Football Index operating licence suspended (plus a summary of what led up to that & what has happened since)

The Gambling Commission has today (12 March 2021) published the following Information Notice, in which it confirms suspension of the Remote General Betting (Standard – Real Events) operating licence held by BetIndex Limited, trading as ‘Football Index’:

Information notice: Suspension of licence – BetIndex Limited

The Gambling Commission has decided to suspend the operating licence of BetIndex Limited (t/a Football Index) pursuant to section 118(2) of the Gambling Act 2005.

The suspension follows an ongoing section 116 review into the operator, as we had concerns activities may have been carried on in purported reliance on the licence, but not in accordance with a condition of the licence, and that Football Index may not be suitable to carry on with licensed activities.

We have made it clear to the operator that as the investigation progresses, we expect it to focus on treating consumers fairly and keeping them fully informed of any developments which impact them.

Football Index can be contacted via their website and as part of our review we continue to work closely with colleagues from the Jersey Gambling Commission.

The Gambling Commission will not comment any further whilst this investigation is ongoing.

Reference by the Commission to “concerns that activities may have been carried on in purported reliance on the licence, but not in accordance with a condition of the licence” leaves open to question the type of licence condition breach that is being investigated.

Interestingly, in its own website ‘strapline’, Football Index has to date described itself as “a real money virtual stockmarket licensed and regulated by the Jersey Gambling Commission and the UK Gambling Commission. This is a betting platform and should not be viewed as an investment vehicle”. It has gone on to describe its aims as follows:

The first aim – to become a challenger to traditional bookies – was part of a response to customers regularly losing money through betting. Buying Shares in a footballer on the Index is a bet on their future performance. It’s a bet that isn’t defined by a win-lose.

Secondly, we wanted to provide a way of Trading in something that you know and love. The regular stock market can seem intimidating and inaccessible. Football Index replicates the way the market works, but allows you to trade a commodity you understand – football.

Buy Shares. Sell Shares. Make a profit with your football knowledge.

Time will tell whether the reason for the operating licence review has any association at all with the following comments by Football Index in a market update from October 2020:

In line with our future goals, we have engaged with financial regulators with the objective of holding a licence that is more appropriate for our ‘market’ than our current ‘betting’ licence. If successful, this outcome would take us a step closer to realising our vision of becoming a fully regulated sports market, trading a high-yield asset and sitting alongside financial markets. It’s an exciting development for all of us, although at this stage embryonic.

In terms of the immediate background circumstances leading up to today’s Gambling Commission Information Notice:

1. Friday 5 March 2021: A dividend restructuring announcement was made by Football Index purportedly in order “to ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform”.

Whilst its Terms of Use refer to reductions in the level of dividends only being permitted in January and June each year, they do reserve Football Index’s right to do so at other times, including “in exceptional circumstances to protect [its] business”. The Terms of Use also commence by listing key risks that customers will face when betting with Football Index, including warnings that:

  • the Dividend Table will change from time to time,
  • the basis on which dividends are awarded may change and
  • there is no guarantee of winning any particular amount of dividends in respect of bets.

2. Saturday 6 March 2021: Publication of the following statement by Football Index:

Dear Traders,

We know that the Dividend Announcement on Friday has caused frustration and disappointment, and has been a stressful experience for many of you.

Firstly, anyone who is concerned about their well-being, or the well-being of another user should consider the resources available on our Safer Gambling page or these mental health resources.

We feel that you deserve additional background as to how we have reached these decisions.

Over recent months, Football Index has sustained substantial losses. The Board agreed a recovery plan aimed at stemming these losses whilst retaining the dividend payments at current levels. It was hoped that this would stimulate a market recovery which would allow for the higher dividend to continue to be paid prior to the normal annual review, and for an exciting and affordable Dividend to be announced at that time. The issuance of new shares and IPOs were key deliverables of that recovery plan, amongst other initiatives to rejuvenate the market.

Our team worked hard to deliver against that recovery plan. We made increased efforts to maintain the levels required when they were at risk. However, it became clear that important KPIs of the plan were not being sustained to a level that would support the ongoing payment of dividends at those levels, despite substantial progress being made against those objectives.

While the Board worked to form a new plan to retain the maximum sustainable level of dividends, the Board decided to continue business as usual until a new plan was agreed and adopted, on the basis that the Board considered that this would be less disruptive to, and in the best interests of stakeholders. Once it was clear that the reduction and restructure of dividends to the degree announced was necessary, we suspended placing issuance orders and announced the reduction and restructure to customers as soon as reasonably practicable. We will notify customers if and when these are put into operation again. There was no intent to mislead customers in these transactions, or in the announcement of a Q&A session.

Once again, anyone concerned about their well-being or the well-being of another user should reach out through the resources detailed.

We would also like to stress that while we are aware of the fact that our latest announcement proved upsetting for many of you, we have a zero-tolerance policy with regards to abuse and threats to our employees. Any such behaviour will not be tolerated, and we will pursue all necessary measures should they arise.

As ever, the long-term sustainability of the platform remains our main priority.

Football Index HQ

3. Tuesday 9 March 2021: The Racing Post publishes an article entitled “Gambling Commission accused of ‘complete failure’ over Football Index storm” in which it states:

The Gambling Commission has been accused of a “complete failure” of regulation following claims that some users of under-fire online betting operator Football Index had lost their life savings after its market crashed over the weekend.

4. Thursday 11 March 2021: Publication of the following announcement by Football Index:

Dear Football Index Community,

We understand this has been a difficult and challenging week for you all. After much difficult deliberation we must now issue the following update.

The Board of BetIndex Limited has consulted with external legal and financial advisors, and the UK and Jersey Gambling Commissions. The decision has been made to suspend the platform.

The dividend restructure announced on Friday was a necessary step in a business recovery plan to seek the long-term sustainability of the platform. However, it is clear that this has not been well received and we need to find a more agreeable way forward.

We are pursuing a restructuring arrangement to be agreed with our stakeholders including, most importantly, our community.  We are preparing this through an administration with insolvency practitioners Begbies Traynor, to seek the best outcome for customers with the goal of continuing the platform in a restructured form.

The restructure could involve equity in BetIndex Limited being distributed to customers, board representation for customers, and a new management team put in place, along with other initiatives.

Until such time as the administrators are in office, the platform will remain suspended and no trading or payment transactions, such as deposits and withdrawals, will be possible.  Once in office, the administrators will be in contact with customers, creditors, and other stakeholders.  This interim step of suspending the platform is merely to ensure that everyone’s rights are preserved in relation to funds held by BetIndex Limited.

We fully understand and anticipate concerns regarding a temporary suspension of your ability to withdraw existing Cash Balances and assure you that they will remain held in a segregated account to be managed in conjunction with our advisors, protected by the trust arrangements that are in place and will be subject to review by the administrators.

The Board have at all times been seeking the best way to sustain the platform as we believed a recovery was not only possible but also in the best interests of our customers. This decision is deeply regrettable, and is the outcome we were seeking to avoid by restructuring dividends.  However, we believe it is the most responsible route forward for our community given the situation as it has developed.

The administrators will release a statement upon their formal appointment by the Court, which is anticipated to be in the next 10 days and will be able to share further timelines at that point.

The Board of BetIndex Limited

UPDATES:

1. Reacting to suspension by the Gambling Commission of the operating licence held by BetIndex Limited, the Betting and Gaming Council has stated:

Following the suspension of their operating licence by the Gambling Commission, we are immediately suspending BetIndex Ltd’s membership of the BGC while the details of the case are investigated. As the standards body representing the regulated industry, our top priority is ensuring that the interests of BetIndex Ltd’s customers are protected.

2. It has subsequently been announced that solicitors Leigh Day are “investigating claims on behalf of Football Index ‘traders’ who believe they have been misled by the platform and failed by the Gambling Commission”. You can read more about this on Leigh Day’s website here. It also quotes Matt Zarb-Cousin, CEO of Clean-Up Gambling, as saying:

Clean Up Gambling is working with Leigh Day to ensure Football Index users have the best possible chance of getting redress from a company that has consistently misrepresented its product and misled the public regarding its sustainability.

3. David Clifton is quoted in a 15 March 2021 Vixio Gambling Compliance article entitled Regulator Under Fire As Football Shares Firm Collapses (that you can download below), commenting on whether customers of Football Index might have any right to compensation for their losses.

4. A Guardian article entitled “Football Index seeks buyer amid widespread customer fury” published the day after Gambling Commission CEO Neil McArthur suddenly resigned (on 15 March 2021), has quoted Whitehall sources as saying that the new gambling minister John Whittingdale has held “frank” discussions with the Gambling Commission regarding the Football Index matter.

5. A 16 March 2021 BBC news report entitled “Football Index collapse: ‘I lost £4,000 in seven days'” summarises stories of losses sustained by some customers of Football Index.

6. A subsequent BBC news report (entitled “Football Index collapse: MPs call for inquiry into ‘scandal'”) reports that:

  • the Gambling-Related Harm APPG has written to the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, calling for a public inquiry into the collapse of Football Index, quoting the APPG’s Chair Carolyn Harris MP as saying: “This can only be termed a scandal. It underlines the need for wholesale reform of the gambling industry and raises significant questions of the Gambling Commission, given they saw fit to licence this platform and failed to enact adequate oversight”, and
  • Leigh Day partner Nichola Marshall has said (in relation to her firm’s above-mentioned investigation into this matter): “Whilst it is very early days in our investigations on behalf of the thousands of people who have lost money, there are serious questions which will need answering regarding what has happened at Football Index and what the Gambling Commission understood of Football Index’s activities”.

7. An 18 March 2o21 Guardian article entitled “Football Index: Gambling Commission was warned about firm in January 2020” alleges that the Gambling Commission was warned in January 2020 that Football Index was “an exceptionally dangerous pyramid scheme under the guise of a ‘football stock market’ and that immediate and urgent action was needed ‘to alert and protect their users’”.

8. Notwithstanding previously stating in its 12 March 2021 Information Notice that it “will not comment any further whilst this investigation is ongoing”, the Gambling Commission published an “update” on its website on 19 March 2021, essentially confirming what had already been published earlier the same day in an iGB article entitled “GC defends decision not to suspend Football Index licence earlier”, stating as follows:

BetIndex – Update

Due to the number of consumers interested in our investigation into BetIndex we have taken the decision to publish some further information about the background to our regulatory action. We have focussed this update on the areas where we have received questions about our approach.

Background

BetIndex Limited was granted a licence for Remote General Betting Standard Real Event on 9 September 2015. The operator is also licensed by the Jersey regulator.

The current BetIndex product allows customers (called traders) to place bets (shares) on the future performance of footballers. A bet lasts for 3 years during which time they accrue dividends. After 3 years the bet expires meaning that customers lose their stake and any right to further dividends. The product evolved to enable customers to buy and sell bets with prices fluctuating according to demand. We have identified that the product contains elements that are betting in nature, and therefore regulated by us as gambling, as well as elements are not considered gambling and therefore not subject to our regulatory remit.

Gambling product features

Following concerns about the operator we began a formal Review into the licensee under section 116 of the Gambling Act on 20 May 2020. The focus of our review was to address issues in relation to the betting aspect of the product At that stage there were no grounds to suspend their operating license.

During the course of the review, we utilised betting specialist expertise, a Forensic Financial accountant and specialist external QC to examine the business model, the finances of the company and the complex legal questions over the appropriate regulatory framework.

In the early part of March, BetIndex advised of plans to self suspend with a view to restructure and relaunch. Our concerns as to the timings of this and the position regarding customer funds led us to suspend the licence on 11 March 2021. We have acted in tandem with the Jersey Regulator, with whom BetIndex also hold a licence.

We know from experience that the suspension of a license can, of itself, trigger or hasten the financial decline of an operator and put customer funds at risk. That is why we will always consider whether there are steps short of suspension that can still deliver the right regulatory outcomes and address the risks that consumers face without accelerating the financial collapse of a business. We will therefore only turn to suspension when that is the only option for delivering the right regulatory outcome and, indeed, the legislation requires us to exercise those powers in that way. We were satisfied that on 11 March suspension was the only regulatory option left available to us.

Whilst our investigation is ongoing our priority is to ensure the licensee focuses on treating consumers fairly and keeping them fully informed of any developments which impact them.

Information for impacted consumers

BetIndex holds a Trust Account intended to hold dividends to be paid to winning customers. We have been assured by their solicitors that BetIndex has suspended payments from this account whilst customers’ entitlements can be calculated and pending an application to the Court for directions. BetIndex requires a direction from the Court as to the appropriate treatment of those funds. We understand that those legal processes are underway.

The assurance the Commission has is that the funds in the Trust Account will not be distributed to any creditor other than customers. However, its ability to distribute immediately to customers, and if so which customers, is likely to be subject to the directions of the Court rather than the Commission.

Whilst there will be limitations on what information we can publish whilst regulatory investigations are ongoing, we will continue to provide updates whenever we have further information to share.

9. As reported by EGR on 26 March 2021, collateral damage from the collapse of Football Index has been sustained by Footstock, that has described itself as offering “a unique mix of fantasy football and gambling”. EGR writes that “football trading app Footstock has surrendered its UK gambling licence and ceased trading with immediate effect as the fallout from the Football Index crash reverberates across the industry”. An announcement on the Footstock website reads as follows:

I am announcing with deep regret, that Footstock has surrendered its UK gambling licence and ceased trading with immediate effect.

The whole sector has been shaken by recent events. As a result, over the last few days, we have suffered significant setbacks.

Expected and necessary funding being put on ice, we can no longer run our Seedrs campaign and valuable partners are pausing cooperations.

These unprecedented circumstances have crushed our company in this crucial period of growth. But without funding, Footstock cannot survive.

Over the last few days, we tried incredibly hard to find a solution that allows us to stay operational. But ultimately I am sorry to announce that Footstock has entered the German equivalent of UK administration and we have had to suspend the platform.

Over the coming weeks, we will continue to consult with our professional advisors and keep you informed on the next steps as soon as we are able to, including information about your cash balances.

10. On 11 April 2021, in an article entitled “Ministers plan investigation into collapse of Football Index”, the Sunday Times reported that the UK government is to establish an “independent investigation” into the collapse of Football Index, quoting a ‘government source’ as saying that “something appears to have gone very wrong here”, adding that “this case further reinforces the need for our comprehensive review of gambling laws. This independent investigation into Football Index will feed into that work and if we need to make changes to regulation to protect people, we will.”

11. On 13 April 2021, the Gambling Related Harm APPG wrote a letter to the Prime Minister (that you can download below), “calling for an urgent independent public inquiry into the circumstances around the collapse of Football Index and Footstock, which should include the role of the Gambling Commission and the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in its terms of reference”. The letter added that: “it appears as though the Gambling Commission licensed what became a pyramid scheme, was subsequently warned that it had become a pyramid scheme, but by negligence or design allowed Football Index to overstate its financial position, reassuring its users to attract more investment and new money into the platform”.

12. As reported by SBC News on 14 April 2021: “Begbies Traynor, the insolvency practitioner of Football Index operator BetIndex, has begun to process customer claims against the company, which officially entered into administration on 26 March. This morning, Begbies Traynor issued a communication to Football Index customers, notifying them that it had begun to register claims against the insolvent business, requiring affected customers to fill out an online form. As BetIndex’s chosen practitioner, Begbies Traynor are required to carry out all statutory duties and obligations bound by the UK’s Insolvency Code of Ethics, ensuring that all potential creditors can register their claims. Football Index’s claims process has been made available to all customers, including those who self-excluded on Gamstop.  However, the practitioner underscored that: “Submitting a claim does not mean that the claim is accepted, the validity of claims will be adjudicated upon in due course.” Begbies Traynor did not provide any further information with regards to how it will qualify customers’ claims or how it will judge the criteria for compensation”. 

13. Subscribers to EGR Intel can access here a pay-gated article (published on 15 April 2021) entitled “Pressure situation: The under-fire UK Gambling Commission feels the strain”, that includes comments by David Clifton and others in relation to the following issue: “The high-profile collapse of Football Index has led to accusations that the UKGC was ‘asleep at the wheel’. But where does this leave the beleaguered regulator as Neil McArthur heads for the exit?”