carnegieXchange: School of Sport

The Virtual Grand National: A Help or Hindrance?

COVID-19 has brought an immense number of challenges to society. With vastly reduced entertainment and leisure opportunities, social media responded with various challenges during 'lockdown'.
Published on 03 Apr 2020

For example; the panic-bought toilet roll is being used for the 'keepy-uppy' challenge; men's heads are being shaven to the despair of partners; and, sports stars are sharing nostalgic photos of their career appeasing distraught fans in the absence of no live sport. Indeed, even TV entertainment is proving a challenge. Production of our favourite binge-worthy shows such as Peaky Blinders, Line of Duty and Stranger Things have been put on hold due to the global pandemic, soon Netflix and Amazon Prime will have little to offer.

This weekend, however, we have a new fixture in our TV guides as ITV televise the 'Virtual Grand National', in the same slot the real Grand National - a key event in the regular British sporting calendar - is usually broadcast. Michael Dugher, Chief Executive of the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC), suggests the event is a fantastic opportunity for people to come together (in celebration, not physically) for one of the world's greatest sporting events. Representing the closest thing to live sport, we may get for a while. Dugher added that leading UK bookmakers will provide any profits from the race to NHS Charities Together, who represent over 140 NHS charities, making the NHS the big winner (Wright, 2020).  

This initiative represents a fundraising past-time, using gambling as an entertaining way to raise funds. For generations, amateur sports teams, schools and charities often host race nights, raffles, tombola's, blind cards and more to obtain funds for their cause(s). Therefore, in this blog post, we reflect on whether this e-sporting spectacle is a selfless good deed? Or is the gambling industry conducting this on such a grand scale a step too far?

For many, gambling is an enjoyable activity that adds social value. If you have gambled, we encourage you to remember your first experience, and it will probably involve a parent, grandparent or good friend - maybe even on the Grand National. An individual's social structure is important to gambling behaviour, as we often bet within our ties socially. Then perhaps this virtual race can offer social opportunities for many in isolation.

The social value of gambling has often been witnessed in pubs, bookmakers and other social spaces, as conversations flow about winners and losers. More recently, these have shifted to more digital means, through WhatsApp groups and such. A shift resembled in gambling behaviour with 55% of gambling now taking place online (Gambling Commission, 2019), creating an easier and more accessible activity for individuals. The ease of gambling has often been confused with the normalisation of gambling in sport. Gambling's relationship with sport is long and historical, from the creation of the Football Pools as early as the 1880s, to the levy provided by bookmakers to support the horse racing industry. However, as alcohol and tobacco are stripped back from the sporting viewers eyes, gambling becomes even more visible. No doubt, the gambling industry has capitalised on the direct access to their primary demographic. Yet, detrimentally, this visibility impacts vulnerable groups and children. For example, an Australian study identified over 75% of children within their sample could recall and accurately identify a gambling company during live sport (Thomas et al., 2016).

The gambling industry is used to being in the limelight. From VIP customer exploitation to excessive advertising and sponsorship in sport (Davies, 2020), industry malfeasance from some organisations has been seen as the status quo. The addition of the virtual Grand National has also not been free of its criticism. In order to bet on the virtual race, you must have or sign-up to an online account with a bookmaker (since high-street shops are closed for the foreseeable future). Through this, new customers may be opening the floodgates to a bombardment of emails and encouragements to bet more, bet on other gambling products, and possibly face gambling-related harms.

Statistics show 67% of the UK population gamble, with 0.7% of the UK being identified as problem gamblers (Gambling Commission, 2019). However, those experiencing gambling harm is probably much larger than statistics suggest, since problem gambling is challenging to ascertain, mostly relying on self-determinism. The current situation we all find ourselves in makes it even more difficult for those who experience gambling-related harms or have a problem with the activity. As aforementioned, social structure is important as it underpins decision-making, and those who face harm may struggle in isolation, away from social networks which provide support.

Gambling is a predominant part in UK culture, instilled and normalised from a young age, through things like; McDonald's Monopoly, Fantasy Football, Panini Football Stickers and even Kinder Eggs. Therefore, maybe this virtual race offers some normality to most? Indeed, for sport fans, it may provide welcomed escapism. And given the immediate financial support for the NHS, we may consider it a potentially good initiative, with many getting behind it. Paradoxically, it also stinks of vulturish neoclassical business practices we are so accustomed to seeing from certain gambling companies.

In response to such criticism, a ‘code of conduct’ has been put in place for the virtual Grand National, including; limited stakes, minimal advertising and no incentives such as ‘RequestABet’ (Simmons, 2020). Additionally, direct links for donations to the NHS charities are in place, reducing any criticism that the account restrictions in place could deplete the possible fundraising. While reactive, these measures are welcomed but are only in place for the Saturday 5:15pm virtual race. How will new accounts garnered through this initiative be used? Does it make them ‘fair game’ to the promotional spam often associated with gambling accounts?

This raises broader issues for the gambling industry, as society’s trust in gambling organisations drop (only 29% of adults in the UK believe gambling operators can be trusted, down from 49% in 2010; Gambling Commission, 2019), it is not only the safety of gamblers and public which should be the concern but the sustainability of gambling industry itself. That said, it seems the virtual Grand National may be good, and a bit bad. After all, how different is it from the National Lottery and Camelot?

And one final thought in the midst of this, is there a social value to gambling?




Davies, R. (2020) Report Shows Betting Industry’s Reliance on Problem Gamblers. Available: Accessed: [02/04/2020].

Gambling Commission (2019) Gambling Participation in 2019: behaviour, awareness and attitudes. Annual Report. Available: Accessed: [02/04/2020].

Simmons, R. (2020) BGC Agrees 20-Point Marketing Code for Virtual Grand National Betting. Available: Accessed: [03/04/2020].

Thomas, S., Pitt, H., Bestman, A., Randle, M., Daube, M., & Pettigrew, S. (2016) Child and parent recall of gambling sponsorship in Australian sport. Victoria: Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation1.

Wright, R. (2020) Result of Saturday’s Virtual Grand National on ITV Already Known to Select Few. Available: Accessed: [02/04/2020].

Dr Alexander Bond

Senior Lecturer / Carnegie School Of Sport

Alexander Bond is a Senior Lecturer in Sport Management and leads the MSc Sport Business Management. He also leads the Management and Governance Theme for the Research Centre of Social Justice in Sport and Society.