LONDON >> A casual observer outside the hospital for the birth of Britain’s new prince could have been forgiven for thinking that the event was hosted by Ladbrokes Coral, the country’s biggest betting company.
As the Duchess of Cambridge labored in the Lindo Ward, an aircraft hired by Ladbrokes circled low overhead, towing a banner listing odds on the baby’s name. Half a dozen uniformed employees of Ladbrokes circulated among the scrum of tourists and reporters, handing out tea, coffee and plastic flutes of sparkling wine.
From roughly 9 a.m. until about 6 p.m., a 23-year-old public relations representative for Ladbrokes, Alex Apati, stood opposite the maternity ward, updating the odds on a chalkboard. As the day wore on, this became a discussion of the name Arthur (5-to-1) eclipsing its nearest competitors, James (8-1), Albert (12-1), Philip (16-1) and Thomas (20-1).
Apati looked tired; the previous night he had programmed his alarm to ring every two hours, afraid that the duchess would go into labor without him. “Arthur is still the clear favorite,” he said. “Arthur is running away.”
As lunchtime approached, he grew increasingly emphatic. “The sheer amount that was taken on Arthur has forced us to cut it to 2-to-1,” he said. “So, yeah, I have no idea why so many people are confident in Arthur.”
The participation of bookmakers at a royal birth has become a ritual.
By comparison to sports-betting pools, interest in names is not huge — amounting to roughly 100,000 individual bets, and about a quarter million pounds, or $350,000, said Jessica Bridge, the head of public relations for sports and news at Ladbrokes. The pool stands out because it is about 70 percent female and because the bets tend to be small ones, made by once-a-year betters who “enjoy a wee flutter on events that take over the entire nation,” Bridge said.
“And, of course, we love a good, happy news story, so it’s nice to feel a part of it somehow,” she added.
Lately, the news stories around betting in Britain have not been happy.
On Tuesday, The Times of London reported that the British treasury would reduce the maximum bet on fixed odds betting terminals from about $140 every 20 seconds to around $3, sending share prices in betting companies plummeting. The betting industry had lobbied vigorously to stave off a crackdown on the machines, which generated a profit of $2.5 billion in 2016.
Last year, sports and betting companies were the top donors to members of Parliament, according to official declarations published in August. The Ladbrokes Coral group appeared more than 15 times on the register, more than any other donor. But the efforts did not save the terminals, dubbed “the crack cocaine of gambling” by one lawmaker.
Indeed, visits to five betting shops around London on Tuesday morning found not a single person who had bet on the baby’s name. Instead, gamblers sat riveted in front of terminals, feeding in money. Dave Rioux, 40, a hotel receptionist, said that betting shops were much more common on the streets of London that in Mauritius, where he comes from, and that he found himself gambling three times a week. He is trying to stop, he said, but “it’s hard to get out of the system.”
Late at night, he said, he sometimes sees bettors so distraught over their losses that they beat the machines with their hands.
“Novelty bets” — on the color of the queen’s hat, for example — help bookmakers to rehabilitate their reputations, said Leighton Vaughan Williams, director of the Betting Research Unit at Nottingham Business School.
“It’s a positive spin on bookmaking in general,” Vaughan Willams said. “It gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling about betting, that it is a fun thing to do. It’s not a new thing. But it’s really a public relations exercise.”
Oddschecker, which compiles information from numerous bookmakers, offers odds on such possibilities as “Meghan to be photographed drinking a pint of Guinness,” “Confirmed that Meghan is pregnant before the wedding day” and “Any Spice Girl besides Victoria Beckham to attend the wedding ceremony.”
Unlike sports betting, where the odds are driven by a small number of very large bets by professional gamblers, novelty pools attract a large number of small bets. In widely traded markets, the resulting odds reflect the “wisdom of crowds,” and are close to true probabilities, Vaughan Williams said.
In the case of Prince William’s two earlier children, bettors had gotten it right, showing a preference for George, and then, two years later, Charlotte, said Bridge, of Ladbrokes.
By Tuesday evening, Apati had spent his second full day updating the odds in public, this time outside Kensington Palace, and he was beginning to feel the wear and tear.
Arthur, he reported, was “slightly on the drift.” The name had peaked on Monday night, with odds of 7-to-4, but then the money began to flow to James, perhaps because people saw it as a better value. It was nearly sunset, and Apati was beginning to think that the name would not be announced until Wednesday.
“I was hopeful that it would be today,” he added, a little wistfully, “so that I could go to sleep.”