There was a time at which Stan James was a significant presence on the British high street, with the company opening its first shop in Oxfordshire in 1973. The company grew in the years that followed, up to the point that it was able to start buying smaller companies and operate in more than a hundred countries around the world. It grew to such an extent that bigger companies began to take an interest, with the online side of the business eventually being bought by Unibet Group plc in 2015.
After that, the company began to shrink in both size and importance. Customers began to be moved over to Unibet’s other brands, with the decision being taken to shut down the website in February of 2018. The shops, meanwhile, were re-branded as megabet, meaning that a bookmaker that was once ever-present on the high street has all but disappeared. Here we’ll have a look at the history of Stan James, as well as explore what’s happened to it.
The History of Stan James
In the area of Wantage in Oxfordshire in 1973, two men named Steve Fisher and James Holder decided to start a bookmaking business. They acquired a property and needed a name, with Fisher deciding to use the first two letters of his name and his wife Anne’s name to create ‘Stan’, whilst Holder’s first name was used. Thus, Stan James was created and began operating to the local betting market.
The company proved to be a successful one, expanding by opening more shops over the years that followed. Yet is was a genius move by Fisher that saw the company’s true growth, doing something that most modern-day bookmakers take for granted. The launch of Sky Sports at the start of the 1990s presented an opportunity to the wily bookie, which was a description that Steve Fisher most certainly deserved. Prior to the launch of the new sports channel, most betting was done on either football or horse racing, but all that was about to change.
Sky Sports Opens New Markets
Sky Sports showed sports that most punters had never even seen before, let alone placed a bet on. They mixed them in with the more classic sports that are the staple diet of most bettors, such as football and horse racing, but soon there were events and meetings that punters were able to watch and fancied placing a bet on.
Back then, of course, the world of online gambling seemed about as possible as living on the moon, not least of all because most people didn’t know what the Internet was. Betting over the telephone was the equivalent of online betting, with the majority of people getting their most up to date information by looking at Teletext, which is perhaps best described as a text-based service that you accessed through your television.
Stan James began to advertise in papers, such as the Sporting Life and the Racing Post, telling bettors that if the loaded up a specific page on Teletext, which would be done by loading the service on your TV and then pressing the number’s for that page, you could view live odds from a whole host of different sporting events that would be shown on Sky Sports.
With more than thirty pages worth of odds that people could peruse, the Stan James method immediately began to appeal to the more savvy punters out there. They would find the event that they were looking for, check out the odds and then phone Stan James to place their bet. It’s entirely possible that the modern-day online bookies that offer odds on countless sports would have taken far longer to develop if not for Stan James’ work at revolutionising the industry back at the start of the 1990s.
The Company’s Development
During the more formative years of Stan James’s existence, the company predominantly existed in the Oxfordshire and Berkshire regions of the United Kingdom. Their work with telephone betting soon meant that the company’s reputation began to grow, as did its name recognition. The result was that they started to open more and more shops, eventually growing to have around ninety within the UK. They also began to buy properties around Europe, including in Austria, Germany and Spain.
The expansion of shops combined with their telephone betting service, their use of Teletext to allow people to check live odds and the fact that they offered odds on the more interesting sports offered by Sky Sports mean that they earned a reputation as a forward-thinking and uniquely placed company. That continued when the 1990s brought about the launch of the Internet, with Stan James offering customers a website for the first time in 1997, being one of the first companies to do as much.
Stan James’s development as a company grew even more once they’d launched an online presence. Given that the setup that they had in place for the telephone betting side of the business was so sophisticated and negated the need to have more and more physical shops, the transition online was perhaps a tad easier for them than it was for other bookmakers. Their first genuine display of their new position as a bookmaking powerhouse came in December of 2007 when they paid 32Red £5.75 million for Betdirect.
Betdirect had been established in 1998 and was successfully merged with Stan James in February of 2009. That came a year after their decision to purchase the online-only betting company betterbet.com from Better, a London-based bookie. In 2009, they worked with BETKICK Sportwettenservice GmbH, an Austrian company, to found SJBET and SJBET24.com. That was specifically aimed at the European market, with Austria and Germany being high up on the list.
Another expansion came about in 2010 when the betting company Pagebet went bankrupt and Stan James bought their high street shops. Twenty-seven regional branches were added to the Stan James canon as a result. Another part of this expansion was the addition of sponsorship deals to their portfolio, meaning that more and more people began to consider the bookmaker to be something of a household name. The likes of the World Matchplay Darts, King George Chase and the Champion Hurdle during the Cheltenham Festival all began to bear the Stan James name.
Stan James Starts to Disappear
The biggest change for Stan James since the company’s 1973 launch came about in 2015 when Unibet decided to purchase the bookmaker for £19 million. Interestingly, the price was considered cheap at the time, even though the deal only included the company’s online presence. The shops remained under the Stan James brand initially. The plan was for Unibet’s place in the market to ensure that Stan James’s online presence would be able to grow, whilst also giving Unibet more legitimacy to UK-based customers.
The gambling marketing in the United Kingdom was worth around £2.9 billion at the time of the purchase, with Stan James responsible for just £1.4 million of that before the likes of interest, tax, depreciation and amortization had been taken into account. It was little wonder, therefore, that Unibet felt that they could help the brand grow. At the time, Henrik Tjärnström, Unibet’s Chief Executive, said, “Stan James as an operator is one of the most well-respected in the UK market”, explaining the decision to pay £19 million for the website.
The Shops Kept Expanding
Even as Unibet took over Stan James’ online presence, the company continued to expand its presence on the high street. In October of 2016, Stan James used some of the money earned from the Unibet purchase of the web side of the company to buy thirty-seven shops from Ladbrokes and Coral. The decision came on the back of the Ladbrokes and Coral merger, which required them to offload some shops in order to avoid causing trouble with the Competition and Markets Authority.
Ladbrokes and Coral sold three hundred and fifty-nine shops in total, with Fred Done of Bet Fred buying the other three hundred and twenty-two of them. It was seen as the ‘last significant hurdle’ for the £2.7 billion merger of the two bookies, which made the company the biggest bookmaker in Britain. It also allowed Stan James to expand further, of course.
Stan James Shops Become Megabet
The sale of Stan James’s online presence also included full rights and ownership of the brand itself. The result of that was that the high street shops were only given a transitional period during which they were allowed to use the name ‘Stan James’. That meant that Steve Fisher needed to come up with another name for the company before being forced to change it by Unibet.
With more than 80 shops as part of the Stan James offering at the time, it cost the company in excess of £1 million rebrand them all. That, as well as the fact that government increase the tax due on Fixed Odds Betting Machines, meant that Fisher envisaged around a quarter of the shops having to close to cope with the expense. That was partly due to the fact that leases on shops tended to be for five years, meaning that around three shops per year had to close for around five years.
The Online Presence Gets Closed Down
For a time, Unibet continued to operate the Stan James website as one separate and distinct from its own. By that point, the parent company had rebranded itself as Kindred Group, with Henrik Tjärnström doing an interview with the Racing Post in October of 2017 in which he confirmed that the company’s plan was to migrate customers over to Unibet before the end of the year.
It was a smooth enough transition for the punters who used Stan James for their betting needs, with the accounts being moved over and the Stan James site simply directing people to Unibet instead.
The smoothness of the transition was aided by the fact that the Stan James website had been little more than a slimmed-down version of the Unibet site since the takeover happened in 2015 anyway. They looked similar to each other and offered the same odds and bets, meaning that people barely noticed.
The move from Unibet came about as part of an attempt to streamline their offering, putting all of their smaller brands under one roof. That included 32Red, which Stan James had bought Betdirect from, who had been bought by Kindred Group in 2017. Having itself rebranded from Unibet plc to Kindred Group in December of 2016, it made sense for the company to look to try to have a united front.
That was especially the case because Kindred Group saw the UK market as a ‘key’ one as far as their long-term strategy was concerned. Having one name would, they felt, make it less confusing for consumers to understand who it was the were betting with.
The answer to the question ‘What happened to Stan James?’, therefore, is that the company still exists in essence. It’s just that its online presence is now lost into the behemoth that is Kindred Group and its high street shops are now known as Megabet.