People and space versus screens and machines: Why did one of the world’s largest betting shops open in Belfast?

Conor Johnston (@ConorJohnstonNI) asks Gary Toal of Toals Bookmakers why one of the biggest betting shops to be found anywhere outside the sports books of America was opened in Belfast, discovers a surprising twist in the history of betting shops in Northern Ireland and hears the view that the absence of legal Sunday betting here is a mystery to the modern punter…

The launch in March of one of the largest betting shops in existence in the form of the 7,600 square foot Toals shop at High Street in Belfast, could have caused a few raised eyebrows among anyone who has been reading GB newspapers and watching BBC One’s Britain at the Bookies.

Surely, to follow the logic of recent media coverage of betting shops in England, more shops will mean the maximum number (four) of presumed-goldmine Fixed Odds Betting Terminal (FOBT) machines per shop and that means more profit for the bookie?

And with online betting all around us on another front, what could the logic of opening a single huge betting shop – with no more machines than any bookie as only one licence exists – possibly be when bookmakers in England are being accused of opening multiple shops, even in the same towns, to operate more machines? Why would a Northern Ireland firm open an apparently industry-defying betting shop on our doorstep, maintain a Dial-a-Bet phone service and chose to have people and space when it is assumed that more shops, more machines and more internet screens are the direction of travel?

The answer, argues Gary, lies in understanding the climate for betting shops in Northern Ireland completed to shops in England: licences being harder to come by, FOBTs less popular than those in GB, a larger number shops here being owned locally and a significant historic association with horse and greyhound racing.

Gary also explained how many betting shops in Northern Ireland came into being through an law in 1957 which “entertained” applications from those already convicted of running an illegal book in order to legitimise the industry and collect taxes, and believes that the future for betting shops here will see a reduction in the number of shops set against an increase in large, comfortable shops.

The Toals owner also stated the case for Sunday betting shop opening, said bookies are likely to close in Northern Ireland, spoke in favour of efforts to open a casino in Belfast, explained how the type of bets sought by customers has changed and outlined that our culture has lead to less popularity of FOBT machines in local betting shops.

England – betting comes to the high street

Is the single, large shop approach a stark contrast to the apparent ‘explosion’ of high street betting shops in England, which are assumed to jostle for town and city centre places in order to create more income from FOBTs? Only if viewed from the viewpoint of some unfair recent media coverage, Gary said: “We have seen a lot of bad journalism, heavily informed by the campaign against some machines, about a supposed explosion of betting shops in England. However in 1960, when betting shops were made legal in England, there were 16,000 shops and now there are 9,000 shops.

The shops in England many years ago were hidden from view in side-streets, however since then we have seen the closure of big high street shopping brands and reduced rates, meaning that betting shops there could move onto the high street. The law in England reduced the importance of showing demand for any new shop in 2005, meaning that planning approval is the main consideration. Betting shops could move to where there customers can be found, and what business wouldn’t want do so?

While Gary agreed with the view that betting shops in England were making a significant income from FOBT machines, he said the use of terms like ‘clustering’ to paint a picture of an increase of shops was therefore inaccurate.

Northern Ireland – the differences

How does the climate for betting shops differ in Northern Ireland? Under our own 1985 legislation, the need to show demand for a betting shop is a significant hurdle for anyone seeking a new licence. In the face of any objections an application for a new licence is likely be refused.

With the number of betting shops in Northern Ireland therefore static at around 300 and few in prime locations, Gary argues (see below) that culturally Northern Ireland does not see anything close to the popularity of FOBTs found in England, making our industry here based on well-established shops serving a cultural connection to the horse and greyhound-racing industries alongside a demand for TV sports betting.

Gary’s High Street shop is, in fact, not a new shop but an extension of the existing Pottinger’s Entry shop into the old Passport Office, coming about as a new licence for a larger-footprint shop – based on the surrender of the old licence – is easier to obtain as the gambling opportunities offered in the area remain unchanged. It was fitted-out – including the technology behind the 3 x 3 layout screens being used for the first time in Western Europe – in time for a March opening ahead of Cheltemham this year, despite the licence only being granted in late November 2014.

He said it was a response to the changing betting industry, and even an attempt to drive some further change: “Most betting shops are too small and there are too many. There are going to be fewer shops but larger, more comfortable shops in the future.

People want comfort, warmth, service and a higher standard. In fact, I have never seen so many women in a betting shop since we opened our extended Pottinger’s Entry shop.

Toals first shop was opened in Ballymena’s Pat’s Brae in 1932 and the company has now grown to 60 shops and over 250 staff.

A fascinating oddity in the history of betting shops in Northern Ireland comes from the fact that many shops are still at their original site from a time when betting shops were made legal with the introduction of legislation.

In 1957 a licence applicant who could show that he had been convicted of operating a shop in the same premises found that this fact helped an application under the Betting and Lotteries Act 1957, thereby bringing the industry into control and into the tax system without increasing the number of shops. A copy of a summons issued against Jimmy O’Toole, a colleague of Gary’s grandfather and later his father Michael, is shown.

The total number of shops in Northern Ireland – approximately 310 – has remained fairy static to this day, with Ladbrokes operating around 80 shops, William Hill with 35, Toals with their 60 and McLean around 45 (estimates provided by Gary). A large number of Northern Ireland-owned companies operate betting shops here, in contrast to the dominance of major high street brand bookmakers in GB.

For an outsider, it is hard to see what place the Dial-a-Bet telephone service could have in the age of smartphones and online betting, however Gary maintains that customers who tend to use one of his existing shops will use the service if they are unable to visit a shop. He explained that if he does not have a Toals shop in an area then he will be unlikely to have phone customers from that town or city.

Gary explained that the type of gambling sought by a betting shop customer has changed through the years, following changes in live sport coverage and in the prominence of traditional horse and greyhound racing.

In the 1970s the only live sport was horse-racing, then Match of the Day became huge. When you think about it, there is very little footage of George Best playing football, which is why the same TV clips are used again and again.

The arrival of more and more live sport has marked the difference for us. If it is live on TV, people want to bet on it. We would see less than 45 percent of betting on horses now with soccer making up a huge slice of the remaining custom. You will also see a lot of people who only bet on one sport like golf and never bet on horses at all except perhaps for the Grand National.

FOBTs and Donald Trump

Toals follow the 2013 Association of British Bookmakers GB voluntary agreement which sees FOBT terminals, particularly roulette, restricted to a £100 stake per spin, time limits between spins and a maximum of four machines per betting shop. Most Toal shops will have four machines if there is space to do so.

The FOBTs themselves are seen by bookmakers in Northern Ireland as self-service terminals betting on off-site events and therefore not covered  by Northern Ireland legislation.

While the Campaign for Fairer Gambling (CFG) and local councils in England have been vocal with concerns about the machines, due to the high stakes and ability to lose large sums quickly, a 2014 Nottingham Trent University report stated that the steps taken by the industry have had a positive impact in GB.

Gary’s view of the difference in FOBT usage between Northern Ireland and England points out a fascinating cultural difference:

We are a sports betting business. We aren’t running an amusement arcade as our customer tends to be the mature Irish type of gambler. Our betting culture comes from a time when most people would know someone who races a horse or greyhound, or lives near a track, or would have known someone connected to those sports. Just 40 years ago you would have seen people walking greyhounds everywhere you looked, for example. And we had Celtic Park near the Royal and Dunmore off the Antrim Road, it was a massive sport.

On the other hand, in the South-East of England you have a much more multi-cultural society, including a lot of customers who come from countries where things like dice and card games are much, much more prominent. It is easy to forget that there are few countries in the world where a betting shop as we know it can be found.

Are the machines the ‘crack cocaine’ of gambling though? Every time a new form of gambling comes along the same description is used. When poker machines started to become popular Donald Trump, a casino owner, said the same thing. However I believe they are a form of gambling my customers should have access to. When the machines first came along we even look them out of some shops after a trial, but ultimately there is a demand now from customers and – crucially – if I did not supply the option of a FOBT machine it would be facilitated elsewhere, beyond the sight of people like my staff who can speak to a customer if they are concerned and show them where to find help.

I’m not saying people do not get addicted, I don’t want to see that happen and we want to help if it does, but despite reports of machines being broken by customers in England we have not had one wrecked machine.

Gary explained that Toals, along with other bookmakers in Northern Ireland under the Northern Ireland Turf Guardians Association, support Dunlewey Addiction Services (as do Republic of Ireland bookmakers) and direct anyone in need of help with a gambling problem to their services. He said Northern Ireland has not seen problem gambling on the scale of alcoholism and pointed out that the biggest form of gambling is the National Lottery.

FOBTS are illegal in the Republic of Ireland however, like Northern Ireland, machines with a physical roulette wheel can be found in amusement and gaming arcades.

Sunday opening and casino for Belfast

Northern Ireland’s betting shops operate within the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 despite apparent attempts to update the legislation.

In 2011 Alex Attwood carried out a consultation in which he appeared minded to allow Sunday opening, to continue to ‘oppose’ any plans for a casino and to ban FOBTs. In 2013 Nelson McCausland said his priority was to ‘minimise harm’ and opposed Sunday opening as well as any change to allow a casino. He had stated that he expected to have draft legislation prepared this year.

The Campaign for Fairer Gambling  have called for action against FOBTs to be taken by legislators in Northern Ireland, their view being that the machines exist in a legal grey area here.

Their input follows the failure by local authorities in England to dramatically reduce FOBT stakes; the government initially referring the matter back to local planners before an initial £50 stake per spin cap was latterly announced.

Looking back to our legislation, Gary singles out a law in Northern Ireland which does not allow his shops to open on a Sunday as putting him at a disadvantage against online companies and those who take advantage of the legislation by offering illegal betting in pubs and clubs.

People still gamble on a Sunday; the betting shops in, say, Dundalk are packed with people from Northern Ireland who have come with their families and children to shop and spend money. And that’s not to mention illegal betting taking advantage of the Sunday opening law.

On a final note, Gary added that a changing Northern Ireland has led many customers and visitors to wonder why our legislative picture hasn’t moved with the times to allow Sunday betting and even a casino: “A casino in Belfast may even be bad for my business, but I think it would be good for the economy.

We are in an era now of cruise-ships filling our streets with tourists. But they don’t understand why they have arrived in a busy city but can’t visit a casino or have a bet on a Sunday.

It is hard for many people to see why that is.

* This piece is intended to detail one point of view about betting shops in Northern Ireland and leaves scope to look at other points of view and issues in future entries, I have no association with Toals Bookmakers or the gambling industry.

We are reader supported. Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger. While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.