A colleague once attempted to describe, in print, Sir Geoff Hurst as a genius. His editor took him aside. “Son,” he explained, gently, “you might be a genius… I might be a genius… but Geoff Hurst is no fucking genius.”
He was right. Hurst may have won the World Cup for England, but sport isn’t an intellectual pursuit. Wonderful footballers are just that. Alan Hudson possessed beautiful ball skills and the wit to dub the game “the working man’s ballet” but that doesn’t make him Sergei Prokofiev. Or any of them, for that matter – even Lionel Messi. Denise Coates, however, is different. Coates is a sporting figure, a bookmaker in fact, but she is, indisputably, a genius.
Bottom line, she’s very clever, with a first in econometrics from the University Of Sheffield – but she won’t be alone there. She’s also very successful in business, with a personal fortune measured in billions and reportedly one of the 250 richest individuals in the world. Yet genius demands more than mere financial acumen. What sets Coates apart is that, as the mastermind of a company called Bet365, she has changed this country. Not necessarily for the better, you understand. But that’s not the concern of genius. Not everything Albert Einstein did worked out for the best either.
On leaving university, Coates was employed by her father, Peter, on the accountancy side of what she described as a “pretty rubbish” chain of betting shops called Provincial Racing. She was smart, hard-working and diligent and in 1995 became managing director. She expanded the business’ number of outlets but wasn’t happy. Coates had by now identified online betting as the future. In 2000, she bought the domain name Bet365 and a year later took out a £15 million loan against the high street shops to take Provincial Racing in a new direction. Bet365 began trading from a Portakabin, but last year reported an operating profit of £682m on net revenues of £2.8 billion. Denise Coates paid herself £220m plus £45m in dividends. Why? Because, as one advert says, she’s worth it.
What Coates identified, quicker than anyone in the market, was a game-changer: in-play betting. Why just have a punt at the start of an event when every minute of play is a potential gambling opportunity? Bet365 developed its own technology, rather than buying in software, so it could branch off in this specific direction without relying on conventional processes. Its screens are masterpieces of accessibility and simplicity. It takes bets on more sports in more countries than any rival. And it has always been at the forefront of the in-play experience. By doing this, Coates changed the way the country gambles. She lured in a generation who now equate watching sport to betting on it. And all the major players have had no option but to meekly follow her lead. They copy Bet365’s model, but they’re not as good at it. They’re not geniuses, like her.
If you know a young man or woman who likes sport, chances are he or she has a betting account. In all likelihood, many more than one. And the match experience is not complete unless those accounts are in play too. That is Coates’ massively addictive, potentially hugely harmful bequest to the nation. Watching a young man whose phone has died trying to take in a match without betting on it is like that scene in the film Magic where Anthony Hopkins’ crazed ventriloquist is dared to go five minutes without making the dummy speak. He can’t do it and neither can they. Dr Darragh McGee at the University Of Bath conducted a study with two groups of football supporters, from Derry and Bristol, aged between 18 and 35. Commonly, he found, they had as many as 25 accounts with gambling companies and their conversations about football were defined not by the action, but by the betting markets.
Many parents will relate to that. The conversational difference around sport now is noticeable, particularly football. A card-happy referee might once have been discussed for his potential to ruin the game; now he is a gambling opportunity. Statistical minutiae is introduced, sudden interest in obscure fixtures sparked. While the match on television might be progressing serenely, expletives greet minor changes in the narrative elsewhere, from Fulham to Forest Green Rovers. It used to be said a match was more fun if you bet on it; the shift is that now it is only fun if you bet on it. And have it in a double with a halftime outcome at Cardiff; and both teams to score at Plymouth; and more than four yellow cards in the match between Nottingham Forest and Wigan.