The sports betting industry is one of the worst-hit by the coronavirus pandemic. With things gradually getting back to normal, the Lagos State Lotteries Board has set some immediate targets for itself, one of which is a renewed and sustained fight against the menace of underage betting. In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Bashir Are, the CEO for Lagos State Lotteries Board, reveals his plans to fight underage betting to a standstill and also other plans in the post-pandemic era.
PT: Since your appointment last October, how challenging has your work been
Are: If whatever you are doing is not challenging, it is not worth wasting time on. We look for challenges and we solve the problem to move the society forward socially, economically and otherwise.
We deal with the operators; we deal with the punters and also deal with the issue of addictive gambling or other sorts of addictions. That’s why if you see our slogan, it says, we promote, we protect and we regulate. So, as challenges come, we sit down and find a strategy to move forward.
PT: How has COVID-19 affected the lottery board and the gaming sector generally?
Are: Well, as you can see nobody saw the pandemic coming, therefore we were all caught unaware. Incidents like this come once or twice in a century, so, nobody prepared for it or envisaged it will be very near. No doubt, it has affected our operators, as you know sports betting are based on football, horse racing, basketball, formula 1 and all sort of sports. So, everything was shut down, to the extent that they shut down the Vatican City, King of Saudi shut down Mecca for Umrah. You can see the magnitude of what is going on. But on the other hand, as a businessman, there is what insurance people call force majeure. Anything unexpected can happen which is why that kind of risk is factored into a business.
PT: In other climes, we have witnessed budget adjustment, what part of revenue cut are you proposing?
Are: We are not proposing a revenue cut but revenue diversification in our sector. We encountered about 45 per cent revenue loss during the lockdown because everything about gaming and betting was virtually closed down. But innovation came out of it, most operators decided to go into virtual gaming, so that really augmented the shock.
PT: How are you tackling the menace of underage betting in the state which seems to be on the rise again?
Are: Thank you for your wisdom; it is a concern for me. My first major project when I got this appointment was the underage gambling campaign. I was appointed in October last year and by November, we did a huge campaign against underage gambling and we sanctioned some of the erring operators and also introduced a training programme for agents on Know Your Customer (KYC) as prescribed by the CBN for financial and non-financial institutions. There is a ‘know your customer policy’ (KYC) from CBN, which will help identify underage bettors. The operator must make sure that whoever is coming to bet is 18 years old or more. We also printed huge stickers that must be posted conspicuously in every betting centre. Additionally, we covertly go into betting shops to bet and if you don’t ask for identification, then we can sanction you almost immediately.
In other countries like the UK and the US, even if you have grey hair and you want to buy alcohol, they ask you for your ID, so that’s how we are tackling underage betting. We also have some non-profit organisations that partner with us to go around schools to talk against excessive gambling, underage gambling, alcohol addiction and others.
PT: Is there any palliative for operators, like we have witnessed in other parts of the world, with a view to protecting the industry?
Are: Yes, we do but most of the palliatives we have for respective operators vary, one size does not fit all. Our taxes (good cause money) are not fixed, it is based on sales volume. So, if you sell, there is a percentage of your sales that you must pay for gaming tax, if you don’t sell, we don’t charge you.
So, when it comes to monthly gaming tax and levies they have to remit, it all depends on the volume of sales. So during the lockdown, if you are not selling anything, we don’t charge them anything.
PT: How ready is your agency to regulate the emerging market in virtual and online games
Are: Already, Lagos State is regulating online, however, retail will remain significant for a longer period because some categories of punters still believe in luck, sentiments, emotions, pragmatic nature of lotto. Conversely, online is booming in the areas of online casinos, sports betting and virtual gaming.
PT: There are still cases where those who stake on games get shortchanged by operators after winning, what are you doing to eradicate this?
Are: We have so many measures in place. Firstly, we make sure all our operators are bonded, so if an operator cannot pay the winners, the board can redeem the bond. Maximum winnings should be equal to the bond that we have collected from operators.
Instances of winning are based on statistics and probabilities, so we make sure all our operators are bonded one way or the other. Another thing we have done is to give license for promotions, those that wish to promote products and services must also be bonded to protect consumers. We realised that there is a trend in promotional programmes and draws, so we have found a way to bond promoters based on the winnings that they have promised the people.
PT: In order not to fall prey to unregistered operators who are not bonded with you, what are the things those who stake on games should look out for?
Are: If you follow the news media in the past two months, we have continued to list the names of our licensed operators in national newspapers. And if you come to our website too, it is always there. We have seen situations where punters play games and those operators were not licensed by the Lagos State Lottery Board. It is there on our website if you want to play games, make sure they are licensed in Lagos State to be protected.
PT: With the coronavirus pandemic still far from over how do you plan to enforce the use of facemask, social distancing and other safety measure in betting shops?
Are: As far as Lagos State is concerned, if you follow the trend of governance in Lagos State from 1999 till date, Lagos has been a state that governs with methodology, we are a government of methods.
And I give an example, today the Lagos State safety commission has put in place a strategy to open businesses like restaurants, gaming centres, cinema and some other customer-facing businesses. You must register before you can be allowed to open, the registration is meant to manage the pandemic protocols under the leadership of Mr Governor, Babajide Sanwoolu.
PT: Lastly, what are your plans for this office
ARE: There are so many plans; number one is to actualise our mission of becoming the most preferred gaming regulator in West Africa, not even in Nigeria. And if we have to do that, we have to abide by the international standards, so going by international standards, we are partnering with regulators in Europe, the United States, South America and the Caribbeans. We must be at par with global standards to compete effectively. We are also planning to reform our laws to address the realities of today.
Our ‘know your customer’ policy must be 100 per cent implemented by all operators. That is why we are developing a new agent registration strategy because agents will be liable too. If there is no accountability or a form of liability, we can’t achieve prevention of underage betting. Those are the things we want to do in the first one year and increase our revenue. And you can see, there are some virtual games that people are spending money on, for instance, Candy crush made $1.5 billion in 2018 and I know some Nigerians were paid players of candy crush especially in Lagos with more than 20 million people. So, how do we make money from candy crush and others? Those are the things we want to do, that is why we must adopt international standards.