an occasional flutter into potentially a long-term dangerous habit for the minority.  Yes, most individuals will enjoy the race as a distraction from the current global pandemic, but from experience, escapism is risky for some. 98/100 people could “donate” £980 to the gambling industry and NHS and have no issues.  For 2 individuals, the £20 donation could also mean £100,000s of gambling industry losses and a crippling addiction. 

There are various ways this could have been approached better, for example with an actual donation made to NHS from the betting industry.  It should be reminded that Claire Murdoch, the NHS National Mental Health Director stated in January 2020:

“…the gambling industry has a responsibility to prevent the occasional flutter turning into a dangerous habit….” 

It now seems much needed NHS funding will in fact be driven from those who lose when a direct donation would be a better solution?  

A marketing ploy from gambling firms

This “donation” to the NHS is effectively just a form of marketing for positive PR for the gambling industry.  For example:

·       How many new customers will sign up to a betting account for example because of this event which is pitched as supporting a good cause with a £10 bet? 

·       How many will then get sent promotions to bet on other events later?  

·       Can we be sure there will be no long-term promotions or marketing opt outs?  

There are a lot of questions that are unanswered.  There is a real concern with this mass marketed event that given there’s little to bet, bookmakers are using this as chance to lure in to esports, virtuals and casinos at a dangerous time. Virtual sports betting is quick, relatively unlimited, accessible and can lead to addiction that needs treatment.  Let’s not forget that even with apparent pledges being in place by the gambling industry around social responsibility, we still see virtual events marketed by major firms as starting every single minute and how you can play casinos without changing from your pyjamas.

There has also been some language used by the Betting and Gaming Council that does not sit well with me.  This includes: “In aid of the NHS”“the nation comes together” or “Britain is best when we come together in a crisis” for example.  None of these terms are technically correct.  This is marketing speak to play at the heart strings of the public. What’s happened is that gambling firms are looking to hook a wider group of the population isolated into online gambling.  Yes, a donation to NHS to be applauded but it’s from consumers who lose through gambling!

Three suggested changes to resolve

It is easy to criticise the gambling industry.  I am not anti-gambling.  Yes, I have experienced significant harm from the wrongdoing of operators, but I still believe gambling should exist but in a safe and controlled environment.  This virtual race has been “run” in previous years with little attention.  I personally attended the Aintree Grand National twice in 2010 and 2012 and know it is a great occasion.  A virtual race with betting opportunities during a pandemic does not seem that.  This could have been done in various different ways such as:

1.Anyone who signs up as new is not marketed to, nor receives any promotions

2.Offer a virtual £5 or £10 and donate the funds of anyone who wins to NHS

3.Stage the virtual betting on a specific website or domain unique to this event and not a betting site

In summary

Proceeds to the NHS is a positive thing, short term and it’s right this national institution is supported. However, normalising & promoting virtual sports betting may create further strain & cost to the NHS long term.  Where were the major gambling operators “lining up” donations to help the NHS when addicts they helped create for years faced long delays for referrals to NHS psychological services due to gambling addiction?  We heard nothing from betting firms at this time.  This seems double standards from gambling firms, who should be donating anyway to the NHS or direct to government for the harm they cause.




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Consumer advocate – disillusioned with gambling industry. Questioning unethical practices – VIP schemes, complaints, responsible gambling & data use.

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