Date posted: 28/04/2021 8 min read

How gambling changed in the COVID-19 pandemic

Just over half of the world’s population gambles each year. Gambling is big business, but at what cost for gambling addicts?

In Brief

  • Hong Kong company Melco is the world’s biggest gambling business, with an estimated US$5.03 billion in revenue in 2019.
  • Online gambling grew during COVID-19 lockdowns and has a projected compound annual growth rate of 11.5% from 2020 to 2027.
  • Research shows about 90% of problem gamblers are dealing with at least one other diagnosed mental health issue.

Compiled by Amity Delaney

Just over half (51%) of the world’s population gambles in one way or another each year, according to a report by Aruvian Research. And while many gambling venues were closed last year due to COVID-19, online gambling thrived. You could even bet on what colour tie Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison would wear to his next press conference. The occasional flutter can be fun, but for those who get addicted, gambling causes financial and emotional harm.

When does betting become a problem?

Problem gambling is any gambling behaviour that disrupts your life or the life of your loved ones. Behaviours such as gambling increasing amounts each time, chasing losses or gambling despite serious life consequences all fall under the umbrella of problem gambling. Problem gambling is often associated with other disorders such as anxiety, depression, stress and attention deficit disorder. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) states that about 90% of problem gamblers have at least one other mental health diagnosis.

In Australia, an estimated 115,000 people are problem gamblers (about 0.4%) and 280,000 (about 1.09%) are at moderate risk, says the RANZCP. In New Zealand, problem gamblers are estimated to make up 0.3% of the population, with moderate risk gamblers making up 1%. Young people, men, and those from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds are at a higher risk of becoming problem gamblers.

How online gambling is growing

Online gambling is showing strong growth, with a projected compound annual growth rate of 11.5% from 2020 to 2027, according to a Grand View Research report.

Online gambling thrived during COVID-19 lockdowns. The Australian Gambling Research Centre found that one in three survey participants had signed up for a new online betting account during COVID-19. Australians could put down money on Triple J’s Hottest 100 Countdown, and even the colour of the prime minister’s tie.

Betting on esports also swelled. With many physical sports put on hold, esport betting was expected to hit US$14 billion in 2020, double that of the year before, according to a release from global research agency 2CV and ProdegeMR.

Gambling for good?

In Macao, casino owner Melco launched its Simple Acts of Kindness program in 2020 to assist the local community during the COVID-19 pandemic. Melco volunteers made calls to 1185 small to medium businesses during work hours to communicate and identify where help was needed. They also helped local SMEs and the Macao Chamber of Commerce with cleaning, disinfecting and sanitising offices, warehouses, shops and factories.

According to its website, US gambling company Scientific Games contributes more than US$1 million annually to not-for-profits that support education, the environment, medicine, culture, responsible gaming, diversity, equal rights, homelessness, veterans, disaster relief and domestic violence.

No fries with that

Several venues in Australia have been named, shamed and even penalised for encouraging patrons to stay and gamble away money.

In July 2018, media reported the case of Gary Van Duinen, a problem gambler who killed himself after playing the pokies for 13 hours straight at clubs on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. His mother alleged that staff at the local RSL would leave the club to buy cigarettes for Van Duinen and deliver them to him at the machine, and that he was invited to an annual seafood ‘thank you’ dinner for heavy gamblers.

ALH Group was fined A$172,000 in July 2020 by the NSW Independent Liquor & Gaming Authority after it was found that, during 2017, staff members at two of its venues on the NSW North Coast – Westower Tavern in Ballina and South Tweed Tavern – were systematically giving free alcohol to regular and high-bidding gamblers.

Losing the Crown

In February 2021, Crown Resorts was declared unsuitable in its current state to gain a gambling licence and operate its new A$2.2 billion casino in Sydney. A year-long inquiry headed by former NSW Supreme Court judge Patricia Bergin had uncovered money laundering incidents at Crown’s Melbourne and Perth casinos and a disregard for the safety of Crown staff in China. (Promoting gambling is banned in China and 19 Crown employees were convicted in 2017 for “gambling crimes”.)

In a bid to make Crown a suitable entity for a licence, billionaire James Packer – former Crown Resorts chair and its major shareholder (with 37%) – said he would step back from Crown and become a passive investor. Five of Crown Resorts’ nine directors and its chief executive, Ken Barton, also resigned. But more turbulence may be ahead. In February, both the Victorian and Western Australian governments flagged their own inquiries into Crown’s operations.

On 27 April 2021, the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation fined Crown Resorts A$1 million (the maximum) for failing to vet its tour partners in China for criminal links – part of Crown's regulatory obligations. These "junket" tour operators brought in ultra-wealthy gamblers to Crown's Melbourne and Perth casinos. Crown also failed to document how it decided what junkets to work with.

Fast facts

US$53.7 billion: Value of the global online gambling market in 2019. It is predicted to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 11.5% from 2020 to 2027.

32%: The proportion of Australians who gambled four or more times a week during COVID-19 (up from 23% pre-COVID).

196,301: Number of gaming machines in Australia in 2018 (world’s fifth highest). Japan topped the table with 4,302,731 machines, including Pachinko and Pachislot.

A$8.32 billion: Amount gambling machines contributed to Australia’s economy in 2016-17 through direct employment and taxes.

NZ$2.4 billion: How much New Zealanders gambled in 2018-19.

116.1%: Percentage gaming machine profits increased (NZ$130,661,758) in the July to September 2020 quarter in NZ.

NZ$924 million: Amount Kiwis lost to poker machines outside casinos in 2018-19. Casinos also made NZ$616 million in profit.

Sources: Online Gambling Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report, Grand View Research, Apr 2020; “Gambling in Australia during COVID-19”, Australian Institute of Family Studies and Australian Gambling Centre, Oct 2020; “Gambling: an update”, NSW Parliamentary Research Service, Mar 2020; World Count of Gaming Machines 2018, Gaming Technologies Association; “Gambling expenditure”, NZ Department of Internal Affairs; “Third quarter pokie statistics reflect the impacts of COVID 19”, Scoop Business, 23 Nov 2020; “New Zealand gambling statistics”,; “Gambling: Kiwis blow almost $1b on the pokies per year – but where could that money be going?”,, 11 Jul 2020.

Top 10 gambling companies in the world

Company 2019 revenue  
1. Melco
Hong Kong company that develops and operates resorts with casinos and entertainment facilities in Asia and Europe.
US$5.03 billion (estimated)
2. Entain PLC (formerly GVC Holdings)
Biggest gambling company in the UK and Europe, its brands include Bwin (BetWin), Ladbrokes, PartyPoker, Sportingbet and Coral.
US$4.95 billion
3. International Game Technology
Produces poker (slot) machines and other gambling technology.
US$4.78 billion
4. Bet365
Most famous for sports betting, this UK company is majority owned by founder Denise Coates.
US$4.03 billion
5. Tabcorp Holdings
The largest gambling company in Australia, it operates sports betting, lotteries and Keno.
US$3.97 billion
6. Scientific Games
One of the biggest US gambling companies. Created secure instant lottery tickets in 1974. Provides point-of-sale systems for lotteries including Powerball and MegaMillions.
US$3.36 billion
7. Flutter Entertainment
Bookmaking company that operates brands including Paddy Power, Sky Bet and
US$2.89 billion
8. Stars Group
Headquartered on the Isle of Man and bought by Flutter Entertainment in May 2020 for about US$6 billion.
US$2.50 billion 
9. La Française des Jeux Société anonyme
Operates France’s national lotteries and online sports betting.
US$2.38 billion
10. William Hill
Major bookmaker in the UK, founded in 1964.
US$2.14 billion


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