Novibet CEO George Athanasopoulos

Novibet focused on international growth strategy

There are few industry challenges that Novibet CEO George Athanasopoulos has not faced in the last two years, he told Issue 28 of SBC Leaders magazine, but the business remains on a significant growth path as it expands into new markets far away from its European base. 

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Anyone at the head of an ambitious business can expect to be busy, but even the world’s top business leaders may be surprised by just how much Novibet CEO George Athanasopoulos has had on his plate over the last two years. 

Entering new territories, withdrawing from a major jurisdiction, attempting to become a public company, and driving continued growth in established markets are just a few of the challenges that have made their way on to his to-do list. It has not only been a busy period for Athanasopoulos and his teams in Athens and Malta, it has also been a successful one. 

Reflecting on recent developments, Athanasopoulos said: “2023 so far has been a remarkable year for Novibet, both in terms of expansion in our global operations, and in terms of growth in all markets.”

Picking out a highlight, he continued: “Novibet embarked on an ambitious endeavour to build its presence in the vibrant Central and South American markets. With limited brand awareness and intense competition across the Atlantic, Novibet took on the challenge head-on, crafting a fantastic international 360° campaign that captivates audiences across Brazil, Ecuador, Chile and Mexico.” 

The campaign included securing the Chilean superstar Arturo Vidal as global brand ambassador, collaborating with iconic goalkeeper Memo Ochoa in Mexico and sponsoring four football clubs in South America. 

The year has not all been about taking market share in the emerging markets of Latin America though, as Novibet has also strengthened its position in its home market of Greece, where NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo and Premier League footballer Kostas Tsimikas linked up with the operator as CSR ambassadors.

“The Greek market has been the proving grounds for Novibet,” said Athanasopoulos. “In the last few years we managed to overtake global operators, with brands that used to be household names and product offerings that were perceived as best in class. 

“It takes time to reach the maturity level that Novibet offers today. We invested heavily in our technology, innovated with our product, optimised our CRM recipes, and only then we accelerated to a podium position. We have still room to grow in this market, and expect to do so as momentum is on our side.” 

Novibet is also enjoying growth in Ireland, a market that Athanasopoulos described as being a “long-term play” for the operator. However, the situation in its third European market is more complex.

“Italy is a completely different case. The advertising ban happened very close to our launch, putting us in a dilemma of either cancelling our efforts or planning for a very small market share,” Athanasopoulos explained. 

“We, obviously, did not give up. Given the adjusted return to our investments in this market, we decided to operate a third-party platform and released the internal resources to other opportunities. We hope that market conditions will change in favour of a healthy competition between operators.”

Novibet had also had a presence in Europe’s biggest and most-competitive gambling market, but elected to hand back its UK Gambling Commission licence in 2022. 18 months on, Athanasopoulos is satisfied that was the right decision, but hinted that the company has not yet reached the final chapter of its UK story. 

“Prior to our surrender of the licence, we had been growing at a typical, for Novibet, rate of more than doubling every year. And while our commercial success was delivering on plan, we noticed two very worrisome long-term threats: regulatory challenges and an accompanying black market growth,” said the CEO. 

“We took the very hard decision to focus our efforts and investments in more promising markets, but we haven’t completely written off the UK opportunity. We are monitoring changes, and if a more favourable set of conditions is shown to become the most likely scenario, we would consider reapplying for a licence.”

Private or Public? 

There comes a point in any successful private company’s life when it has to give serious consideration as to whether the allure of the stock market is the right path to support its long-term growth plans. 

In 2022, Novibet’s leadership team decided that it was and announced plans to list on the Nasdaq exchange, via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) merger with Artemis Strategic Investment Corporation. However, the deal was terminated in June 2023, leaving the GameTech business still in private ownership. 

While the outcome was, obviously, not what had been hoped for, Athanasopoulos believes the original strategy was correct. 

“The decision for Novibet to become a public company was the right one, at the wrong time. The announced SPAC transaction would have provided us with growth capital and a ticket to become listed on one of the biggest exchanges in the world,” he said. 

“Unfortunately and outside of our control, the SPAC market deteriorated to the point of becoming a negative return for target companies. There are many lessons and anecdotes from this journey, and some are too fresh to discuss publicly. 

“We changed our corporate governance and group structure to become listed-ready, got audited and went through multiple due diligence rounds, and presented our success to the top sector analysts and funds of the world. While most of these achievements are intangible, our organisation matured in a very healthy way.”

Going Global 

The cancellation of the SPAC deal has done little to quell Novibet’s ambition and it already has plans to enhance its operation in Cyprus and explore opportunities in Oceania. 

It is a strategy that will bring the company into even greater competition with the world’s biggest operators. And as the spread of regulation has created an ever-growing total addressable legal market, those multinational operators have become more aggressive with their M&A tactics in a bid to grab market share.  

So, is that a situation that worries Athanasopoulos? Not particularly. 

“The founders and top management of Novibet have been in this sector for more than 20 years, so we have witnessed the rise and fall of many,” he said. “The fragmentation and expanding regulation in the industry at a global level favours companies that have experience with multi-jurisdiction operations and the ability to deploy scalable technologies when expanding in new markets. 

“Also, given the multitude of unlawful operators currently in the market, having a valid licence and a spotless track record is a ‘sine qua non’ for operators across the globe. Novibet has historically only focused on regulated, or about-to-be regulated, markets. We welcome any relevant local efforts, and look forward to working together with regulators – as in the case of Brazil – to create a safe environment for users, culling bad actors and protecting the vulnerable.” 

He added: “As far as the M&A landscape is concerned, our view is that the consolidations that are currently taking place internationally are not led by industry experts, and these M&A efforts are bound to fail, if not initiated by operators themselves. 

“We in Novibet have considered being the buyer in the M&A space, but so far what is on offer is underwhelming, with the market presenting only very limited opportunities that could justify a buy-versus-build dilemma, especially for a company with organic growth rates such as our own.”

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