February 29, 2008

The Poker Channel Hits European Screens

The Poker Channel, one of the original poker content TV stations in the UK, is set to launch in Europe. Scandinavia, Germany and France will be airing The Poker Channel's programming from March 1st.

Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, France and Germany, considered by many to be expanding poker markets, will get dedicated poker programming this March as The Poker Channel heads into Europe. The Channel will be available throughout Scandinavia, on channel 95, on the regions' largest digital satellite network Canal Digital. In France the channel will appear on Noos Numericable (channels 48 and 95 respectively) and ADSL platform Free (channel 65). In Germany the channel will be carried on Cable Deutschland and KBW. European poker fans who do not have access to any of these networks, will still be able to receive the channel with a satellite dish pointed towards 1° West and an appropriate set top box (tuned to 11.229 GHZ Horizontal).

Crispin Nieboer, Founder CEO said: "The channel has been a huge success in the UK, attracting up to 1m viewers a month, from just 8m homes, since its launch in March 2005. We are delighted to be broadening our reach across the whole of Europe, having agreed deals with the leading networks in such fast growing poker territories. The appetite for high-quality poker programming continues to grow across Europe, and with our schedule of top-class tournament and high stakes cash game coverage, plus documentary, educational and classic game coverage, we are proud to offer poker fans the first pan-European poker channel".

European poker viewers can expect a plethora on televised poker delights, including:

European Poker Masters - Watch the big guns fight it out for a combined prize pool of over €1,000,000. With Ivey, Hansen and 'Jesus' Ferguson all in attendance.

Million Dollar Cash Game - High stakes poker attracted the big stars to London. Including Phil Ivey, Gus Hansen, Howard Lederer, Erik Seidel, Jennifer Harman, John Juanda, Mike Matusow, Erik Lindgren, Chris Ferguson, Mark Goodwin and Tony G.

Classic Tournaments - From the Aussie Millions in 2005 and 2006, The British Poker Open and watch on in awe at Stu Ungar's famous World Series of Poker victory from 1997.

Do It Like…: Get up close to the biggest names in Poker and find out what their peers and opponents think off them. Frank interviews where the stars have their say on who's great in the world of poker. Do it like…get's under the skin of poker and includes the likes of Tony G, Gus Hansen and Devilfish.

The Poker Channel launched as the world's first TV channel dedicated to poker on Sky in March 2005. The Poker Channel's broadband service remains a popular way to view the channel today via PokerChannelBroadband.com

February 28, 2008

Hills to focus on internet as it gears up for transitional year

Ralph Topping, newly-appointed chief executive of William Hill, has told eGaming Review that the company will spend much of 2008 focusing on improving and developing its internet offering.

Speaking after the company released its full-year results this morning, Topping said: “I am pleased with the levels of gross win in retail, especially after a World Cup year, with machines revenue up 15% and I plan to reinforce our retail base and develop our internet offering in 2008. Despite some serious issues with which we have to deal, there are also major opportunities.”

He added that Hills will concentrate on its key strengths: knowledge of bookmaking and gaming and its experience as an operator. Speaking about the recent performance of Hills’ online division, Topping said: “Frankly, it’s been disappointing. We will focus on implementing the Orbis sports betting platform between now and the end of November and launch more gaming products in the second quarter, including a live casino to bridge the gap between the virtual and real gaming environments.”

Speaking of NextGen, William Hill’s in-house system that will be replaced by the Orbis platform, Topping said: “We are at our best when we concentrate on key strengths, we are not going be the industry's leading software firm. By focusing too many resources on that we lost ground to our competitors. The sportsbook operates on legacy technology and this affected us badly: especially on in-running. Punters want a wide range of markets and it’s vital for in-running. I’m very passionate about turning this side of the business around as I was there at the beginning.”

As revealed by eGaming Review in January, the company agreed terms of purchase with sports betting software firm Orbis, which it said would allow it to compete on a level playing field with the competition.

Topping also denied any rumour that William Hill was interested in acquiring Irish bookmaker Paddy Power, and said of his appointment as the company’s new chief executive: “I joined the board in April 2007 and expected it to take its time (over the new appointment). They have got to know me in that time so you could say I wasn’t surprised when they asked me.”

Hills’ gross win rose 6% to £983.7m, compared with £931.3m in 2006, operating profit was down 2% to £286.7m, compared with £292.2m in 2006, pre-tax profits before exceptional items was £223.4m for the 53 week period to 1 January 2008. The interactive side of the business had a disappointing year, with gross win falling by £10.7m to £119.8m and operating profits falling by £10.6m to £50.9m on 2006, mainly due to the company’s technology being unable to handle in-running betting. As a result, William Hill decided to terminate the implementation of the NextGen programme, which led to an exceptional non-cash impairment charge of £20.9m.

Gaming revenues largely stabilised throughout the year after UIGEA, driven by the launch of new arcade and skill games and online bingo, the latter in particular exceeding the company’s expectations. Gross win for the telephone betting channel fell £4.5m to £53m due to a drop in business from the company’s large staking clients, operating profit was virtually stagnant at £16.1m, compared with £16.7m in 2006.

The company highlighted its international activities in Spain and Italy in partnership with Codere. The two companies’ joint brand for Spain will be Victoria Apuestas, for which it expects to receive an operational licence for the Madrid region imminently, with another 34 outlets due to be obtained in the region by the end of 2008. In Italy, an Italian website went live this month and the two firms have received more than 50 concessions to operate sports betting outlets and expect most of them to be operational before September 2008.

Ladbrokes high rollers contribute to 60% rise in pre-tax profits

Ladbrokes has reported a 60% rise in pre-tax profits before finance costs and non-trading items in full-year earnings to £420m compared with £262.2m in 2006, thanks to a strong performance by the company’s telephone betting business.

Ladbrokes’ gross win for the period rose 29.9% rise to £1.3bn, compared with £990m in 2006. The company’s egaming division performed well, pre- tax profits before finance costs and non-trading items rose to £55m, compared with £44.3m in 2006. Egaming gross win increased to £156.5m, compared with £144.4.m last year.

Sportsbook net revenue increased 14.7% to £52.2m, compared with £45.5m in 2006 and margins came in at 7.2% compared with 6.4% in 2006. Casino net revenue rose 5.1% on 2006 to £43m while poker net revenue fell 11.4% to £31m, reflecting the continuing competitive environment in European poker. More on this later.

February 25, 2008

Sportingbet Rises as Express Says Bwin May Make Bid

Sportingbet Plc, the Web bookmaker that owns Paradise Poker, rose to a six-week high in London trading after the Sunday Express said Bwin Interactive Entertainment AG is considering a 290 million-pound ($570 million) offer.

Vienna-based Bwin may bid 70 pence a share for Sportingbet in the next few weeks, the newspaper reported yesterday, without saying where it got the information. Sportingbet spokesman George Hudson said the company wouldn't comment on speculation. Bwin spokesman Matthias Winkler also declined to comment.

London-based Sportingbet, which was forced to exit the U.S. by a 2006 crackdown on foreign gambling Web sites, ended talks on a possible takeover bid by Bwin in July. Online gaming operators have considered mergers and acquisitions as a way of replacing lost revenue after the U.S. law was introduced.

February 21, 2008

Topping on top at Hill’s

William Hill has appointed its operating director Ralph Topping as the company’s new chief executive. Topping currently has responsibility for the group’s UK-based operations and was originally appointed to the board in April 2007. He joined the firm in 1973.

Charles Scott, chairman, said: “The Board has undertaken an extremely thorough search process over recent months. We have tested the market place in considerable detail. (With) than 35 years of industry experience, we have a first-class appointment. We will also benefit from his deep knowledge of the William Hill business.”

Topping’s appointment comes a day after the company saw its share price drop 22p to 403p on concerns that the UK government might be having another look at the regulations regarding fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs).

Sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe told Reuters yesterday that he was “concerned about the longer-term impact of the growing popularity of FOBTs and have asked the Gambling Commission to give particular priority to work on the risks associated with high-stakes machines. We have always said if any evidence emerges that they are causing harm, then we are prepared to take action and we have the power to take actions.”

Sutcliffe was speaking after the government announced that the horseracing levy regime would be extended for one more year while the horseracing industry and the bookmakers come to an agreement on further funding.

Topping will also be faced this morning with a sell note from analysts at Investec. Matthew Gerard from the firm has downgraded estimates for both William Hill and Ladbrokes “to reflect our negative view of the prospects for both businesses for the remainder of 2008 and 2009”.

Gerard notes that William Hill suffering in particular from problems at its online division. He adds that he believes all high-street bookmakers are “more exposed to a consumer slowdown that has historically been the case”.

February 20, 2008

PartyGaming’s New Chief Games Officer

Online poker group PartyGaming has created a new high-profile role for the former head of Gamebookers, the sports betting firm it bought in 2006.

PartyGaming said John O'Malia would be made its Chief Games Officer and take charge of its portfolio of games from online poker and blackjack to Internet bingo and sports betting.

PartyGaming bought the Bulgaria-operated and Isle of Man-controlled Gamebookers for $130 million in August of 2006 and has since turned it into its PartyBets.com site.

O'Malia's role is just below that of the firm's Chief Executive and Finance Director and in line with the firm's Operating Chief but the former city trader will not be a member of the Gibraltar-based firm's board.

O'Malia has been running sports betting companies since 2001 and spearheaded the development of BetBug.com with 1X Inc before engineering the purchase of BetBug and Gamebookers.com in 2005 as Chief Executive Officer of Trident Gaming.

Under O'Malia's stewardship Trident transformed and grew the Gamebookers business through aggressive online and offline marketing using a combination of guerrilla marketing and classic traffic-building and brand-building campaigns. After a series of smaller sports sponsorship campaigns, Gamebookers launched its shirt-sponsorship deal with French football team Nantes FC in August of 2006.

Marketing costs hit Unibet profits

European egaming giant Unibet suffered sharp drops in full-year and fourth-quarter profits to the end of December 2007, the company revealed today.

Profit before tax for the 12-month period fell to £20m (€26.4m) compared with £28.5m in 2006, while profit before tax for the three-month period was down to £2.7m compared £7.4m in 2006.

However, turnover for the year rose to £81.4m from £71.8m in 2006, and to £24.5m in the fourth quarter from £19.4m over the same period last year.

The company said it had experienced “unsatisfactory earnings” and “exceptional charges” in relation to the exit of the company’s cycling team from the Pro Tour cycling calendar and “increased marketing costs” related to “revenue share and affiliate programme costs”, which put pressure on earnings.

On the positive side, quarterly sportsbook margins were 7.5% thanks to favourable results while Unibet’s poker product in Sweden experienced 10% growth on a quarterly basis. The active customer base increased 15% compared to the previous quarter for both Unibet and newly-acquired bingo operator Maria Holdings.

February 19, 2008

Ladbrokes: Full Lewis bid ‘unlikely’

The possibility of Ladbrokes being subject to a full takeover bid from Joe Lewis, the Bahamas-based billionaire, was dismissed as unlikely by industry sources speaking today to eGaming Review.

This morning it was revealed in The Times that Lewis is behind a notice to the London Stock Exchange last night from Citigroup that it had built up a near 7% stake in Ladbrokes on behalf of a client.

“I can’t imagine there would be a bid,” said one industry source. One unnamed analyst added that he doubted Lewis would “could afford or would have the inclination” to attempt a full takeover. “It’s a bit of an anti-climax really,” he added.

However, the possibility of a bid coming form another direction could not be dismissed, suggested the industry source. According to The Times report, Lewis is thought to be close to other Ladbrokes investors, including John Magnier and JP McManus. It added that private-equity firms could also be waiting in the wings, such as Apax Partners which is thought to have put a bid in to buy Ladbrokes when it was de-merged from Hilton Group in 2006.

However, commentators have questioned in recent weeks the chances of anyone managing to raise the money to buy Ladbrokes, given the present gloom surrounding the debt markets. At present share price levels, Ladbrokes would cost a shade under £2bn, plus around a further £1bn in debt.

Recent investment activity by Lewis includes shelling out US$860m in September last year for a 7% stake in brokerage firm Bear Stearns and raising his stake to 10% three months later, making him Bear’s largest shareholder. Bear’s shares then fell 7% in January on the news that chief executive James Cayne would be leaving his post in the near future and the value of Lewis’s stake in the company has fallen from US$1.2bn to US$840m in the process. Lewis is said to have made a paper loss of more than US$100m on Bear so far, with the figure likely to be closer to US$200m once the cost of raising his stake in the company is take into account.

One of the many high profile investments Lewis made goes back to 2000 when his English National Investment Company (ENIC) acquired a 27% stake in north London football club Tottenham Hotspur for £22m before taking full control of the club in September last year. At the time of its initial investment in Tottenham, ENIC also acquired online bookmaker Ukbetting for £500,000 and was in talks to buy out sports spread-betting operator Sporting Index and Gibraltar-based bookie Victor Chandler International, but neither of those deals materialised.

February 07, 2008

Betfair asks for money back after online poker glitch

Betfair is asking for its own poker customers to return tens of thousands of pounds after a software glitch was exploited by colluding players on its site.

The collusion was noted by the company and “within a couple of hours” the situation was rectified, according to a source close to the company.

Up to 20 players had funds deferred after the company noted the irregularities. It was reported that players had received payouts of up to £100,000, which Betfair wishes to be returned.

The Daily Telegraph reported late last week that Betfair had written to a number of account holders demanding the funds be returned or it would bring legal action. According to the source, the press reports were accurate. “There was a software glitch exploited by colluding players. Sit and go single table tournaments were suspended for a few hours, and funds which were improperly gained were frozen,” the source said.

The glitch resulted in players being given second prize payouts at sit and go tournaments over a number of sessions.

Betfair moved from a Cryptologic poker software platform to its own in 2004.

The company has also been in the news after officials from the French Tennis Association said that they wanted to ban Betfair, along with other operators from taking bets on this year’s French Open. This follows an ongoing investigation into match fixing after Betfair noted suspicious betting patterns in a game involving Nikolai Davydenko in Poland and suspended betting, also alerting the game’s authorities the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP).

The French governing body has filed two injunctions, one in France, and another other in Belgium which call for Ladbrokes and Bwin to be banned from accepting bets on the tournament as well as Betfair.

February 04, 2008

French Open organizers taking online betting companies to court over gambling

French Open organizers have filed a lawsuit in a bid to ban online gambling companies from offering bets on the Grand Slam tournament.

The complaint filed Friday in courts in Liege in eastern Belgium and in Paris claims that Internet betting companies stain the reputation of the clay-court championship at Roland Garros.

"There is urgency to act because sporting ethic is at risk," Jean-Francois Vilotte, director general of the French tennis federation, told The Associated Press. "It is an issue as important as the fight against doping."

The issue of integrity in tennis came to the fore in August, when an online betting site - Betfair - voided all wagers on a match in Poland between fifth-ranked Nikolay Davydenko and 87th-ranked Martin Vassallo Arguello because of irregular betting patterns. Davydenko withdrew from the match in the third set, citing a foot injury.

The French federation is suing three companies - Betfair, Bwin and Ladbrokes - with a court injunction to stop them from taking bets on the French Open. It seeks a fine of C$75,000 a day for any violations, said Vilotte's lawyer, Jean-Louis Dupont.

Dupont said the federation's case is built on two tenets: that the betting companies are tainting the reputation of the French Open and unfairly using the tournament as a way of making money.

If a match-fixing scandal hit the French Open, it would undermine the value of the tournament, which had a 2007 revenue $175 million and attracted 450,000 fans to Roland Garros and a potential 3 billion viewers worldwide, Dupont said.

"Targeting the only betting operator which is completely transparent and, where needed, shares all its betting information with the ITF and ATP would be just plain bizarre," Betfair managing director Mark Davies wrote in an e-mail. "I would be astonished if any sensible regulator wanted to go down this route or believed it could help protect the integrity of its sport when it so obviously does the opposite."

Vienna-based Bwin said it was confident it would be able to stave off the legal challenge.

"We offer a service. To explain what happens, we have to use the name of Roland Garros," Bwin spokesman Antoine Costanzo said. "We don't cause the problem. We warn them there is a problem. We help organizers find those who are guilty."

With soccer and horse racing, tennis is among the most popular sports to bet on.

When Vilotte monitored the ATP Masters Series tournament in Paris, which the French federation also organizes, he said bets over the weeklong event totalled between $750 million and $1.5 billion.

"You can imagine that for Roland Garros, the totals would be much higher," he said.

The federation says the betting companies manage to avoid being stuck with the fallout when there is suspicion of match fixing.

"They purely scrap the bets on the event in question and by doing that generate a scandal that the organization and players have to deal with. It can give them a lifelong ugly reputation," Dupont said.

The ATP opened an investigation into the Davydenko match, interviewing him and his wife and reviewing telephone records. No findings have been announced.

Since the match, several players have come forward to say they have been approached with offers to fix matches.

Late last year, three Italian pros - Potito Starace, Daniele Bracciali and Alessio Di Mauro - were suspended for betting on tennis matches involving other players.

According to Betfair and Bwin, attacking the official betting companies would only make the situation worse.

"Targeting EU-licensed companies, which are highly regulated, to leave punters (bettors) betting only with unlicensed operators across the web, would completely miss the point," Davies said.

Bwin agreed.

"We are a legal company quoted on the Vienna exchange," Costanzo said. "The problem is not companies like us, but the black market, which exist in all countries without strict regulation."

Party signs-up to Envisional for affiliate monitoring

PartyGaming has adopted and refined a new method for affiliate monitoring, after introducing experimental systems using artificial intelligence.

The system, created by Envisional, aims to toe the line between managing risk from affiliates, preventing security lapses, and encouraging entrepreneurialism, according to Ian Shircore, marketing director at Envisional.

Shircore: “Maintaining security with affiliates is not just an anti-fraud measure, there is a wider issue. That is: no country will think to regulate online gaming while companies cannot keep track of their affiliates.”

The issue of violations committed through affiliates is one which was highlighted at last week’s Combating Cybercrime conference. Examples of money laundering through affiliates were given by speakers including representatives from PartyGaming and Unibet, as well as the UK’s Serious Fraud Office. One attendee said that the industry had been “dragging its feet” in terms of affiliates, and that greater security was needed if the sector was to show its maturity.

However, it was also noted that the importance of affiliates for operators should not be underestimated, and that minor “offences” from what were termed “over-enthusiastic” affiliates, are dealt with most effectively by operators.

Shircore said: “If you think of how affiliate networks work, they are the very essence of entrepreneurial spirit. Nobody wants to crush that, and it will save time for the companies to just have to recognise what’s going on, and say, please don’t step over the line.

“In terms of affiliate monitoring, people desperately need to know what’s going on. The enforcement is pretty simple. The relationship between the operator and the affiliate is not necessarily damaged.”

Shircore added that the collaboration with Party had resulted in a product that was unusual for its use of artificial intelligence.

He said: “We are pushing the limits of artificial intelligence, and we have now a system with greater flexibility for the operator. The artificial intelligence follows links like a human, and uses human-like logic. It also searches images. We produced prototype systems which we worked on for PartyGaming. It’s been remodelled and refined slightly ‘in reality’ but it is basically the same concept.

“What they get is a pyramid of results – and the pyramid will show violations which at the top of the pyramid, are very serious, while at the bottom, are ones which they may choose to ignore.”