Winning Post – The impact of heightened regulations

UK:  B2 impact – the sound of scraping…

With Britain’s B2 ban now formally enacted into law (see below), the first practical signs of impact (beyond PR and lobbying) are starting to be felt. So far, these have been seen in machine contracts, rental pleas, horseracing funding and M&A. This list is likely to grow as April approaches and then impact occurs. We therefore consider the key likely impacts in the first year of seismic change to British high street gambling.

The most heavily analysed (and/or guessed at) impact has focussed upon revenue and shop closures. We retain our view that c. 3,000 shops are likely to close as a direct result over the next c. three years (net of the c. 500 already gone), with a further 1,000 put at high risk but potentially saved by the redistribution of footfall. This is likely to leave a c. £1bn hole in the £3.3bn industry, more than halving profits for the rump estates (indeed, the most profitable shops are likely to be the biggest EBITDA swing factors for estates: a £120k contribution shop could be reduced to c. £30k, whereas a £10k shop will simply close). We see no ‘hidden upside’ here for existing operators, with the industry’s track record on mitigation extremely weak since the fondly remembered (by too many senior retail managers) but largely irrelevant 1990s (we would also be surprised if more than £200m finds its way online – a c. 3% potential remote boost likely lost in the roundings of slowing overall growth).  

The biggest shock caused by April implementation will fall harder on the machine supply chain than the LBOs, in our view – and it is perhaps no surprise therefore that PP’s contract with Inspired . This is because while c. 33% of an LBO’s revenue is being switched off, it is closer to 66% for the machine suppliers, largely on variable rates. Further, while shop closures can represent significant cost mitigation for estates, they represent a loss of revenue and a loss of servicing/replacement productivity for suppliers: the drip feed of closures across the country (on a month by month view) could make pro-active cost cutting very challenging, in our view. The hidden opportunity here is for strong B3 content, we believe – drawing on a materially wider supply chain than current B2/3.

Operators are already hoping to pass on some of the pain, with William Hill reportedly writing to landlords explaining the issue and hoping for flexibility. Landlords (as a group) have done pretty well out of LBO clustering onto the high-street and away from tertiary locations; but estates with strong locations have managed LfL property costs well – WH’s property cost CAGR is only 1.6% in 10 years (on an almost identically sized estate). Equally, the loss of c. 1,000 retail premises per year out of a system already losing c. 6,000 pa is only likely to make a difference at local levels. It is of course logical to ask, but rental mitigation is likely only to occur where there is a bigger long-term problem: lower retail footfall.  

Racing is a big cost centre to LBOs, with a total content cost ofc. £30-35k per unit, largely fixed, and with horseracing representing the majority of this (just) – with costs increasing above inflation for a decade while retail revenue from racing decreased. In other words, racing has been a big beneficiary of FOBTs, albeit not in a directly planned manner. The fixed cost per shop model is showing signs of creaking (eg, the TRP-LCL deal), but remains the standard model – a model which is likely to force more closures and therefore reduce racing’s income even more than the resultant loss in overall retail racing revenue (the Levy, as a volume measure, is much more protected from disruption). This pressure has already caused ARC to announce a cut in Prize Money of £3.1m next year (potentially leading to £4m more if BHA rules on matching are followed), while the Jockey Club has announced no increase (for the first time in 10 years), with a possible reduction if the FOBT impact is worse than expected. Given that ARC is a commercial organisation that will not comfortably run at a loss – and is also (far) more reliant on media rights than courses with higher quality races (non-levy and media revenue per fixture is only c. 25-30% that of the Jockey Club) – this reaction is both logical and predictable (however “disgusted” some stakeholders may feel). However, ARC’s ‘decision’ (Hobson’s choice) is likely to hit the lowest value races hardest due to the nature of ARC’s fixtures (which are in turn more relevant to bookmakers than horsemen or racegoers) – making relatively small changes in the scheme of things (c. 2-5% of a system-wide prize money pot that has shown healthy growth) have a disproportionate impact on elements of a fragile ecosystem. Herein lies both a problem and a potential answer – if funding for the bookmaking product unravels the fastest, it might either accelerate the demise of both retail bookmaking and ‘race-to-race’ punting; or lead to some much-needed creative thinking (the jury is still out on which way this goes).

Finally, some silver lining (of sorts). BoyleSports has confirmed that it is in advanced talks to acquire its first UK LBOs. BoyleSports is used to a highly competitive and completely betting oriented shop landscape in Ireland (the proving ground of PP) – that it feels that is can create a business amid the chaos (and let’s not forget Brexit for an Irish business as well as the B2 ban), rooted in what betting shops were originally for, should give some hope that the LBO is not dead – though whether this hope is worth anything more than a further threat to UK majors which have spent a management generation growing fat off FOBTs to the near total neglect of betting (ex SSBTs) remains to be seen…

UK: In Parliament – B2 not to be

The end, when it came was a rather quiet affair. On Monday, in the relatively modest surroundings of Committee Room 11 within the Palace of Westminster, the Delegated Legislation Committee approved the Statutory Instrument to reduce the maximum stake on FOBTs (across more than 8,000 betting shops and a number of casinos) from £100 to £2. The coup de grace was delivered the next day as the House of Lords approved the motion.

It was a rather anti-climactic end to the charmed life of the high-stakes, high street roulette machine. It is now more than 17 years since Gordon Brown (the notionally puritanical ‘Son of the Manse’) inadvertently breathed life into the terminals by changing the basis of betting duty from turnover to gross profits (a sensible reform in all other respects); it is around 15 years since the old Gaming Board of Great Britain sought to take their case against the machines to court (losing their nerve along the way).

Throughout that period – and particularly during the course of the last six years – the public policy debate over the machines has been characterised by high emotion, a blatant disregard for facts (by all sides), vicious industry in-fighting and inept handling by a succession of governments.

During Tuesday’s debate in the House of Lords, the betting shop sector’s erstwhile ally Lord Lipsey delivered a damning indictment of its handling of the issue, saying: “This has been a complete shambles by the bookmakers. I spent some time trying to persuade them that they had to take a more flexible approach and find something acceptable to everyone by way of a stake—and I wasted many hours of my time talking to them because of their sheer greed.” He then added: “They should have woken up much earlier—instead of which they went on trying to make as much money as possible for as long as possible and have now found that instead of the half a loaf that they might have had, they have merely a shrivelled, dried-out crust in the shops.”

One might imagine that with friends like these, enemies are surplus to requirements. However, on important matters, a true friend may sometimes need to present the truth unvarnished. Lord Lipsey’s excoriating attack on the betting lobby offers important insights for all.

Whether required or not, the gambling industry does however have a growing legion of parliamentary foes (some driven by conviction; other perhaps by opportunism). Unsurprisingly, a number of peers (Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and DUP) used the debate on FOBTs to switch focus to what they perceive to be the ills of remote gambling as well as the need for a levy to raise funds for research, education and treatment.

Lord Griffiths of Burry Port (Lab) expressed a view that is gaining in currency in Parliament – that we may have to think again about gambling legislation in Great Britain: “So much is happening piecemeal across the whole range of gambling initiatives; we are tinkering with this here and that there, and perhaps now it is time for us to take a generic look. Perhaps this statutory instrument can be seen as a first blast in a bigger action that could lead to a better understanding and a far better set of regulations for our society at large.”

Labour has already pledged to bring in a new Gambling Act once installed in Government and on Thursday, the party’s Deputy Leader Tom Watson announced Dr James Noyes, formerly of the think tank Respublica would lead the legislative review process. The news may cause consternation within the industry given his work while at Respublica on FOBTs, online gambling and advertising. However, his article in the New Statesman in October did call for legislative reform to be “a collective endeavour”, involving the industry; an invitation that operators would do well to embrace.

Reform is not the preserve of the Labour Party with the Church of England also planning to set up an investigation into the reforms of the Gambling Act 2005; and there are rumours of an attempt to establish a committee of inquiry in the Lords. How these different reviews will be coordinated is anyone’s guess – but it all points to a busy (and potentially messy) 2019.

The present administration certainly does not want new primary legislation. The next triennial review ought to commence in January – but there is no chance of this happening (it is not even clear whether the principle of the three-year cycle has survived given the painful nature of the last review).

Most operators probably fear that they have more to lose than to gain from a legislative rethink. However, we are now almost 18 years on from the Budd Report and root and branch reviews do tend to come along every 20 to 25 year. Considering how to approach an official review as well as how to engage with the growing number of non-official inquiries ought to be a priority for our major licensees in 2019.

Elsewhere, there were fresh Parliamentary Questions from Labour’s Lord Lipsey and Conor McGinn (St Helens North) on Government plans to revise the horseracing levy. Meanwhile, Preet Kaur Gill (Lab, Edgbaston) inquired about links between scratchard play by children and problem gambling and whether the minimum age for purchase would be raised to 18; and the wonderfully named Thangam Debbonaire (Lab, Bristol West) probed on the regulation of video games with gambling elements.

Looking ahead to 2019, the bookie bashing Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Rev Alan Smith has put down an early marker of intent by securing a debate (oral PQ) on child gambling for 15th January. The very next day, Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate will lead a debate on whether gambling advertising should be banned (whether outright or in part is unclear; a full ban would effectively prohibit online gambling) “to counter negative effects on younger and vulnerable people”. Lord Kirkhope had ministerial responsibility for gambling (and horseracing) during his time at the Home Office in the mid-90s and may well yearn for a return to an era when gambling was an activity to be tolerated rather than encouraged.

This has been a busy and bruising year in Parliament for both the gambling industry and for the Government. There are signs that the industry is starting to get a better grip on matters (through concerted efforts to address harm and better inter-sector coordination) – but it will take time to repair the damage and, if anything, the year ahead looks even more challenging.

UK: Regulation – Bad Lads

The Guardian’s story on Monday that Ladbrokes had paid hush money to a problem gambler and those he stole from in return for non-disclosure agreements may – if substantiated – have profound consequences for one of Britain’s biggest operators.

There are a number of important questions to be considered (if indeed the reports are accurate): did the inappropriate “wooing” of a VIP customer occur before Point of Consumption licensing kicked in, late in 2014? Did therefore the Gambling Commission have jurisdiction at the time? What was the Gambling Commission told? Do the NDAs (if indeed they exist) constitute a cover-up? Were the NDAs uncovered by Coral’s and GVC’s management in due diligence during subsequent takeovers? If so, what were their reporting obligations?

As US President Richard Nixon learned all too painfully, there is no sin so damaging as the one that is unsuccessfully covered up. In gambling terms in Great Britain, this is one of the grounds for licence revocation (although personal management licences appear far more likely targets than operating licences).  We must hope that the allegations are wide of the mark. If not, then the swingeing sanctions suffered by some operators of late may well come to be seen as mere wrist-slaps.

UK: Regulation – Good Lads

GVC’s announcement this week that its Ladbrokes shops in Northern Ireland would voluntarily lower maximum stakes on FOBTs to £2 may just about be the smartest thing that anyone has done in the politics of gambling this year (a position publicly and shrewdly supported by GVC’s main FOBT supplier, Scientific Games).

There was a level of disquiet about the fact that Northern Ireland (where gambling legislation is a devolved matter and the legal status of FOBTs has long been controversial) would be the last bastion of the £100 high street roulette machine in the UK – particularly with the Democratic Unionists. However, there was no great pressure on the industry (yet) to address the issue.

The fact that GVC drew warm words from otherwise cantankerous peers in this week’s debate in the House of Lords suggests that it is still possible for operators to get a fair hearing and credit for doing the right thing. This will hopefully provide a lesson both to encouraging operators’ good behaviour and recognising that behaviour in terms of a balanced rather than kneejerk view from lawmakers.

US: online gaming regulation – Michigan motoring

Michigan could be the third state to offer a material online gaming market (with Nevada and Delaware struggling to justify that definition, on our view) after an enabling bill has got as far as the governor in last minute 2018 legislation. The bill will allow for casino games including (but not limited to) poker and potentially also sports betting. The proposed tax regime is a highly benign 8% GGR – 11ppts lower than landbased equivalents, with licenses restricted to three commercial casinos and 24 tribal properties (at a cost of U$300,000 initially and US$100,000 pa thereafter for operators, half for B2B). Michigan’s commercial operators are Caesars, MGM and an independent, meaning that GVC is the only online operator with any kind of head start in the market through recent deal positioning.

Michigan has a population approaching 10m and we believe that a relatively mature online gaming market (c. year 3-4) could be worth c. US$500m in revenue terms – a material addition to US$1.4bn of commercial casino gambling and US$1.5bn tribal revenue already present, assuming there are no significant impediments to online participation.  However, given that Michigan’s bill explicitly allows for online gaming customers to be accepted from other online-enabled states and (probably critically, given the state gambling make-up) enables Indian casinos to participate across state from tribal lands, the DoJ’s potential further reinterpretation of the Wire Act might prove especially sensitive.

US: landbased betting – Hollywood blockbuster?

Pennsylvania’s first two weeks of landbased betting have provided exceptionally strong revenue figures in the busiest period of the US sporting calendar, with US$509k revenue reported from just one site (Hollywood, Penn National) from 15 to 30 November. The 35% gross win ratio suggests similar revenue definition problems as NJ, but handle of US$1.4bn is nevertheless highly encouraging. However, to put this into context, if the handle were factored to an average month, grossed up for the year and then a 6% normalised win margin applied, then the initial revenue run rate would be c. U$1.3m – solid, but far less exciting.

The early statistics for both NJ and now PA suggest two things to us. First, looking at revenue per sportsbook in the only major US market with any official pedigree (NV) is somewhat misleading – even in Clark County – given the very large number of premises and the itinerant nature of most footfall. Good casinos with strong footfall elsewhere than Nevada seem more than capable of generating revenues from sportsbooks in the low single digit US$ millions (ie, destination venues for both locals and tourists – especially the former, somewhat thin on the ground on the Vegas strip). However, – and second – while this is operationally positive, there is not yet much evidence that supports casino revenue from sportsbook growing a significant quantum above this figure (as discussed in WP’s passim we see NJ racetracks very near NYC as unique – normalised NJ run-rates for casinos average at US$2.7m pa). While by no means disappointing, therefore, we still see a tendency to over-hype US landbased sportsbook potential in casinos beyond a welcome operational boost to revenue and – more importantly – as a wider footfall driver.

Nordic: regulation – courting controversy?

Three separate issues in two Nordic countries have taken legal turns this week. The first was a Swedish court’s refusal to hear Swedish Football’s case to limit betting events on soccer contests via a restrictive ‘catalogue’ similar in form (but potentially even tighter in substance) to those run by Portugal and France. That the market will remain liberal in this context is critical for the smooth transitioning from .com to POC with minimal dislocation and leakage. However, the fact that Swedish football has this view should not be ignored by Sweden’s growing number of licensees, in our view – it might have failed this time, but a big integrity scandal and/or a swathe of ‘irresponsible’ advertising to welcome domestic licensing could put demands back on the political agenda in a much less forgiving environment.

Also in Sweden, the advertising regulator is taking an operator to court over ‘immoderate advertising’. That the advertising regulator is prepared to get stuck in so early should suggest that the Swedish market is likely to be effectively policed, which, given additional restrictions on bonuses, is likely to cool off some of the over-trading seen historically, in our view. These regulatory steps within the new licensing framework, combined with additional significant gaming competition from (highly effective) monopolies, suggests any hopes of significant online gaming growth due to ‘reregulation’ for new licensed Swedish .com operators (seemingly shared by most) are dangerously misplaced, in our view.

A subsidiary of Kindred is also taking to the courts in Norway over the regulator’s (successful) pressure to remove gambling apps from app stores and limit payment processing options (as well as cutting TV advertising). There is a dangerous risk of damned either way here, which operators do not seem to have learnt from other jurisdictions. It is possible that the Norwegian Gaming Authority has overstepped its statutory powers, but it seems to have strong political backing for its actions. The result of a successful legal case from Kindred could very well therefore be appeal and government action to tighten the regulator’s powers. Test cases are important to clarify the law and the imposition of ad hoc actions or over-mighty actions should of course be challenged – but in Norway, this could very well be (yet another) case of beware of what you wish for in a highly lucrative ‘dark grey’ jurisdiction.

Romania: duty regime – sin tax error

Romania is close to passing swingeing retroactive (but not ‘back’!) tax changes to a number of sectors, including gambling. Since 2016, Romania has been a relatively liberal online market from a fiscal-regulatory standpoint, as well as supporting a dynamic landbased industry (in places). However, the ruling SDP has become increasingly ‘anti big business’ (including gambling) since the premiership of Viorica Dăncilă in early 2018. A “greed tax” grab to fund public services (in a fiscally challenging environment) is proving popular, with gambling in line to contribute 3% of retail turnover and 5% online (presumably seen as more “greedy”, likely due to higher international mix, more advertising and fewer jobs created, despite lower gross margins significantly increasing the underlying rate of turnover tax in any event).

If enacted as planned, the turnover taxes will force a significant re-engineering of the online market from a pricing perspective as well as a requiring a both heavy and unexpected further cost of participation (likely causing some smaller and/or structurally lower margin operators to pull out). However, the overall impact is unlikely to be as terminal for the overall market as some are lobbying (Germany makes a 5% betting tax work for most operators – including bet365, which has had its own challenging regulatory history with Romania), though if applied to gaming this would cause structural problems. The much bigger problem, in our view, is that if an EU government gets away with such a loose application of the rule of law, it is likely to set a very dangerous (and undoubtedly recurring) regional precedent.

International: Tennis – second service

The Independent Tennis Review Panel has delivered its final report after a two-year analysis and subsequent consultation. The report was commissioned by the International Governing Bodies of Tennis (ATP, WTA, ITF, Grand Slam Board) in order to assess risks to integrity and the processes of investigation and prosecution.

The key recommendations include the advised discontinuance of supply of official scoring data in respect of ITF World Tennis Tour US$15k tournaments (due to the identified greater risk to the probity of this level of tournament), which (significantly) now allows official data for US$25k tournaments, in an amendment to the original “Recommendation 1” (recognising a gateway to professional tennis and capturing a material number of additional matches). Bookmakers are also requested to cooperate with the Tennis Integrity Unit by not offering odds on these tournaments (in an attempt the prevent the supply of unofficial data), to be reinforced by suggested contractual obligations for receiving official data and disruption measures. The International Governing Bodies are also to consider whether to accept sponsorship from betting companies, which could further be applied to players.

In terms of ‘internal’ recommendations, the TIU is to appoint an Independent Advisory Board, including an independent chair and four other members, with additional representation of the one person per International Governing Body with the recommendation of a more diverse group of representatives. Improvements are recommended to be made to the investigation processes of the TIU, including in-house betting expert resource. It is also suggested that more effective betting market monitoring may be required.

As well as removing official data coverage at the lowest levels of tennis, the IRP recommends strengthening player education, incentives and court security in order to mitigate both integrity risk and player-related harm.

Regulus Partners acted as betting expert advisor to the Independent Review Panel

International: eSports betting – in search of the unicorn?

Unikrn is pushing a number of tech and regulatory boundaries with a blockchain-based in-game eSports betting product which allows gamers to bet upon the likelihood of their own success in completing levels, tasks etc in-game. The solution resolves a number of liquidity-led and market-making issues and so is an important product innovation in potentially taking eSports betting to a wider audience (beyond all the hype). However, its core premise is that it is entirely skills based – which is the basis for it to be offered in 41 US states (broadly following DFS) – a premise likely to be tested in substance in terms of underlying game mechanics and in spirit in terms of the number of (point of consumption) regulators (and US lawmakers) becoming increasingly concerned about gambling within and around video games. Equally, as has been seen from social gaming, a premise which allows gambling by not being gambling can allow for regulations such as those protecting minors to be sidestepped by operators so inclined. Unikrn’s latest innovation may therefore become a victim of its own success…

Global: M&A – summary

  • Bridgepoint has made a US$1billion bid to take over Cherry AB.
  • Golden Entertainment Inc is to acquire two casinos, Colorado Belle & Edgewater, from orwell Gaming in a deal worth US$190m.
  • RK Capital Management LLC has purchased a further 12.4% of Golden Entertainment Inc.
  • Breaking Data Corp completed its acquisition of Oryx Gaming. The new entity will be Bragg Gaming Group Inc.
  • MGM Growth Properties LLC has signed a deal to pay MGM Resorts International US$637.5m for the repositioning and investment of the Park MGM and NoMad Las Vegas.
  • MICT, Brookfield Interactive (hong Kong) Ltd and Paragon Ex have agreed to merge. The new entity is Global Finch Holdings.
  • Blockchain Innovations Corp has acquired The Games Company

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