New measures brought in by the Russian government will undoubtedly protect bettors while also increasing traffic for licensed operators “who pay taxes, support athletics with targeted deductions and sponsorship contracts” according to Alina Yakirevich, Marketing Director at Fonbet.
Speaking to SBC News, Yakirevich drew attention to the fight against the black market, explaining that measures brought in by the Russian state will help protect consumers and support sporting organisations.
She then went on to highlight the ways in which the betting industry has changed throughout the pandemic, drawing particular attention to the Euro 2020 final and the recent Ice Hockey World Championships.
SBC: When the COVID-19 pandemic was in full force, predictions were being made about the imminent demise of most betting companies. How accurate were they?
AY: We closed our betting clubs during the pandemic, and we even took this step without waiting for an official order from local authorities, because our top priority is always customer safety. Some players transitioned from offline to online betting, but no more than 10–15%.
When retail started opening back up, we opened our betting shops in compliance with all the security measures. Now our audience is back because our betting shops have their own special atmosphere and offer cash transactions.
SBC: The pandemic brought sports around the world to a grinding halt. Did the market lose a lot of customers, and did you manage to gain them back by the Ice Hockey World Championships and Euro 2020?
AY: If we’re just talking about us, then yes, after a year we can say that Fonbet has coped with the challenges of the pandemic. Sports started back up a year later, and our customers followed suit with a whole new audience. People missed major sporting events, so they were excited about Euro 2020. However, even during the pandemic, the outflow was less than we expected
SBC: Last year, people were saying that in the absence of regular sports, the betting market would transition to esports. Did that happen?
AY: A lot of our customers did switch to esports during the pandemic, but after the return of football, other sports and world leagues, interest has shifted back. There’s a small audience still interested in esports from the time during quarantine, but classic sports are still more popular.
SBC: What was the most popular event during the pandemic in terms of customer interest?
AY: The Belarusian Premier League continued to hold matches during the pandemic.
SBC: How much did COVID-19 restrictions change the industry, and how serious were the losses?
AY: Even during the most severe lockdowns, the number of active players only decreased slightly, and most importantly, the company still operated at a profit. We retained the staff at most of our betting clubs, so there’s no need to talk about any serious losses, just lost revenue. However, for the industry as a whole, it was a difficult time. Some companies shut down, and many reduced the number of betting shops and laid off staff.
SBC: How big of a problem are illegal betting companies right now? Is the fight against them showing results?
AY: The state is combating the illegal betting sector confidently. We know that websites have been blocked for a long time, but a couple of years ago, payments from grey companies also started being blocked. It’s currently almost impossible to make a deposit from a bank card to an illegal betting company or casino account. Most likely, they’ll offer to handle financial transactions using cryptocurrencies or some other way that’s as unreliable as the resource itself.
We’re glad that these state measures protect consumers and undoubtedly increase the popularity of legal betting companies who pay taxes, and support athletics with targeted deductions and sponsorship contracts.
SBC: One of the most important events of the year was the launch of the Unified Gambling Regulator (UGR), which was created to replace self-regulatory organisations and TSUPIS, as well as taking control over the payment of targeted deductions. What do betting companies expect from these changes, and what can customers expect?
AY: It’s good that there will be a supervisory body that isn’t affiliated with other betting companies. The new regulator is here to help us work more effectively and efficiently. We’re still optimistic about the future and are ready to obey the law in these new conditions. Of course, as of right now, there’s still a number of questions about how this new format will work, but I’m sure everything will be cleared up soon.
I heard that some betting companies are planning to shift some taxes to customers by reducing odds or adding fees for deposits or withdrawals. For now, we’re going to take the entire additional tax burden upon ourselves. In other words, we’ll be offering the same convenient service for our customers as we do right now.
SBC: The Ice Hockey World Championships were held in May-June, which was the largest event in the last six months. How would you gauge the level of interest in Russia? What if you compare it with the last pre-pandemic championships in 2019?
AY: As always, the most prestigious tournaments among national teams always arouse interest. Bet volumes were 56% higher compared to the 2019 championships. However, this year, there were almost no superstars at the event. We consider the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) to be the main hockey event of the year. In the playoffs, the ratings of some matches were even higher than those for top matches of the Russian Premier League (RPL).
SBC: Was customer interest in Euro 2020 similar to the 2018 FIFA World Cup?
AY: That would be nice, but the numbers show it wasn’t as high. This wasn’t just at betting companies, but among sports media outlets I’ve spoken with as well. The World Cup in Russia was a unique event where the whole country was committed to football. Plus, our team made it beyond the group stage and advanced pretty far in the playoff bracket. The current tournament suffered due to COVID-19, the year-long postponement and other factors, but for us it remains the top event of the year.
SBC: You recently announced that you’ll donate a million Rubles to charity for each goal of Russian players at Euro 2020. What charities did you have in mind?
AY: Yes, Alexey Miranchuk and Artyom Dzyuba, the players who scored the goals, chose the organisations themselves. We’ll donate the first million to the T-shirt Gives Life Foundation, which helps in the rehabilitation of patients after serious illnesses. The second will be donated to the Butterfly Children Foundation, which provides comprehensive support to children with genodermatoses.
We already did this promotion in 2020 with the CSKA football club. That time, the first goal in the 2020/21 RPL season was scored by Konstantin Kuchaev, who chose the Ryazan Children’s Home for the million Ruble donation.
SBC: In Russia, betting companies are perceived in a negative way. Has this situation been changing lately? What are betting companies doing to help?
AY: The situation is changing, of course. I’m glad that in this respect Russia is getting closer to international standards. Fonbet has been involved in charitable and social projects for many years. Our advertising often focuses on our support for athletics, which is reflected not only in the attitude of society towards betting companies, but also has a positive effect on the industry. For example, talented professionals are becoming increasingly eager to work and collaborate with betting companies.
SBC: For almost a year, Russian betting companies have been barred from working with Eurovision, the Oscars and other non-sporting events. How seriously does this affect the industry?
AY: Not much at all, as the vast majority of bets before the restrictions were on sporting events. However, betting on high-profile and socially significant events still worked well from a PR perspective and for attracting new customers. Relatively speaking, a lot of new customers registered with us for Eurovision, the Oscars and the Nobel Prize. However, we can’t accept bets on these events today.
SBC: What are the first things people pay attention to when choosing a betting company?
AY: People really pay attention to unconditional bonuses that are small but not hard to earn. During Euro 2020, we offered our customers a RUB 2,000 risk-free bet without any conditions. We noticed that some customers stop being active after their first lost bet. The idea of offering an “insured” bet turned out to be a good idea for new customers.
I’d also like to note that we’re not concentrating on just one thing, but working to develop all areas. For example, a convenient mobile app. It has everything you need if you’re interested in sports: news and predictions, streams, statistics, a match center, standings and score notifications. Before Euro 2020, we launched audio broadcasts with star commentators Pavel Zanozin and Kirill Dementiev.
SBC: The general industry trend is an increase in the number of people using apps. What percentage of your customers use apps today, and how fast is their number growing?
AY: About 40% of our customers use the mobile app, and many also choose the mobile version of our site. In total, our mobile platform has a much larger audience than on desktop. We aren’t pursuing any specific goal of transitioning our audience to the app. We’re putting the same emphasis on the development of all areas. Fonbet is a convenient service for betting on any platform.
SBC: And finally, how do you retain customers in the face of significant competition on the market?
AY: My philosophy in marketing is that every Ruble spent on a loyal customer is more valuable and effective than a Ruble spent on advertising. That’s why this autumn we’re planning to launch a loyalty programme and improve our core product to make it faster and more convenient. We’ve recently added audio streams for events where we don’t have video. They’ve already proven very popular.
Also, Fonbet plans to bolster its operations in CIS countries and enter new markets. I’m confident that we’re on the verge of global success.