Study reveals impact of lockdown on the gambling habits of sports bettors

Published: 2 March 2021

Around one in six sports bettors started a new form of gambling during the initial COVID-19 lockdown, and one in three placed bets more frequently, according to a new study.

Around one in six sports bettors started a new form of gambling during the initial COVID-19 lockdown, and one in three placed bets more frequently, according to a new study.

Experts from the Universities of Glasgow and Stirling explored gambling behaviours of those who regularly bet on sports before and during the first UK lockdown between March and June last year, when professional sports were suspended, and gambling venues closed.

The research team found that, for the majority of regular sports bettors, lockdown led to a reduction in gambling whilst there was very little live sport to bet on – with around one third stopping betting completely.

However, 17.3% of men and 16.5% of women started a new form of gambling during this three-month period, while 31.3% of men and 30.3% of women increased their frequency of gambling on at least one activity. Those who started a new form, or increased the frequency, of gambling during lockdown are potentially vulnerable to gambling harms, the study found.

The findings – published in the journal Addictive Behaviours – will help inform the review of the Gambling Act 2005, currently being conducted by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport.

Dr Heather Wardle, of the University of Glasgow’s School of Social and Political Sciences, said: “Unsurprisingly, our study found that, during the initial lockdown in March 2020, with the closure of gambling venues – such as bookmakers – and a huge reduction in live sports, there was a marked decrease in sports gambling.

“However, some regular sports bettors started new forms of gambling, or increased how often they bet on other things, and these changes were associated with increased risk of gambling harms.

“These findings are important and suggest that regulators and the industry should be looking closely at how behaviours are changing during national lockdowns and doing more to protect people from harms.”

Professor Kate Hunt, of the University of Stirling’s Institute for Social Marketing and Health (ISMH), said: “Our study found that, among regular sports bettors, restrictions in supply during lockdown generated changes in behaviour, including reductions in gambling for the majority, who did not appear to seek out other ways to gamble.

“However, when examining online sports betting, a minority continued to bet as some horse races and sports were still available in other countries. Furthermore, some people also started gambling on new types of activity – including the lottery and virtual online sports – that they had not previously engaged in.

“Our findings are just one part of a broader study which also looks at people’s experiences and the advertising and marketing of gambling during the first UK lockdown. The findings will provide important food for thought about how gambling and the gambling industry are best regulated –  and, importantly, provides timely evidence to inform the ongoing review of the Gambling Act 2005, currently being undertaken by the UK Government.”


Using the online survey platform YouGov, the researchers surveyed regular sports bettors – those who had previously placed a bet on sports (including horse races) at least once a month – to understand their gambling behaviour pre-lockdown (between December 2019 and February 2020) and during lockdown (March 23 – mid-June 2020).

The participants – 3,084 men and 782 women – were also asked about their gambling attitudes, awareness of gambling marketing, experiences of gambling harm, and any health and lifestyle experiences associated with COVID-19.

The study found 29.8% of male and 33.4% of female sports bettors stopped gambling altogether during lockdown. However, around one in six regular sports bettors, started new gambling activities – 5.4% male sports bettors started playing lotteries and 3.5% began betting on virtual sports and races. Among female sports bettors, 6.8% started betting on virtual sports and races, 6.5% began playing lotteries, and 3.4% took up online bingo.

For male sports bettors, problem gambling was a greater risk among those who had started a new gambling activity during lockdown, and for women, moderate risk or problem gambling was higher among those whose frequency of gambling on any activity increased during lockdown.

Prior to lockdown, online sports betting was the most commonly reported gambling activity among this group (78.8% men, 61.4% women), followed by the lottery (62.1% men, 65.2% women), online betting on horse or dog races (43.2% men, 50.5% women) and sports betting at a bookmakers (26.7% men, 16.1% women).

For these activities, and most other gambling activities, the percentage of the sample participating in each activity was lower during lockdown. Only online betting on virtual sports or races showed a significant increase during this time.

Christina Marriott, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said: “Living under lockdown had drastically altered the way we live, with negative consequences on health and mental wellbeing becoming a concerning side effect of the pandemic. We know, for example, that sports bettors adapted their gambling habits, with many having turned to new forms of gambling activity.

“Protecting those at risk of gambling harm must be central to the updates to the UK’s gambling laws. Our Gambling Health Alliance welcomed the online player protections introduced in the first lockdown and called for these to remain in place. This new research further builds the case that regulation must keep pace with the changing gambling landscape, which we will continue to champion in our response to the Gambling Act review.”  

Dr Wardle, Professor Hunt and Dr Nathan Critchlow (ISMH) present their findings in the research paper, ‘The impact of the initial COVID-19 lockdown upon regular sports bettors in Britain: findings from a cross-sectional online study’. It is part of a broader study – funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19 – exploring the impact of COVID-19 on young people and regular sports bettors.


On March 10, 2021, the  University of Glasgow and University of Stirling research team will be hosting a webinar from 14.00-15.00, providing an overview of how their recent research, including this survey, can address relevant questions for the Government's call for evidence with regards to the Gambling Act Review.

Registration is free:

The University of Glasgow

The University of Glasgow has been changing the world since 1451.  It is a world top 100 university (THE, QS) with one of the largest research bases in the UK.

It was recently named Times Higher Education (THE) University of the Year.

The University is a member of the prestigious Russell Group of leading UK Universities with an annual research income of more than £179m. 

The University’s #TeamUofG community is truly international with over 8000 staff and 32,0000 students from more than 140 countries.

A 2019 Time Out survey placed Glasgow in the top 10 cities in the world. Ranked between Berlin and Paris, Glasgow was voted number one for both friendliness and affordability.

Right now our dedicated community of staff, students and alumni is working to address the challenges of COVID-19 and understand how we can make life safer for everyone

University of Stirling

The University of Stirling is ranked fifth in Scotland and 40th in the UK for research intensity in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework. Stirling is committed to providing education with a purpose and carrying out research which has a positive impact on communities across the globe – addressing real issues, providing solutions and helping to shape society.

Interdisciplinary in its approach, Stirling’s research informs its teaching curriculum and facilitates opportunities for knowledge exchange and collaboration between staff, students, industry partners and the wider community.

The University’s scenic central Scotland campus – complete with a loch, castle and golf course – is home to more than 14,000 students and 1500 staff representing around 120 nationalities. This includes an ever-expanding base for postgraduate study.

The University received a Queen’s Anniversary Prize in the latest round of awards, in recognition of the quality and innovation exhibited by its Institute of Aquaculture. The University is the UK Sports University of the Year 2020, as conferred by The Times / Sunday Times Good University Guide. Website: Twitter: @stiruni

The Economic and Social Research Council 

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government. The ESRC is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. 


First published: 2 March 2021

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