The government last week released figures showing that overall legal gambling in Korea rose slightly in 2014 but that gambling on horse racing was down by 0.7%.
Legal betting on horse racing with the KRA amounted to 7.6 Trillion Won (about US$6Billion) in 2014, which remained by far the largest individual share in a betting market worth 19.8 Trillion Won.
Other traditional Korean forms of gambling such as track cycling and motor boat racing suffered falls too while there were significantly fewer bullfighting festivals in the south of the country last year which almost wiped out that particular odd sector of the market.
The Sports TOTO, which enjoys far easier access than racing, being available in convenience stores and allows players to predict results of sporting events at home and overseas, showed strong growth as did Gangwon Land Casino, which saw revenues increase by almost 10%.
Gangwon Land, in the countryside three hours east of Seoul, is currently the only casino in the country where Korean citizens are permitted to play. There are numerous “foreigner only” casinos but their growth was static last year, with the Korea Herald pointing out that this was due to the largely Chinese clientele being subject to stricter anti-corruption rules which kept some former high-rollers away from the tables.
Racing is not in competition with the foreigner only casinos, however, recently there have been a number of cases of large casino groups offering significant investment in various regions but only if the government changes the law and allows Koreans to bet in them.
Most recently, the Korea Times reported on the Las Vegas Sands Corp. making what the paper described as a “sly offer” to build a 5 Trillion won casino and resort in Busan – on the condition that Korean citizens can enter. The newspaper went on to note that Busan Mayor Suh Byung Soo likes the plan and has called on the government to revise the laws.
It is hard to imagine many traipsing over the one bridge out of town to the Busan Racecourse in all weathers if that happens. And if Busan can have all that juicy tax revenue from a casino, why can’t Daegu or Daejeon? Or Incheon?
The trouble is that the government has no money and needs to find some. Racing is a huge contributor to the public purse and also plays a significant role in keeping the agriculture sector going, through its various support programs for rural communities. The racecourses have successfully positioned themselves as attractive destinations for families and young couples (Saturday’s mini-riot aside) as anyone who visited the racecourse prior to 2010 and then visits again today will confirm.
This doesn’t make much revenue but it is vital if the Sports TOTO generation are to ever come racing. It also provides a very safe way of legally gambling.
That’s all well and good but if the bottom line is falling then eventually the government is going to look elsewhere. Furthermore the family and young couple aspect stands to be undermined if the government goes ahead with making it compulsory for anyone wishing to have a legal bet to register for an electronic card that will track their spending.
So if that couple on their date at the track wants to bet a couple of dollars to show, they are going to need to register. One can imagine how young Eun Ji’s mother is going to react when she comes across her university age daughter’s gambling card while cleaning her room. Probably best to date at the cinema.
More to the point – and the point that all of the legal gambling operators have been making to the government – is that many bettors will not sign up for an Electronic Card. But they won’t stop betting. They will just find alternatives which don’t require a card and probably dont pay tax either. At least not to the government.
As we head into the second quarter of 2015, the challenges for Korean racing are not only on the track.