In a bid to cool its creditors, Greece extends an olive branch to its gaming market with stimulating tax cuts planned for the casino sector. But as the 24 temporary online gaming licences reach their expiration, resident operator OPAP, is once again pushing for monopoly status.
Greece remains one of the most promising gaming markets in Europe, but policy post-2010 has largely been guided by a desire to milk the sector, leading to confusing changes in direction, unmoored from any concrete principles.
In October however, reports have surfaced that the policymakers are mulling a more nurturing approach: more casinos with lower taxes, that would attract tourists and investors, and ultimately pay down debts.
The Tsipras government is considering introducing a mixed tax system, which would reportedly lower gross gaming “turnover tax” on table games and slot machines from 30-37 percent to a much more competitive 25 percent or less.
“People have been avoiding Greece due to the influx of immigration, some social unrest and failing public services,” said Warwick Bartlett, chief executive of consultancy firm GBGC.
“But competitor destinations, such as Spain, have all put prices up by 15 percent, so Greece is now back on everyone’s radar.
“Interestingly, the prime minister Alexis Tsipras is presently in the USA, talking trade with Trump, who has said he wants to see more American investment flow into Greece.”
Rumours of a tax cut sent shares in newly privatised monopoly provider OPAP soaring, up 6.5 percent from where they started in October, according to data from Yahoo Finance.
The reforms are a continuation of an economic plan pushed by the Troika (the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF) as part of Greece’s E240bn bailout deal.
Whether these liberalising reforms will be extended to the online sector remains to be seen.
The government’s record for consistency in this area does not bode well, and as the county’s temporary online regulation nears expiration, native OPAP is still staking its historic claim as the rightful monopolist of Greek iGaming.
In 2011, the Greek government legalised and opened up online gambling, selling 24 interim licences to international operators, including William Hill and Betfair.
A year later the Greeks considered making them all leave, as it looked to monopolise online gambling in favour of OPAP, the state-owned monopoly provider of sports betting and lotteries, which had seen its share price decimated by liberalisation of the online market.
At the time, Clive Hawkswood, chief executive of the Remote Gambling Association, commented: “When the Greek government said it was going to license and regulate the domestic online gambling market we welcomed this as a positive step.
“However, instead of encouraging the development of a competitive and well-regulated market, the Greek government and Gaming Commission are blocking major European private operators from it.”
A tussle with the ECJ commenced, with OPAP’s monopoly being declared illegal in January 2013. Just two months later the Greek government sold its 33 percent stake in OPAP – at the Troika’s insistence – for E622m, to private equity fund Emma Delta.
When the Greek government sold its shares in OPAP, their value was down 58 percent from 2011, meaning the bungled liberalisation-turned-monopolisation policy cost them approximately E450m.
“The ongoing financial crisis in Greece caused most stocks to fall, because of the uncertainty and the high cost of the bailout leading to less consumer demand,” said Bartlett.
“However, the Troika’s insistence that OPAP be sold caused a further decline as it was telegraphed to the market well in advance.”
OPAP’s monopoly was ruled legal again at the end of 2014 by a Greek court, which said EU rules prohibiting monopolies did not apply when the controls are “genuinely reducing access to gambling and controlling expansion of the sector to combat criminality”.
However, OPAP never got the monopoly on online gaming that it wanted, its control extending instead over 13 games (Lotto, Kino, etc) provided at OPAP-branded agencies. It is understood however, that the operator has yet to give up the chase.