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Friday, May 21, 2010

2010 GiGSE Montreal Conference Summary

Accolades go out to Ewa Bakun for pulling the Montreal conference together and reigniting the debate over the direction and form that online gambling will take in North America.

The GiGSE conference brought together individuals and companies interested in the state and direction of online gambling in North America. The original conference had been suspended after the enactment of US gaming legislation in October of 06. The shocking, confused and abrupt way the legislation was enacted caused the online gambling industry to take a step back, propelled the industry into react mode resulting in a lack of cohesive, and in some cases, rational discussion and debate about the next steps in the march to a realistic approach to managing online gambling in the US.

With the passing years the true impact of the the 06 bill have been realized with individuals and companies adjusting accordingly. It now appears that the US and Canada are beginning to recognize that online gambling is not necessarily "evil". In fact, it is a mainstay of online entertainment that can be a meaningful source of revenue for state, federals and local governments.

Legalization Environment - No doubt the biggest question in the attendees minds was the question of the form and time-line for legalization of online gambling in the US.

The States - It appears that there is legitimate interest and actions being taken by several states to push ahead to legalize online gambling within state boundaries(intrastate online gambling). California, New Jersey and Florida are leading the pack engaging consultants, drafting laws, exploring regulation and in some cases voting on legislation to legalize online gambling. It looks like New Jersey is the closest to actually enacting legislation. This renewed interest in legalizing online gambling within state borders is being driven by the budget crises that almost all US states are facing. They all need to find new sources of revenue and they are looking at online gambling as a means to generate this revenue.

It is unclear how the states will recognize online gambling revenue. Discussions include license fees, transactions fees, regulatory review fees, etc.

The Federal Government - Congressman Barney Frank has pushed ahead developing legislation to legalize online poker on the basis that it is a skill game and not strictly a game of chance.

The general consensus is that no legislation will be passed in 2010 on a state or federal level. The November elections could result in a reshuffling of state and local elected officials and we will have to see how that impacts the initiative going forward.

The Indian Nation - At least in California the Indian tribes are not united in their approach to the legalization of online gambling. The tribes have worked hard to establish their land based casino operations and the move on the part of state governments to legalize online gambling is making them nervous putting some tribes on the defensive. Essentially, the tribes want their sovereign rights to be recognized making sure that they get their fair share of online gambling proceeds.

This defensive position is unfortunate. Given the unique status of Indian tribes in the US they could have taken a more aggressive stance by challenging current state and federal authorities by moving aggressively to launch online gambling operations within their borders. I am sure it would start a firestorm of debate and challenge. However, in the end they may win the battle and significantly change the destiny and well being of the Indian nation.

What is Canada Doing? - I was really surprised that more attention was not paid to what the Canadians were doing in regard to online gambling legislation. After all we did have the conference in Canada and many Canadians did attend. With that said I spoke to a number of Canadians at the conference and it is apparent that the provincial governments and the Canadian government are moving ahead as aggressively if not more so then the US.

It appears that Canada wants to legalize online poker. I suspect they may actually do this well before the US government. If this is the case it will be interesting to see how the US reacts and what they will do when US online poker players begin to play poker on a Canadian site?

The individual provinces are entertaining online gambling for the same reason the US states are. They need new sources of revenue! The initiatives in the provinces appear to be built around their current lottery systems with the desire to add more gaming "content" with the goal of attracting more players and to further monetize existing lottery players by allowing them to play other games. This move appears to be part of an overall initiative to make lotteries more accessible online.

How Will New Legislation Impact Existing Online Gambling Operators? - It is no secret that Poker Stars and Full Tilt have largely ignored US law and are doing very well monetizing US players, building strong brand awareness and acquiring US players at a rapid rate. Many US and Canadian players assume online poker is legal and have no notion that it is not.

This puts many other operators at a disadvantage providing they wait until legislation occurs before entering the US market. If legislation does take two years to be enacted will the game be over for any new legal entrants? Even if the law prohibits gambling operations from outside a state or a country are players going to care instead going strait to the offshore operators that they are familiar with?

The US Casinos - Harrahs' head of Online Gaming provided the audience with insight in how the US land based casinos are approaching legal online gambling. Clearly, Harrahs, on the back of the WSOP brand is off and running building brand awareness, developing operational acumen and obtaining gaming platforms to make a go of it when and if legislation passes in the US. The one thing that people should recognize is Harrahs is already off and running in Europe and no doubt soon to be introduced in Asia. So they are not waiting around for the US laws to change. Harrahs is already in the online gambling business.

It is unclear what the other casino companies are up to and if they are even seriously interested in the online gambling space. Without any concrete evidence to the contrary the wait and see strategy may not be the wisest strategy for them. Waiting to the last minute may simply be too late if other online other gambling brands have already staked out their turf and have acquired large chunks of existing or potential online gamblers.

Entrepreneurs And Investors - There are certainly many investors and entrepreneurs creating new and interesting games and gambling models that have great potential for attracting a broader audience of players to online gambling propositions. Certainly the traditional online casino games will be part of the offering. However, they will not be the only games offered online. Expect casual games, fantasy sports, new mobile game models, iPad games and "social games" to be part of the mix.

Conclusion - It was great to participant in a revival of a coordinated interest in the newly emerging march to the legalization of online gambling in North America. Clearly, the world has changed since October 13, 2006. What we see happening is not necessarily what we expected after the enactment of federal gambling law giving rise to new optimism and acceptance of online gambling as a legitimate business.

The industry is still facing head winds and the vagaries of the legislative process. However, progress is being made with most of the attendees recognizing that legalized online gambling in North America is inevitable. It is just a matter of when and how.

1 comment:

Steven Kane said...

Hi Kevin. Interesting summary, thanks.

If I had to bet (pun intended) I would lay heavy odds against the USA legalizing online gambling anytime soon.

What most people fail to consider is that, unlike most other countries, gambling in the USA (and also Canada?) is regulated and taxed at the local level, usually the state level but sometimes even the municipal level.

But internet gambling, by definition, is interstate commerce, and will need to be regulated nad taxed at the federal level.

Which means every constituency that matters -- casino operators, lotteries, state regulators and legislators, Native American tribes, gaming equipment suppliers, even local mom and pop lottery vendors (who ALL vote) -- is firmly against internet gambling. Not for moral or ethical reasons. Strictly because internet gambling -- again, by definition -- will dilute their franchises and reduce their economics etc

So who is for it? No one that matters, politically- or economically-speaking.

Even in Europe, where gaming is often regulated and taxed at the federal level, has seen massive fights break out over tehse issues, eg various countries lotteries suing to preserve their exclusive domains

Barney Frank is my Congressman, and whil I do not suspect him of wasting taxpayer resources, his support of internet gambling or even poker is wafer thin. He's got a few other pressing banking issues to deal with! And I don't think he wants internet gambling to be an issue in his next reelection. My prediction, he abandons the effort soon.