Winning Post – Industry feels impact of parliament turbulence

Regulus Partners, the strategic consultancy focused on international gambling and related industries, takes a look at some key developments for the gambling industry in its ‘Winning Post’ column.

UK: Politics – What did you do during the Brexit?

The folly of the British gambling lobby was laid painfully bare in Westminster this week. Against the backdrop of the United Kingdom’s greatest constitutional change in almost half-a-century and perhaps the greatest era of uncertainty since the Second World War, the gambling industry’s contribution has been entirely negative.

Having created the circumstances that led last week to the resignation of Tracey Crouch as Minister for Sport and Civil Society (thus losing the most conscientious and engaged sponsor minister we have had in recent times), this week it was the industry’s honour to lead the Government into an embarrassing (if painfully predictable) climbdown rather than face defeat over the Finance Bill.

The net result is that stake reduction on machines in licensed betting offices will at last take effect in April next year – with remote gaming duty increasing from 15% to 21% at the same time. The gambling lobby has thus successfully brought the political standing of the industry to a new low for modern times; and all for nothing. In so doing, it has set back gambling’s political engagement (not great at the best of times) by years, undermining the potential for any positive reform (which ironically, LBOs need more than most) and increasing the threat level of future interventions, in our view. This low has no doubt been reinforced by Crouch’s ‘alternative facts’ on suicide turning into a tragic reality for one FOBT player who reportedly lost more than £25k in one night before taking his own life – though after playing the machine in a casino, not a betting shop.

Perhaps the most ironic aspect of this week’s political shambles is that (as Nils Pratley observed astutely in the Guardian this week) it has happened in spite of what a number of the UK industry’s major operators have been working towards. It is a mark of how far we have come that some of the biggest figures in the industry today – Sky Betting & Gaming’s Richard Flint, Paddy Power Betfair’s Peter Jackson, GVC’s Kenny Alexander and William Hill’s Philip Bowcock – are now amongst the leading champions of the need for reform.

In stark contrast to the situation just three years ago, most of our industry leaders now seem to ‘get it’. Unfortunately, this age of enlightenment was preceded by a rather different era in which Gambling Inc’s leaders sent forth a legion of lobbyists – some of whom carried on fighting once the retreat had been sounded – and that damage is still being done.

Indeed, the current shambles is worse than the super casino debacle of 2005 to 2007 (which we had thought was the mess to end all gambling messes) because it infects the industry at large rather than just a single sector (whatever distance various sub-sectors believe sits between them and FOBTs – nuances most commentators are uninterested in, especially given the level of petty infighting, childish lobbying and truth-stretching involved).

In the short-term, companies need to be on their guard for aftershocks (as happened in the 2007 to 2009 era). At the same time, our industry needs to earn its right to be taken seriously again and this calls for the recognition that more lobbying or that old canard, “better PR” emphatically is not the answer.

Equally importantly, exporting bad commercial gambling management in the hope driving geographic diversity (or swerving stricter governance) of has also proved an abject failure – with the list of international backlashes growing and not a few of them triggered by UK-centric and/or .com businesses (it is worth considering the impact of all this international noise and regulatory tightening on more moderate German Minister Presidents, for example).

Across geographies and subsectors, this is a time to put aside petty grievances and narrow interest in favour of the greater good. As we wrote last week, it is a time to stop whining and to ask not what the country can do for us but what we can do for the country – which ever country gambling operators hope to build a sustainable future in. The alternative –  as British bookmakers and a material number of other narrow-minded, mudslinging subsectors have just shown – is to ruin the chances for positive reform for all stakeholders for the foreseeable future…

UK: in Parliament – All the Fun of the Fair
Outside the ‘big top’ event of the Government’s embarrassing climb-down on FOBTs, there was a range of smaller amusements for gambling in Westminster this week that signal just how far-reaching the industry’s political travails have now become.

The Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson staged the most colourful of these sideshows. The Honourable Member for West Bromwich East had got wind of a meeting between the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright (Cons, ) and two of Parliament’s keenest race-goers, Philip Davies (Cons, Shipley) and Laurence Robertson (Cons, Tewkesbury) on 10th October this year. Smelling a rat, Watson got on the case, submitting a slew of Parliamentary Questions (answered by Wright on this occasion with rare alacrity).

The Culture Secretary admitted that the question of stake reduction on FOBTs had been discussed at the meeting and stressed that “appropriate arrangements” had been in place to ensure fair play. Wright refused to divulge further details from the meeting, which probably suited Watson just fine; the intimation of shady dealings with the betting industry was enough for now.

Sir David Evenett (Cons, Bexleyheath and Crayford) put in a brief a cameo by quizzing what DCMS was doing “to support people with a gambling addiction” while at the same time asking the Department of Health and Social Care what assessment it had made of NHS effectiveness in helping such people. Evenett held the sports (and gambling) brief for a period in 2016 while Tracey Crouch (Cons, Chatham and Aylesford) was on maternity leave and since his return to the back benches has been one of the more engaged members of his party on matters of gambling policy. His brush with the gambling industry appears to have left its mark.

The pressure group, Gambling with Lives (set up by the bereaved parents of young men with gambling problems who took their own lives) held its official Parliamentary launch on Tuesday. The Suicide Prevention Minister, Jackie Doyle-Price delivered a speech at the event which was also attended by a number of prominent Conservatives, including former party Leader, Iain Duncan Smith, Tracey Crouch, Philip Davies and Lord Chadlington (in addition to MPs from other parties such as Tom Watson). The rise of the gambling concern lobby within the Tory party – and their focus on severe harms – is perhaps the most alarming development for the industry at large in recent years.

Elsewhere, there were additional Parliamentary Questions (now presumably redundant) on FOBTs as well as continuing pressure from Ben Bradley (Lab, Oldham and Royton) on the timing of society lottery reform.

With the Statutory Instrument to reduce maximum stakes on FOBTs expected next week, we may expect further criticism of Government policy on gambling and more industry disparagement.

Meanwhile, the remote industry will be on notice that the bookie-bashing Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Rev Alan Smith has now set his sights on “current rules governing the taxation of offshore gambling businesses used by citizens of the UK”, which is presumably aimed at input VAT exemptions enjoyed by many (but certainly not all) remote operators. That particular debate is set for 27th November. Despite the best efforts of the industry’s CEO peace-makers, the current conflict that gambling finds itself in is unlikely to be “over by Christmas”.

UK: Regulation – Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself
Britain’s gambling industry felt the long arm of Gambling Commission enforcement this week as one operator was “spanked” (to use the current parlance) and an entire sector was shamed.

Stride Gaming copped to a £7.1m fine from the Gambling Commission for failings in its anti-money laundering and social responsibility duties. The company had indicated that they might take the fight to the Commission but ultimately appear to have decided that it was not worth the risk.

Stride’s public announcement contained elements of contrition but also a feistiness that we have not seen expressed so publicly of late. The company indicated that, in its view, the penalty was disproportionate (having in mind a £4m themselves) as the failings were procedural in nature with no evidence of actual harm arising.

While it is important to the functioning of the market that enforcement is robust, it is also critical that the regulator is perceived to be fair (something that the Commission’s CEO, Neil McArthur stressed at last week’s Raising Standards conference). Stride has given voice to a concern shared more widely (in private) by licensees – companies are afraid of challenging their regulator even when they think that events stray to the rough side of justice. This is a worrying (and fairly recent) development and one that needs to be nixed sooner rather than later.

Elsewhere, the pubs sector was roundly (and rightly if reports are correct) lambasted for shocking failures on age verification for the play of Cat C machines. The Gambling Commission reported an 89% failure rate on test purchasing for machines play in pubs.

The pubs sector lobbied for machine enhancements in the last triennial review and certain operators have been fiercely critical of machine play in betting shops. While pub operators are not licensees themselves, the Commission’s review suggests that now might be a good time for critical self-examination.

US: sportsbetting – back to the new normal
October’s sports betting data demonstrated a continuation of handle momentum, up 41% to US$261m, but with settled gross margins ‘normalising’ to materially below long-term run rates from September’s highs (to 3.2%), leading to an 56% MoM decline in settled revenue to US$8.3m (as well as a substantial drop in handle futures mix to 0.4% now that the sports season is in full swing). Implied run-rate online annual revenue is therefore c. US$100m (on normalised margins). This should not surprise, but should pull back some of the more bullish Year 1 expectations being generated off the back of supernormal September results; with margin swings mattering far more to short-term performance even than basketball coming onstream.

Market share continues to demonstrate the locational advantage of Meadowlands (39% landbased share) and the first mover advantage of DraftKings (taking the vast majority of 60% digital share, along with BetStars).  While the former is likely to be sustainable for as long as New York does not offer sports betting (and bet365 has positioned itself in that potential market this week with Empire Resorts), the latter is already slipping materially (by 7ppts, with DK market share likely to be lower due to BS gains), and is likely to continue to do so as new supply comes onstream and harder gamblers (likely to be the vast majority of the current online market) test more sites.

Italy: gambling reputation – Mafia thriving in ‘regulated’ gambling jurisdictions?
Italian police have arrested 68 people and seized c. €1bn of assets across 12 counties in closing down an illegal gambling ring running parallel to online and landbased CTD operations. While there was an (almost inevitable) connection with Malta, the MGA seems to have been a key agent in the bust and relations with the Italian authorities seem more cooperative than confrontational this time (extensive links were also reportedly found to Curacao).

However, generally compliant POS online and agent-led gambling businesses have attempted for some time to lobby that their businesses are completely unsuitable for organised crime and money laundering, which evidence such as this (and elsewhere globally) rather challenges (especially to politicians not looking for nuance).

Keeping crime out of gambling is typically licensing objective number one for most authorities (it certainly wouldn’t be fair or safe otherwise) and is often the genesis of gambling legislation and regulation. In this sense, light touch and porous regimes can be the worst enemy of legitimate sector stakeholders due to the levels of political backlash they can invite when serial abuses are discovered. As with safer gambling, the old .com (or lightly regulated domestic) lobbying approach of ‘there is no problem to solve here’ will no longer cut it for increasingly savvy regulators and law enforcement, as well as increasingly nervous and impatient politicians…

Switzerland: online gaming regulation – magpies will have to become cuckoos…
Switzerland is on track to provide a POC gaming market only for landbased casinos from January 2019, after passing the required secondary regulation. While the regulatory framework may provide some opportunities for online businesses as online partners for Switzerland’s 21 casinos (€600m revenue), the legislative change will almost certainly be severely disruptive for a large number of DACH-facing .com operators (especially if there is evidence that Swiss players have been targeted directly, which will fall foul of a bad actor clause similar to the Netherlands approach), with the Swiss gaming market likely worth c. €160m when the legislation comes into force.

Rather like with Australia, compliance is likely to be patchy (especially initially), but most operators (and suppliers) serious about regulation are likely to have to stop supporting the .com market from next year. With US hype especially (but not solely) forcing an increasing number of operators to observe laws they might not like or agree with (or operationally feel they can get around), Switzerland represents another example of .com market sustainability being threatened.

Grey market revenue might be high margin and entirely legitimate (while it, and its supply chain is truly just grey), but it is a revenue stream which is being increasingly threatened not only on its own terms but as a stark choice between money now or an entry ticket into regulated markets with a far less certain financial return.   

Global: M&A Watch – summary
Greektown Casino Hotel in Detroit has been sold to VICI Properties and Penn National Gaming for US$1bn. VICI acquires the land and buildings for US$700m and Penn acquires the casino operating assets for US$300m
Vereeni Investments and RB Capital are to acquire 20% in HD digital casino and slots developer Kalamba Games

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