Branson effect has its limits

Strange as it may seem, the UK’s leading tycoon sometimes has a problem with figures. They were unconvincing when he pitched for Channel 5 and innumerable other TV stations. And their paucity let him down when he bid for the National Lottery first time round.

So critics were expecting him to stumble when he pitched for the second-term licence against a seemingly impregnable incumbent, Camelot. And they were right, though not in the way they imagined. The Lottery Commissioners found fault with Sir Richard Branson’s financial indemnity should his venture (unthinkably) fail. Now that he has given cast-iron assurances on that matter, it would be churlish not to award him the prize he has coveted for so long.

Camelot, as it proved in court this week, may have the power to meddle and delay, but it seems inconceivable that the Lottery Commissioners will be budged from their pro-Branson verdict, and rightly so.

That’s not to say that Branson is a safe bet. The commissioners seem to be fixated on the propriety of Camelot’s technology company. They would have done better to spend more time publicly unpicking both contenders’ grandiose marketing plans. At the heart of them are similarly optimistic projections for increasing Lottery sales over the next seven year period. The People’s Lottery, for example, has committed itself to a 44 per cent increase, with obvious indirect benefits for good causes.

Making such claims at the pitch point may be sound politics, but are they tenable? Some critics have ascribed the overall decline of Lottery sales in recent years to “Lottery fatigue”. They believe it will be difficult to sustain public enthusiasm into the second term, let alone regenerate it.

But the Branson camp will no doubt argue this is unnecessarily cynical. Like any product, the Lottery would benefit from a successful relaunch. Here Branson claims to offer a number of advantages over the incumbent. The appeal of playing the not-for-profit card seems the obvious one, although its importance can easily be exaggerated. Branson will also be relying on a change in the main game matrix to curry favour – the theory being that more big winners create more players. And he will lead an assault on the lamentably lacklustre scratchcard sector; though whether this will turn out to be a broken sword remains to be seen.

Yet even the Branson effect has its limits. Inexperience of running a lottery will inevitably take its toll. More frighteningly, perhaps, the People’s Lottery will be held to ransom by the performance of the incumbent over the last year of its tenure. If Camelot’s morale implodes, there is no telling the height of the mountain that Branson will have to scale.

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