iGB Diary: Calvin Ayre, Stars Italy, WSOP bucket list, Vegas outa' weed, bonus tax, UKGC means business and Russell - you got the love!

21 July 2017

Ola igamers! It's Friday and the iGB Diary is gearing up for its Summer sports day, can it take the pressure? You bet, we'll be first at the bar as soon as the damn thing is over! We've got another busy Diary full of lunchtime goodness for you. This week: Calvin Ayre-US resolution, Stars lead Italy, WSOP bucket list, Vegas outa' weed, bonus tax, UKGC boss means business and Russell Mifsud - you got the love! Enjoy! 

Calvin Ayre resolution
So Calvin Ayre is now free to do what he wants, when he wants and wherever he wants following the US dropping all charges against the Bodog founder at the end of last week. In return he has agreed to forego any claim he had on the US$66m that belonged mainly to US punters and were seized by federal prosecutors from Bodog payment processors in a forfeiture proceeding related to the case. He is now free to travel where he wants, including Canada, his home country, and, presumably, the US. To be fair, Ayre has never given the impression the US charges against him bothered him that much, but it must have done. And it must be a serious weight, albeit at serious cost, off his shoulders. We liked the Shawshank Redemption mock up (picture, right) from his employees, is Calvin redeemed though?  

Italy: shooting for the Stars
The headline development from the second instalment of our exclusive Italian data partnership with Ficom was that PokerStars (paywall), two years after launching online casino there, was now the market leader in that vertical too, overtaking Lottomatica and its fellow sports betting-led retail incumbents. In a statement, Stars credited features such as its Millionaire’s Island progressive jackpot, and unveiled plans to add more games, enhance the VIP program, expand acquisition efforts, and introduce an improved mobile casino app. It also mentioned that it had already gone live with new cross-vertical loyalty program Stars Rewards, the next step in the ongoing transition from poker-focused business to getting recreational and new players to play across all three verticals. In its recent Q1s, Amaya boss Rafi Ashkenazi mentioned the group’s success in cross-selling casino to its poker base, “with about one-third of them already playing casino”, and that with no deferred payment on the Amaya-Stars acquisition to make from July onwards, they may reinvest the cash into marketing for casino and sports, with casino commanding around a third of that. “Our marketing budget is approximately 13% of our NGR. If you look at other operators in our industry, everyone [else] is more than 20%, 23%, 24%, 22%. We still have a lot of room to grow here,” he said. Indeed, if one looks at the UK, sportsbooks have failed to grow gaming at the same rate as betting (Paddy Power Betfair grew gaming by just 2% in Q1 compared to 33% for sports), could we see Stars translate its poker dominance into casino? Its 70% share of tournaments and 43% of cash games in Italy gave it substantial leverage, but as Ashkenazi made clear, it has barely got started in the casino vertical, admitting it first needs to build stronger affiliate and VIP progammes to allow them to effectively target casino-first customers before making an all-out assault on casino. Watch this space.

Gaming bonus tax: ignore or embrace?
With the new tax on gaming bonuses, including free spins, set to come into force next month, time is running out for that section of UK operators focusing on getting the biggest volume of players through the doors before the tax hits. While the impact on their overall bottom line remains to be seen, the alternative approach being taken by others, such as exploring the possibility of affiliates and content providers absorbing some of the hit, will surely work out to be the most sensible and sustainable approach in the long-run. Read the full analysis (paywall). 

From Hull… to Vegas
Staying on a poker tip, kudos goes to Yorkshire grandfather John Hesp who stumped up US$10,000 to enter the World Series of Poker. Why? Because it was on his ‘bucket list’. Apparently his usual haunt is a Hull casino where the buy-in is just £10 and where staff described him as an ‘average to good’ player. They must have a different definition of average up there because Hesp has made it all the way to the WSOP final, guaranteeing him a prize of at least US$1m — and if he wins at the final table he could walk off with a whopping US$8m. The 64-year-old semi-retired caravan salesman beat off more than 7,000 players to make it to the top nine, attracting attention not only for his winning streak but also for his garish outfits. Despite all this success, he still told Pokernews: “I am to poker what Donald Trump is to politics – an amateur.” Nice line, if only Trump was as humble eh?

Run on the smokies
Speaking of Vegas, Hesp isn’t the only one enjoying a good run – the dispensaries authorised to sell marijuana in Sin City since it was legalised a couple of weeks ago have been so overwhelmed with demand they are almost out of supply. The issue is not that there isn’t enough product available, but rather the way the system for distribution licenses to transport the herb from field to store has been set up, or not as it turns out. Because the legislation came into force so quickly, not enough distribution licences were handed out, thus when dispensaries run out of product they are struggling to replenish supplies. But it’s all good as the state acted quickly to declare a ‘statement of emergency’ — opening up the distribution licensing pool to ensure Nevada doesn’t miss out on vital tax revenues. Those in the gaming industry will surely not fail to miss the irony here – having received tax revenues for less than a month for what was previously an illegal substance, legislators jumped into panic mode at the thought of losing that income, but 11 years on from UIGEA the ‘lost tax revenues’ argument relating to online gambling and sports betting has largely fallen on deaf ears in the US. And now Steve Wynn will have to let all the stoners into his casino! Just imagine the 'bud action' at the blackjack tables... 


Sarah Harrison means business 
“Far more willing to show her teeth than her predecessors were”, “she has slipped some lead into the Commission’s glove”, Sarah Harrison’s first 18 months as chief executive of the UK Gambling Commission have not gone unnoticed by the mainstream press; or by the finance directors of Paddy Power, Betfred or Coral for that matter, all of whom have been on the receiving end of hefty (and on the whole justified) fines for breaches of advertising rules and corporate misbehaviour. The UKGC boss was quick to dispel the notion that she was “after” the operators in the interview she gave to the Guardian this week, but she did say she wanted gamblers “to be treated fairly (by the industry)”. She added: “The message to operators is: work with us to achieve that, raise standards with us, but those that fail to do that, then we’ll tackle them.” Which is where the idea of consumer protection in gambling comes in. Harrison was a big champion of the concept  in her previous role with the UK energy regulator Ofgem and has met with leaders from the Justice for Punters and Horserace Bettors Forum organisations. She said it was “quite right” that she held meetings with what are basically gamblers’ advocacy groups in order to gain practical insights into their experiences. If there are issues that need to be addressed “then we will look at what needs to be done. If it means that there need to be further changes to our laws and regulations and the evidence is pointing in that direction, then we will do that”. She concluded on a more conciliatory tone, “there’s a place for the big stick and there’s a place also for working with businesses who are serious about raising standards”, but really it means either more fines or remedial measures; that, one way or another, operators will end up paying for.

Russell - you got the love!
As you know the iGB events team goes all out to make everyone feel warm and fuzzy, so we were touched to hear that KPMG Malta senior manager for gaming and occasional mag contributor Russell Mifsud had combined his yearly visit to the so-called Venice of the North (aka Amsterdam) for the iGaming Super Show by popping the question to his partner. Judging from the joy on show in these photos, whoever said you shouldn’t mix business with pleasure was just plain wrong. The Diary would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Russell and to wish him and his fiancée every future happiness. The Diary loves a good wedding disco by the way, Russell. Not that we’re dropping hints or anything.

Lots of love igamers, have a great weekend!