LONDON — At no point during the soccer game between Stoke City and visiting Watford did anyone say, “Tonight’s match is brought to you by bet365,” one of the world’s largest online gambling companies. No one needed to. It was pretty obvious.
The game took place at bet365 Stadium, where “bet365” was stenciled across a huge swath of red seats, which were empty because of the pandemic. LED banner ads with the green-and-yellow bet365 logo blinked and rolled around the perimeter of the field throughout play. And every Stoke player had bet365’s insignia emblazoned on the front of his shirt. The company doesn’t just sponsor the team. The company owns it.
“We’ve been stuttering a bit,” Peter Coates, who is chairman of both bet365 and Stoke City, said in a phone interview a few hours before the January game. “We need a win tonight.”
He didn’t get one. Watford prevailed, 2-1, after more than 90 minutes of sporadically exciting play.
Bet365 undoubtedly had a much better night.
The company is private and doesn’t report quarterly earnings. But publicly traded rivals have announced results, and they strongly suggest that gambling operators are one of the big winners in the pandemic economy. The gaming giant Flutter Entertainment announced in November that sports betting revenue rose more than 30 percent last summer from the previous summer. The average daily number of gamblers at all of the company’s chains rose 40 percent.
In soccer-crazed England, gambling is one of the few legally available thrills for a nation that is bored, isolated and stuck at home. It’s the British answer to day trading in the U.S. stock market, which has boomed throughout the pandemic and is expected to rise again as a new round of stimulus checks arrives. With an efficiency that seems both grim and arbitrary, Covid-19 has struck down millions but left others unscathed and, in some cases, richer than ever.
The latter group includes executives at a select group of companies in a variety of fields including e-commerce, like Amazon, and entertainment, like Netflix. Gambling has a singular distinction in this rarefied class. Much of its gains come directly from people in financial duress — and much of that duress has been caused by gambling.
The Gordon Moody Association, a British charity offering residential treatment for gambling addicts, said over the summer that the number of calls from gamblers who said they felt suicidal had recently quadrupled. A House of Lords report found last year that 60 percent of the industry’s profits came from 5 percent of its customers — namely problem gamblers, or gamblers at risk of developing a problem.
People like Lewis, a 25-year-old from Hampshire who requested anonymity because few people know about a compulsion he is still struggling to control. He won about $77,000 at age 16 with an online betting account and chased the high of that original hit for years. Since 2016, he said, he has toggled between total abstinence and flat-out mania.
To him, bet365 is the most insidious of the many online gambling sites, because it outpaces the rest at catering to the always-on impulse of people who want to wager, day and night, on games happening anywhere in the world.
“A gambler is desperate to distract himself, and during lockdown there was nothing to distract me,” he said. “Can’t meet your mates at a pub, can’t go out for a meal. You’re at home every waking second. You end up in a vicious cycle.”
A character out of John le Carré
The online gambling industry has long operated under exceptionally lenient rules in Britain, many of them codified in 2005, with a set of regulations that was largely designed for retail betting shops. It has been described as an analog law for a digital age, and it’s overseen by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, also known as “the Ministry of Fun.”
By all accounts, no company has profited more under this light-handed regime than bet365. Which is why it is spectacularly profitable.
In 2019, the company stated in an annual filing that Mr. Coates’s daughter, Denise Coates, the co-chief executive, had earned more than $420 million, making her the highest-paid executive in the country and the “highest-paid woman in the world,” according to The Guardian. That was many times more than the chief executives of publicly traded competitors and more than 12,000 times the average salary in Stoke-on-Trent, the struggling city, 140 miles north of London, where bet365 is based.
The company floundered last year during the months when soccer games were suspended in Britain, Mr. Coates said. Bet365 leaned on its casino offerings and found some soccer games in Belarus and Australia. Revenue snapped back quickly when play resumed.
Ms. Coates, 53, rarely gives interviews and did not respond to messages for this article. She has been described as intensely private, and even to some longtime rivals — the sort of people she might run into at conventions or associations — she remains elusive.
“She’s like a character out of a John le Carré novel, a person you know exists but whom you never meet,” said Ralph Topping, a former chief executive of William Hill, one of the country’s largest betting companies. “When I was at William Hill, we would have liked to have had her input on matters important to the industry. I’ve never had a conversation with her.”
Ms. Coates’s journey to the pinnacle of online gambling started after she graduated with an honors degree in econometrics from the University of Sheffield and joined her father’s catering business as an accountant. Mr. Coates then owned a few dozen retail gambling shops, essentially a side business at the time.
“She said, ‘Dad, that’s the most boring thing I’ve ever done,’” Mr. Coates recalled. “She said, ‘I want to run those shops for you,’ and she was brilliant at it.”
She spruced up the stores and added 15 more. In 2000, she bought the domain name bet365 from eBay.
“She’s very driven, always likes to be better than anyone else,” Mr. Coates said. “Very organized, good with people. She turned out to be a bit of a star.”
Offering wagers all game long
The world that her father credits Ms. Coates with creating is reflected in a television ad for bet365 that ran before the Stoke-Watford game. It featured the actor turned pitchman Ray Winstone, who sat in the back of a luxury sedan, dressed in a dark suit, idling in traffic and exuding ease and control.
“At bet365 we’re always innovating and creating,” he said in a Cockney accent, staring at the camera. Cellphone in hand, apparently ready to place some wagers, he ticked through a list of those innovations, including something called “in-play betting.”
In-play betting allows customers to wager throughout a sporting event, on minutiae that has little bearing on the outcome. How many corner kicks will there be in the first half of a soccer game? How many players will be ejected? What will happen first during a 10-minute increment — a throw-in, a free kick, a goal kick, something else? When those minutes expire, the site takes wagers on the next 10.
“It’s very much like being in a casino,” said Jake Thomas, a former gambling industry executive who chaperoned a reporter, over the phone, through the website during the Stoke-Watford game. “Why wait 90 minutes to find out if your team is going to win? Why not get a little buzz betting on the next corner kick?”
As Mr. Thomas spoke, and the minutes ticked by, the odds of dozens of wagers were constantly repriced. A bet that Stoke would score in the first 30 minutes paid 9 to 1 at just over 25 minutes into the game. A moment later, as that outcome appeared fractionally less likely, the same bet paid 19 to 2.
The company has said it takes action on 100,000 events throughout the year, on sports and races around the world — greyhounds in New Zealand, women’s table tennis in Ukraine, golf in Dubai. There’s even a section on politics. (George Clooney is currently 100 to 1 to win the American presidency in 2024.)
If no live events appeal, virtual events beckon. These are video-generated simulations of tennis matches; games of football, soccer, basketball and cricket; and on and on. One afternoon, bicycle races in a virtual velodrome were running every three minutes, each lasting about a minute.
Other gambling operators now offer just about everything found on bet365’s site. But rivals say Ms. Coates and her team led the way.
“We were always looking at them to see what they were doing and how they were doing it,” said Peter Nolan, a former group director at William Hill. “And to the extent we could, we competed with them.”
Because of that competition, fans 40 and younger grew up inundated with gambling ads. The subtext, and sometimes the text, was that soccer and betting don’t merely go together — they enhance each other.
“I trusted the messages that football sent me,” said James Grimes, who lost $140,000, two jobs and all of his friends before he quit gambling and founded the Big Step, an antigambling group. “A slogan that I heard a lot as a kid” — from Sky Bet, an online gambling company — “was ‘It matters more when there’s money on it.’ And I believed that.”
A tight-lipped company
Stoke-on-Trent is well known for ceramics — it’s where the reality fare “The Great Pottery Throw Down” is filmed — but today, with a payroll of more than 4,000, it’s bet365 and not Wedgwood that is the city’s largest single employer. Few employees, even those who have been around for years, have met Ms. Coates. Her reticence is embodied in the company’s approach to the news media. It doesn’t have a press office, and no one responded to messages left with customer service representatives, even to say, “No comment.”
Instead, after giving an impromptu phone interview, Peter Coates called to say he would forward any questions to relevant people at bet365. He added, good-naturedly, that speaking to this reporter had landed him in “some trouble.”
The origins of bet365 start with Mr. Coates, a Stoke-on-Trent native and son of a coal miner. With money he had earned through a business selling food at stadiums across the country, he bought three local betting shops, essentially as a favor to the brother of an employee. The chain would eventually expand to 35 shops, stretching from the West Midlands to Liverpool.
Two decades ago, after getting online at Ms. Coates’s urging, the company operated out of a portable cabin near one of the betting shops. It was a more complicated and expensive proposition than the family had initially realized.
“We had to find about 20 million pounds,” Mr. Coates said. “In the early days, we lost a lot of money. They were worrying times, but I felt we were accumulating a customer base, and we eventually passed the critical mass you need.”
The last time the company filed a financial report, in December 2019, it stated that operating profit had jumped 15 percent from the previous year, to roughly $1 billion. This capped an immensely lucrative period for Ms. Coates. Forbes recently estimated her net worth at $6.4 billion.
For the second year in a row, the Coates family is the United Kingdom’s biggest taxpayer, according to the annual Sunday Times Tax List, published in late January. The family paid the equivalent of $785 million into state coffers last year. Ms. Coates has also set up the Denise Coates Foundation, which focuses on health care and research and charity and in its most recent filing reported $14 million in giving.
More quietly, she has been buying hundreds of acres in nearby Cheshire and building what The Daily Mail called a $125 million “glass palace,” along with stables, a tennis court and a 75,000-square-foot artificial lake.
In Stoke, Ms. Coates is both acclaimed and largely invisible. She can be counted on to chip in money for civic projects, as she did when the town needed additional funds to erect a statue for Arnold Bennett, a local author who died 90 years ago. Just don’t expect her to show up at the unveiling.
“A lot of people who have made money in Stoke leave,” said Fred Hughes, 80, a retired police officer who attended the Bennett statue ceremony. “This is quite an impoverished area, and it’s always looking for outside investment. The Coates family is the exception.”
Winners not always welcome
The success of bet365 stems in large part from the way it pampers bettors. It offers, for instance, refunds to anyone who bets on a soccer team to win in a game that ends without any goals. (Nil-nil ties enrage bettors.) And in certain circumstances, the company will pay out winners before a game is over.
This is not exactly altruism.
“The logic from their point of view is that if you’ve got your winnings before the game is over, you can use that money to bet again,” said Warwick Bartlett of Global Betting & Gaming Consultants.
The company is far less hospitable to another type of customer: consistent winners. Brian Chappell said he had a falling out with bet365 a few years ago after earning about $4,800 over a summer of gambling on horses. A retired health care researcher, Mr. Chappell said he simply studied the sport and understood the complexities of hedging well enough to come out ahead on weekly races.
“Then one Saturday I went to place a bet and the most I could wager was £1.60,” or about $2.20, he said. “They don’t tell you it’s going to happen — there’s no interaction at all. Just one day, your bet is restricted.”
After learning that others had encountered similar obstacles, at bet365 and other operators, Mr. Chappell founded Justice for Punters — “punter” is slang for bettor — to fight back.
“I call it the ‘ban or bankrupt’ strategy,” he said, describing what he calls an “amazing” business model: “If you’re any good, you get banned. If you’re useless, you get a V.I.P. manager who will keep you gambling.”
Antigambling activists contend that such stratagems are just part of the problem, especially during the pandemic.
“The lockdowns have accelerated the growth of online gambling and increased the use of more addictive gambling products,” said Matt Zarb-Cousin, who runs Clean Up Gambling, a nonprofit. “This means an entire generation is now far more vulnerable to gambling addiction.”
Without new regulations, separating soccer and gambling will never happen, Mr. Zarb-Cousin and others say, because the two are now essentially fused. About 70 percent of teams in the top two English leagues earn millions by wearing betting company logos on their uniforms. Even the few soccer team owners who refuse gambling money, on principle, end up taking it just by competing.
Mark Palios, owner of the Tranmere Rovers in Birkenhead has spoken out against gambling operators as a malign force in the game. He was appalled two seasons ago when bet365 wound up with broadcasting rights to some games. The Football Association, which markets those rights, shares revenue with teams in the league.
“And bet365 decided that if you wanted to watch games you needed to go to the company’s website and sign up for an account,” Mr. Palios said.
“The company was nakedly leveraging its market power to compel people to gamble. I thought that was obscene.”
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