January 24, 2013 10:58 pm

EU chips away at Greek gambling monopoly

Online gambling companies have received a fillip after a European court partially struck down Greece’s gambling monopoly in a ruling which could ease the expansion of internet betting across national borders.

In a case brought by the UK-based companies Stanleybet, William Hill and Sportingbet against OPAP, the partly state-owned gambling monopoly, the European Union’s Court of Justice said that OPAP had over-reached in the local gambling market and violated EU law, which forbids laws granting monopoly gambling rights unless they also restrict the opportunities to bet.

In a statement William Hill said it was delighted with the ruling. “We are delighted that a free market approach has been adopted towards licensed and responsible companies who are being unfairly kept outside of the current Greek market,” said a company spokesperson.

Greece, which plans to privatise its minority stake in OPAP this year, had argued that the monopoly was necessary to combat illegal gambling.

Clive Hawkswood, chief executive of the Remote Gambling Association, said the decision had far-reaching implications.

“Practically what it does is put pressure on the Greek government to open up the licensing regime and end their monopoly,” he said. “It’s significant beyond Greece because what the court is saying to other countries with gambling monopolies is that there is a red line you can’t cross – you can have a monopoly, but its got to confirm with EU rules.”

Uncertain regulation at a state level and bruising competition from national gambling monopolies have long been a bug-bear for online gambling companies’ expansion.

In November Betfair withdrew from Greece, where it was generating £13m of annual revenue, amid fears of possible criminal lawsuits from the country’s government. Betfair had already exited Germany and Cyprus earlier in the year.

Sigrid Ligne, secretary-general of European Gaming & Betting Association, said the court had limited state monopolies’ scope.

“This is a hint that monopolies are not necessarily in the best interests of consumers,” she said. “The ruling narrows the room for manoeuvre for the monopoly approach, even if on paper members states can still have one in place.”

Separately London-listed Ladbrokes said it had agreed to acquire Ireland-based Betdaq, the betting exchange operator, for €30m split between cash and shares. The price is equivalent to nearly 11 times Betdaq’s 2012 earnings.

Ladbrokes said it would also pay an additional €4m for a 10 per cent stake in TBH Guernsey Limited, Betdaq’s technology provider.

Ladbrokes’ shares closed up 3.3 per cent, or 6.7p, to 206.1p. Opap closed 11 per cent down in Athens.

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