Richard Buule is an average Ugandan in his late 20s; he gets by from the money he earns at his job in a media house and, of course, several deals from various businesses. Once in a while he can be heard lamenting how the cost of living has gone up, and how much he has to try harder just to cover all his needs.
Just like almost every red-blooded male, Buule is a staunch follower of the beautiful game especially the European leagues. But unlike many fans for whom watching a match and discussing it a little with other fans would suffice, Buule goes a step further, he bets on his beloved sport, calls it “playing his passion”, which just happens to be the slogan of one of the big betting houses in the country. And even as he tries to make ends meet, he can spare what he calls a small amount each day for his one love, sports betting. He does not seem to think Shs20,000 a day is a large amount, nor does he notice that that “small amount” is well over what most families spend on a good day. He instead talks of the chances of winning and ticks off on his fingers the number of times he has worn in the three years he has been playing. “Once I won Shs3m, another time, Shs1.4m, and on two occasions, I got Shs200,000.”
Buule is just one of the many football fans (and well, some are not fans) who have taken sports betting in Uganda to another level. No longer is betting practiced behind video halls or on dingy streets, by young people of questionable repute. A growing number of people are hooked, barely five years after the first legal sports betting company officially opened the first booth in the country. It has gained a following enough to cause betting companies to put stations and booths not only in every busy shopping centre and street in Kampala but even in the far flung corners of the greater Uganda.
Sports Betting Africa , one of the largest betting companies in Uganda, boasts 700 terminals, impressive for a company that started in 2007. This only goes to show just how the betting spirit has “spread especially in the past two years”, as Andrew Batley, the betting company’s CEO, says. As testament to the growing love for playing with their luck, different gaming companies are setting up shop, everywhere you look, in an apparent scramble to profit from the current betting craze.
A whirlwind tour through several gaming halls around the city reveals just how betting seems to attract a large number of people across the social divide. A little uptown on Jinja Road and Garden City shopping mall, are the so called VIP betting stations. For a little more, (because the least you can bet for both is Shs10,000 as compared to those in the townships where even Shs500 goes) you can access the betting service, a good parking area, a much cleaner hall with better sitting arrangement, and if you are lucky a coffee shop within or at the very least just next door. The location may be better, but the story is the same, a plain hall with a big screen showing soccer on the wall, a few computers mounted on the wall from whence those betting or planning to bet can access the prediction sites, the ratings and result for the previous days’ games on the wall and a ticketing and payment area to one side.
“Those who come to bet here just place their bets and leave or go on to meet people in the surrounding restaurants, not to hang around here,” says Haruna Kizito, an eager young man at one of the VIP outlets. He offers to introduce me to the world of betting, taking me through how to pick your teams. You don’t necessarily have to know much, he says, just start by understanding the odds game, and whatever you stake will be multiplied by the odds if you win. He seems taken up by the possibility of winning, mentioning nothing about losing. He makes it look so easy, that for a moment I stand on the brink of entering the cult-like world of betting. Cult-like because it seems to take up the lives of those who engage in it and they do not even know it. When I mention this to Kizito, he denies it vehemently, saying it is just a passion he engages in because he loves it. Though he tells me he bets everyday he does not seem to think he is addicted, does not even want me to use the word in relation to betting. Not even when he does not win and has to continue forking out money to stake from his earnings as a busboy at a local fast-food joint.
The story tends to repeat itself whenever I talk to a gambling fan. The diehards think its God’s answer to the poor mortals looking for a chance to make big bucks from a small investment everyday in football games and as I learn later, even cricket, horse races and motor sport, among other sports.
The attendants at the various outlets are more than willing to attend to anyone with money to stake and customer attracting devices like free Internet, a seating area where you can stay as long as you like, and gigantic flat screens always tuned to Super Sport channels. It is only one middle-aged man, Moses Tugume, at one of the outlets I visited who candidly discourages me from even placing my first bet.
“I wouldn’t advise you to start. Before you win, you will have lost a lot of money and precious time!” he cautions me. He confesses to gambling himself but says only when he has money to spare and at that he just stakes a very small amount.
“This betting is very attractive, but it is just legal gambling,” he says.
Attractive it must be Ugandans are flocking in betting halls in droves making the gaming business one of those still thriving in the recession. Just a week ago, Sports Betting Africa Company purportedly paid out about Shs500m to over 9,000 winners in one weekend. While the actual winners could not be pointed out because officials at the English owned company apparently state that they (the winners) wanted anonymity, the whopping sum shows just how much money goes into bets in a weekend and just how many people engage in it. Factor in the number of betting companies multiplied by the number of games to bet on, (which could be anything from 10 to 300), by the thousands of people who buy tickets and you have an astronomical figure.
At the Sports Betting Africa gaming hall in Kabalagala, a busy Kampala suburb, one employee, Sunday, points to a box full of winning tickets, from the previous weekend. He also painstakingly takes me through the betting process, and shows me the tipster websites from whence those who want to bet get the predictions to aid their chances. He says many people nowadays think they know the football in Uganda and with the betting spots everywhere, it is easy to see why they see more people buying tickets. Others just hear about it from their friends who won or who bet regularly.
“A betting company cannot make a loss,” says a boda boda rider who identifies himself as Seru. He thinks the odds are such that chances of everyone winning the bets are low. But he is no expert. Batley however says sports betting companies too make losses. According to him, if people’s predictions come true, the company has no choice but to pay up, whether they pay their whole week’s earnings or whole months. Fortunately for them and unfortunately for most people who bet, that rarely happens, and according to a press release by the Sports Betting Africa, they plough back a percentage of its sales (60-70 per cent) back to the customers as winnings. Batley goes on to say it also depends on the betting company, whether they have reserve funds for instances where a large number of people win and they have to pay out a huge sum.
Seru explains that he quit betting after being given a run around by a certain betting company after winning. Interactions with several people in the halls, reveals that this happens often, with some allegations that a hopeful winner sometimes gets disappointed by certain companies who cancel tickets and promise payment. Not all companies are transparent, says Batley when asked if he has heard of these incidences.
Still this does not deter a growing number of people from trying their luck at the gaming halls, and by the looks of it, this trend is not going anywhere but up. Meanwhile those who were quick enough to jump onto the betting bandwagon and open companies are laughing all the way to the bank. Word has it a company can make over Shs100m worth of sales on just one weekend, making them maybe the biggest winners in this game. As for the people who put the money on various teams and sports, hoping to get their big break, well, sports betting is just but a gamble.