Time to benefit from society's weaknesses

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The Independent Online
DESERT ORCHID'S duty outside the Office of the National Lottery in London on Monday was to assist Richard Branson in the tiresome task of posing for the cameras, as the head of Virgin delivered his consortium's application to run the big game at which we shall all be having a dabble. It worked exceptionally well; no photographer could resist that many teeth in one shot.

Branson's much-heralded bid, however, does have a load of altruism behind it. He heads the Lottery Foundation together with Lord Young of Graffham, chairman of Cable and Wireless, and other backers which include IBM and Mars, and they promise to devote all their operational profits to charity. This would be on top of the 23 per cent of the proceeds - expected to total about pounds 1.5bn a year - which will be divided between the arts, sport and other good causes.

Their seven rivals in the bid to run the lottery on the nation's behalf include some of the biggest names in world money-making and they intend to keep a bob or two for their trouble. It is up to the Government, which will be receiving 12 per cent, to decide which is best equipped to handle the job. It will make up its mind by May and sport will be well on the way to welcoming a cascade of money - that's the theory, anyway.

Meanwhile, the appearance of Desert Orchid raised an interesting comparison. Here we had one of the last two countries in the civilised world without a national lottery - the other is impoverished Albania and even they're thinking of raffling a lamb chop - and the definitive step towards putting that right was attended by a symbol of one of the oldest forms of organised gambling.

In Britain the aristocracy have been wagering on the speed of their horses for centuries. Nowadays the peasants have tended to take over that activity but it remains one of our most popular forms of gambling. Will it be hit by the arrival of the national lottery? I very much doubt it - racehorse punters like to think they are betting on their skill in selection, not just picking a number.

But the deliberate steps the Government is taking in order to ensure the lottery is properly conducted, and that the proceeds are allotted in an agreed way, serve to emphasise the lack of concern about the manner in which the rest of the gambling industry is

governed.

Long before the first lottery ticket-seller is trampled to death by clamouring old ladies, we punters already contribute to an estimated annual gambling turnover in the United Kingdom of pounds 26.3bn. The Government, understandably, tries to get its hands on as much as possible, a succession of pools millionaires are created, and the odd back pocket is replenished at the track or in the betting shop, but the giant's share goes to those who control the industry. Very little finds its way to the sports on whose activities the industry is based.

Imagine how much richer football would be if the Football Association or Football League had decided to run the pools themselves, or at least franchise them out, over the last 50 years, instead of merely selling the fixture-list copyright for others to make their fortunes. The pools tycoons have not been ungenerous, a couple have even owned clubs, but most of the profits have gone nowhere near the game and at least one magnate has put more on to the race-track than the football field.

There has been no reciprocal gesture from the bookmakers but since they put virtually nothing into their own sport this is not surprising. Desert Orchid and his friends would be very low on oats if they had to rely on the benevolence of their satchelled friends. The bookies kindly collect a levy of a penny in the pound from gamblers to pass on to racing but do not contribute themselves, and in the case of other sports upon which they take bets they collect the penny but don't pass it on.

A Tote monopoly, such as exists in France and Australia, where bookies are allowed only on racecourses, is the answer but although we have a Tote, and the majority at race-tracks prefer to use it, it does not have a monopoly. Thus we waste a perfect opportunity to make a more appropriate distribution of the profits that racing and its followers generate.

Gaming machines are the third most popular form of gambling after betting shops and casinos and probably contribute more to sport than any other, considering the number of sports clubs that thrive on the proceeds. But the greatest potential is in casino gambling, which is very much a low-profile activity in Britain but could create enormous profits if allowed to become more popular.

In Australia, casino gambling has been gaining on all other forms since being legalised 20 years ago. Each state and territory handles its own licensing and the result has been the controlled growth of casinos as a more accessible community focal point. Licences to operate 'Mega-casinos' in Sydney and Melbourne are being tendered for and local government will share in the anticipated bonanza.

If our local authorities were able to designate, say, empty council buildings for casino development, they could gain considerable revenue and create a popular amenity. In France the local casino is often the best building in town - here they are often the most drab.

The national lottery has shown us that there is no limit to the most respected names in business willing to help satisfy the nation's appetite for a flutter. Having discovered this opportunity for revenue that can be channelled into good works, why should we stop at the lottery?

After all, if anyone is going to profit from society's weaknesses, why shouldn't it be society itself?

MARJORIE MOWLAM, the shadow Secretary of State for National Heritage, has joined the growing army of BSkyB bashers, calling for tighter controls to allow international sporting events to be seen by the majority of television watchers. 'We must ensure that major sporting events such as this winter's Test series in the West Indies can be seen by all fans who have television sets,' she said last week.

Sorry, Marjorie, but we'll have to signal that a wide. Cricket fans have grown old waiting for the BBC or ITV to bring them any live cricket from the West Indies since the cathode ray tube was invented. And if it wasn't for the reviled BSkyB none of us would be seeing it now - the BBC having put all its money on ice, so to speak.

The big mistake many non- sporting folk make is to think that the genuine fan is hard done by. They are probably unaware that the dishless can pop into a pub or club and see sport on Sky and so many take advantage it is impossible to gauge the size of the audience. I suspect it is much bigger than anyone is prepared to admit.

I don't receive satellite television but this weekend my sporting ration will be two rugby league matches, Wales v France, West Indies v England and Cardiff City v Luton, all in the comfort of my local. That sort of feast has never been possible before.

There will come a time when almost every sporting event will be available on television to those willing to pay for it. Then Marjorie will be able to raise some proper issues - like how much are you prepared to pay to watch an hour on the luge run?

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