Regulate sports betting to stop the slide into casino economy

I am not against sports or online betting for that matter, but I want the raging public debate on this to go beyond the moralistic grand-standing that Members of Parliament are currently engaged in.

We must start by asking the hard questions: Why the surge in the number of betting licences? Before we allowed betting firms to mushroom, did we conduct thorough studies to assess the likely social impact of rapid growth in sports betting? Did we study and consider risks such as addiction, especially among vulnerable groups such as youth?

And, in view of the fact that the new generation of sports betting firms that have popped up have an international reach, where are the safeguards against illegal cross-border transfers? Where are the barriers to prevent criminals and the corrupt from laundering ill-gotten money?

Just the other day, we read the sensational story of how cyber criminals stole over $80 million from the Central Bank of Bangladesh's account at the New York Fed. As it turned out, the money was laundered out through gambling houses in the Philippines.

Is there a case for placing restrictions on advertising by these mushrooming sports betting companies, the way we have done with alcohol and tobacco?

Indeed, the new generation of sports betting companies have hit the advertising scene, hogging unrestricted access to daily full-colour newspaper ads, expensive billboard advertising, prime time television advertising, signing one multi-billion-shilling sports sponsorship deal after another.

USE OF TECHNOLOGY

Granted, sports betting is not new in Kenya. If you have lived in Nairobi for a long time, you must be familiar with the famous and hugely popular bookmakers of Tom Mboya Street - frumpily dressed men milling in a crowded hall, betting on horses they have never seen and will not see all their lives.

The difference today is use of technology. Mobile phones have transformed sports betting in fundamental ways, allowing more than 30 million Kenyans who own mobile phones to bet on a new range of events and to gamble real time as the games progress in far flung regions in the Northern Hemisphere.

Whenever I reflect on the changes happening in this space, it all reminds me of the leftist thinker and author Susan Strange, who in 1986, published the book, Casino Economy. With the mushrooming of unregulated gambling, we are surely drifting towards a casino economy.

Matatu touts, ordinary folk, and youth are using smartphones to risk thousands of shillings on a daily basis without the safeguards that regulated casinos and bookmakers must abide by.

The number of ordinary men and women borrowing money through their mobile telephones to gamble on the very same gadgets has grown exponentially, especially among lowly paid workers and the self-employed.

M-PESA ACCOUNT

What you will observe is a trend where the typical lowly paid worker living in the Eastlands area of Nairobi will be constantly on his phone, shuffling money from his mobile phone loan account to his M-Pesa account, and finally deploying it into gambling.

Which begs the question: Is it right and proper to allow ordinary folk to borrow money and spend it on unregulated gambling? In many countries, laws and regulations do not allow you to use a credit card for gambling.

In Kenya, consumers can shift the money they have saved on their mobile platforms to betting. As a payment channel, M-Pesa's success as a convenience to consumers has been phenomenal.

But because we have bundled this payment channel with a telecommunication subscription line and savings and mobile loan accounts, all in one gadget, we have made betting easy and convenient, moving the activity from designated places such as casinos, where it is regulated. People gamble as they work, shop, even as they commute in matatus.

Have we considered making it a requirement that new betting companies roll out their own infrastructure? Old-fashioned Kenya Charity Sweepstake used to have special branded kiosks to sell tickets.

In some countries, betting companies are required to pay a prescribed proportion of their earnings to a charity commission, which decides the needy causes to be financed by this vice. Here, they have purchased public favour by sponsoring our sportsmen.

Sports betting cannot just be legislated out of existence. However, because it has become so widespread, the business must be regulated.

Source: Nation