PokerStars Leaves Slovenia: Another Jurisdiction Left To The Black Market

Online Gambling Legislation Delays Give Black Market Operators The Green Light In Portugal, The Netherlands And Slovenia

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Today, July 1, PokerStars announced that it was pulling out of the market in Slovenia. It, along with many other major online poker operators, left the Portuguese market last summer, and has ceased advertising in the Dutch market since the summer of 2014.

The problem is national online poker legislation which mandates an end to marketing, or a complete market exit by poker rooms until they can be licensed by the national regulatory body.

Regarding Slovenia, PokerStars’ message to players was optimistic:

“We hope that we will be able to return to the market in due course, and will continue to support the implementation of fair and consistent regulation that serves the needs of all stakeholders and includes a strong commitment to consumer protection, particularly of vulnerable people, in Slovenia. There is already a successful framework for such regulation in Europe and PokerStars is currently licensed in 12 EU countries. We hope to apply for a license in Slovenia when it is possible.”

However, in the absence of major operators like PokerStars, which offer a compliant online poker environment with extensive consumer protection measures, less scrupulous operators are free to target new players and build up market share.

If the gap between legislation and the issue of licenses is long, operators have the difficult marketing task of seducing players away from their new poker homes and into the regulated sector of the market.

The task is made more difficult by the decay in player database data, and by high taxes which may mean less generous VIP benefits and/or higher rake than that offered by the unlicensed competition.

Portugal looked set to go but international liquidity is a problem

Portugal published the final approved text of its new gaming laws in April 2015, and immediately insisted that all unlicensed poker operators must leave the market completely.

Several delays followed, resulting from the development of online gaming regulations which unexpectedly turned out to need their own EU approval.

Everything was looking good by late May this year, when Betclic was awarded the first Portuguese sports betting license by regulator SRIJ. Poker licenses were expected to follow quickly.

On June 29, Portuguese players association Anaon published the fact that further regulatory amendments concerning the technical requirements system for international shared liquidity had still not been finalized.

Anaon noted that these will have to be submitted to the EU Commission before poker licenses are issued, a process that is taking on average three to four months. It could well be that the major operators will have been excluded from the market for a total of 18 months before they get to re-enter with their new licenses.

Absence from the Portuguese market was noted as one negative factor in Amaya’s third quarter report which revised expectations of full year revenues downwards. It may not be until the fourth quarter of 2016 that Amaya and PokerStars will once again get the benefit of revenues from the market.

The Netherlands is a major market

The Netherlands is a much more important market. The country’s 17 million people have the 15th highest GDP per capita in the world at purchasing power parity (ppp) —on the same measure, the U.S. ranks 10th, and many individual states have lower income per head.

Since mid-2014, the Dutch regulator has been assiduous in preventing operators (paywall) from advertising in the market. One of the early casualties of this policy was Jorryt Van Hoof, the chip leader going into the final table of the WSOP Main Event in 2014.

888 Poker actively wanted to sponsor him, but it was unable to do so because of Dutch regulatory restrictions. The regulator actually contacted 888 (paywall) to let the company know that sponsorship of a Dutch player at the final table would be categorized as marketing to Dutch players generally, and would risk future license application.

Despite objections bill should pass this year

The new Dutch legislation has hit many objections over the last three years. The legislation also involves the break-up of the existing Holland Casino land-based gaming monopoly.

However, forwards motion has been resumed, and the final bill has been presented in the lower house of the Netherlands parliament where it should pass easily.

The bill next goes to the senate where it will need bipartisan support. A report from GaminginHolland suggests that this support will be forthcoming and that the bill will pass:

“Last night, it became clear that opposition parties D66 and PVV are “in principle” willing to support the bill in the Lower House. If – as is normally expected – these groups will also support the bill in the Senate, the draft law will end up with a clear majority in that body as well.”

There are currently 26 amendments pending on the bill including one to set the tax rate for internet and land-based gambling at a common 29 percent of gross gaming revenue. Even though this will make it difficult to channel much of the market towards the regulated offer, it is highly likely to pass, although the rate is planned to decrease to 25 percent over time.

Major operators think the 29 percent tax rate defeats the object of the legislation.

Unibet’s 2015 annual results presentation took a long look at the company’s plans for the Netherlands, forecasting a launch in the third or fourth quarter of 2017. That schedule now looks optimistic.

Unusually, Unibet CEO Henrik Tjärnström used some of his time during the investor presentation to make a strong case against the proposed 29 percent tax rate.

He argued that such a high rate would channel players to the unregulated rather than the regulated sector and have knock-on effects in terms of reducing competition in the regulated sector. He added that marketing investment, consumer protection and investment in sports sponsorship would all be reduced.

Slovenia: small market, relatively high income

Slovenia was formed after the break-up of former Yugoslavia, and managed to avoid becoming embroiled in the civil war which followed.

Its population of around two million people enjoys a healthy GDP/capita of $21,308. At purchasing power parity that ranks it 38th in the world.

As an EU member state since 2004, it began the process of introducing its own online gambling regulation in 2013, and in March 2016 notified its new laws to the EU Commission for approval.

Its new regulatory regime should be in place by the end of 2016, with licensees back in the market late this year or in the first quarter of 2017.

Legislation undoubtedly has an easier path in smaller countries, but nonetheless the situation creates yet another opportunity for the black or gray market to benefit from the compliance of more responsible operators.

- A former founder of Poker Industry Pro and Head of Content at PokerNews publisher iBus Media, Joss Wood is a graduate in English from the University of Birmingham. Joss also holds a master’s degree in Organisational Development from the University of Manchester. His career path has taken him from the British Army, through business and finance to seven years as a successful professional poker player.
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