It wasn’t meant to be like this. Online gaming and gambling executives from across Europe, lured to Barcelona for a three-day conference, had been eagerly anticipating insights from experts on “Gaining a Competitive Edge” and “Turning It Up”.
All that fell apart before they had even arrived, after the US – the biggest market in what had become a $12bn success story – toughened its laws on online gambling. A mood of depression, as grim as the inclement Catalan weather, cast a pall over an industry whose leading operators had lost up to two-thirds of their stock market value after the US crackdown. WorldGaming’s collapse into administration on Friday only added to the gloom.
The industry’s brashness, induced by headline-grabbing IPOs and rocketing share prices, has gone. Those who have been bravely talking of fresh starts and new markets are uncertain of their ground.
The technology opportunities and the new games on show barely registered. Instead, the views of lawyers and regulators on the implications of the bill President Bush is due to sign shortly became the must-have currency. But that most of them confessed they could only guess at where the grey area of the law would next take the sector.
There were rallying cries at the start of the conference for a co-ordinated industry voice on regulation and public awareness. But by Friday, splits were emerging between the publicly-listed heavyweights and their smaller, private rivals.
It appeared by Friday’s conference finale that the entire listed sector had left the US, with Sportingbet finally following the lead of PartyGaming, 888 Holdings, Playtech and others in announcing it was quitting, rather than twisting , in the US.
But there were clear signs of private companies doing the opposite. PokerStars, which has been PartyGaming’s main US rival, took a pass on the legislation and said it would carry on trading there – much to the evident fury of Mitch Garber, PartyGaming’s chief executive.
“It’s very brave for private operators not to think they will be pursued,” he told the conference. “People are way overconfident about their ability to integrate the law.”
What they should do, he urged, is share the legal and lobbying load with the listed sector. Public companies like PartyGaming had built this industry, he said. They had fought off past anti-gambling moves on the sector and had “financed everybody in the industry until today”, said Mr Garber. “Now we all have to take responsibility.”
He warned he would compete “very aggressively” with private companies – before admitting that he didn’t know how.
“These are just big companies bullying little guys like us to stop trading,” hissed one woman in the audience.
Eduardo Agami, chief executive of Costa Rica-based sports book operator SPG Global, was put up to represent those “little guys” planning to stay at the table.
Claiming to represent a number of companies in the Costa Rica gaming industry, Mr Agami said that while he was aware of the legal risks in US, he had fought to get the company to where it was today “and I am not prepared to walk away from it just like that”.
Carrying on in the US, he continued, didn’t have to involve subterfuge or going underground, which is widely assumed to be the destiny of the US market.
“I candidly believe I am going to be a CEO of a publicly-listed company,” Mr Agami said.
“It’s not as great as it seems,” Mr Garber responded, sending the audience into a collective belly laugh.
Where were the crumbs of comfort? Several executives talked optimistically about the UK, launching a regulated gambling market next year, providing a protective cloak of respectability in the event of further US federal and state prosecution of UK executives stepping gingerly on US soil. The pros of operating in unregulated markets in continental Europe and Asia were talked up more than the cons.
And there was always the hope that a Democratic clean-sweep in the November congressional elections would turn the tide towards regulation in the US.
John Anderson, chief executive of 888, gave his view of such rose-tinted optimism. “I wouldn’t hold your breath,” he said.