Could Italian gambling pledges spread to Europe?

First Italy? Then the Rest of Europe?

Could stricter gambling restrictions promised by Italy’s new coalition spark similar measures elsewhere in Europe?

Why is a sports betting site writing about politics? Specifically, about the Italian elections and the ensuing chaos that has only just resulted in a government being formed?

Because the new Italian government has some fairly stringent plans for the Italian gambling industry – and these are plans that have a sympathetic audience among politicians in many other countries. If they come into force in Italy – which now seems likely – don’t be surprised to see them given serious consideration in other countries, which could be very bad news for the gambling industry as a whole and sports betting companies in particular.

Italian election

The 2018 Italian election was held on March 4, 2018, after the president, Sergio Mattarella, had dissolved the Italian parliament three days after Christmas 2017. As always, in Italy, there was no clear winner, resulting in a hung parliament. But two parties did well. The center-right alliance, in which League (led by Matteo Salvini) emerged as the dominant force, won the most seats. The anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), led by Luigi Di Maio, won the most votes.

Could these two parties work together to form a coalition government? It seemed unlikely: one favored significant cuts to government expenditure, the other favored a universal basic income. Gradually though, they came together, and on June 1 – five months after parliament had been dissolved – Italy had a new coalition government. Salvini and Di Maio both became deputy prime ministers, with the academic and relative political novice Giuseppe Conte as the prime minister.

Whether or not it will last is open to doubt. Tap ‘how many governments…’ into Google and it auto-completes with, ‘…has Italy had.’ The country has had more than 60 governments since the end of the Second World War, and its coalitions are notoriously unstable. This one has been derided as “populist” – which, to this writer at least, simply means they won the most votes.

But however long the M5S/League coalition lasts, they have some significant plans for the gambling industry – plans which are likely to be watched with interest across Europe.

Stricter restrictions

Last month the potential government outlined its legislative plans. They included an almost draconian position on Italy’s gambling industry – a 35% reduction in the country’s land-based gambling machines and an “absolute ban” on gambling advertising and sponsorship.

Last week, these were backed up when M5S senator Matteo Mantero unveiled two draft pieces of legislation, with the first placing restrictions on the siting of gambling venues and limiting them to eight hours of opening per day. The second called for a ban on “advertising propaganda of games with cash prizes”, backed up by penalties of up to €500,000 ($584,000; £437,000).

This is unquestionably bad news for Italian operators and sports betting companies, already wrestling with more complex account opening rules which may well see them lose clients to other operators throughout Europe with easier sign-up requirements.

European fallout

These restrictions will hit Italian gambling companies hard: they could end up hitting sports betting companies, teams, and entire sports even harder.

And before you think “only in Italy”, think again. At the beginning of May, we wrote about bookmakers using artificial intelligence to  target gamblers, and quoted Carolyn Harris, a Labour MP in the UK.

“The [gambling] industry is geared to get people addicted to something that will cause immense harm. Not just to society, but to individuals and their families. They are parasitical leeches and I make no apology for saying that.”

She added, “I never cease to be amazed at how low the gambling industry is prepared to go to exploit those who have shown an interest in gambling.”

As we wrote at the time, the industry would argue that the statements are nonsense. Nevertheless, they are views that are shared in many European countries. And Carolyn Harris is a shadow Home Office minister. Should Labour form the next government (and they’re currently the even money joint favorites with the Conservatives), the views of people like her would go a very long way towards shaping future UK gambling legislation.

Restrictions like those proposed in Italy would have devastating effects in the UK. The sports betting companies would lose revenue; there would unquestionably be job losses; sports teams would lose sponsors (currently half of the Premier League teams are sponsored by betting companies) and horseracing in the UK may well cease to exist as we know it.

According to the bookmakers, Jeremy Corbyn has the same chance of being the next Prime Minister as Brazil have of winning the World Cup. For the gambling industry, there might be worse insurance policies than taking its own 9-to-2.

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