SBC News View from Tbilisi: Gambling faces future uncertainties of Old vs Young Europe

View from Tbilisi: Gambling faces future uncertainties of Old vs Young Europe

In Tbilisi, the cultural dynamics of an evolving global gambling marketplace collide, as leadership contends with the generational ripples of an industry at a point of inflection.

Easy rhetoric sees the term ‘local champion’ enter the vernacular of Western gambling stakeholders. Yet, the term is too simplistic to detail the unique makeup of gambling businesses that have succeeded in Eastern European markets.

SBC News View from Tbilisi: Gambling faces future uncertainties of Old vs Young Europe
Savo Bakmaz: MaxBet

The opening of the SBC Summit Tbilisi saw Savo Bakmaz, CEO and CFO of MaxBet, tell audiences of the Balkan operator’s journey from “literally being a company founded in a garage to a multi-million buyout by Flutter Entertainment”.

In January, Flutter triggered its Balkan markets play, acquiring a 51% stake in MaxBet for €140m, Serbia’s market leader and the platform with which to expand its international unit in the neighboring states of Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, and Macedonia.

For Bakmaz, MaxBet tells the story of Balkan tech, a sector which has navigated significant socio-economic challenges intertwined with tech advancements for the benefit of national economies: “We are part of a 30-year-old economy, but it was only until recently that we have garnered interest from Western investors.”

As such, Flutter’s acquisition validated MaxBet’s success, noted as “one of the biggest transactions in the past decade, and a positive impact for Serbia’s economy.”

The importance of cultural integration is resonant at a time when the global gambling industry is under scrutiny for its practices and the impacts they have on new economies.

As Simon Westbury, CEO of Sport Generate explained: “The challenge isn’t just about transferring a business model from one region to another. It’s about understanding and respecting the economic and cultural fabrics of those new markets you choose to enter.”

Simon Westbury
Simon Westbury. Image: Sport Generate

Westbury reflected on his career forged in the development of gambling within new economies. Working for Digitain since 2019, Westbury has witnessed the expansion of an “Armenian tech giant employing 4,000 staff globally”.

“I don’t want to make this sound colonial, but gaming companies have created a new socio-economic class in Armenia. Government incentives for IT and tech have developed wealth and there is now promotion of home ownership… that is a positive story.

“There are parts of Yerevan that remind me of when I was living in Dubai in 2006. The amount of construction that is going on and the empowerment of gaming companies have many dividends.”

Bakmaz agreed with Westbury on positive economic contributions but elaborated on the inherent clashes that arise when Western business practices meet the traditional values prevalent in Eastern European markets: “In the street, the word of gambling can put people on edge, and can be not so popular.”

Noted as MaxBet’s toughest challenge, Bakmaz reflected: “We had to change the perception of betting, and why people come to our shops.

“Our shops are not like Euro betting shops… They are very high class with a different offering, to change the perception of gambling. Customers are coming to our shops not just to gamble. They come to watch a game on HDTV, to socialise and relax, have a coffee or drink a beer with their friends.”

With fondness, Bakmaz reflected on MaxBet’s key customer KPI of “selling more than 3 million cups of coffee every year,” as challenges in ‘consumer trust’ are necessary, as Bakmaz added. “We are changing the perception of the betting and gaming industry every day,” the MaxBet CEO noted on the dual challenge of maintaining customer loyalty while enhancing operational protections.

Predicting Eastern markets’ future remains a cautious affair. However, Westbury noted with certainty that dialogue would shift on the dynamics of an “aging Western Europe meeting the demands of younger Eastern Europe.”

Westbury: “It’s not rocket science. Anyone in this room could sit here and say, understand your player, appeal to the player.

“We have to understand in our roles that we don’t know everything, employ people that are young and dynamic, understand what we’re trying to achieve and appeal to the player.”

“We talk about AI, we talk about eSports a lot of the time we’re talking nonsense, if I’m honest with you, this simply comes back to whether you are entertaining the end-user.”

Concluding remarks saw Bakmaz reflect on the future, emphasizing the need for ongoing dialogue between Eastern and Western stakeholders to harmonize unique expectations: “As we continue to evolve, our focus remains on being a responsible leader in the industry, balancing growth with social responsibility and cultural sensitivity.”

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