The CEO Panel - One Year Later

8 October 2007

The first of two revealing CEO panels at this year's European I-Gaming Congress and Expo (EiG) in Barcelona included Neteller's Ron Martin, Sportingbet's Andrew McIver, Jez San from PKR.com and Petter Nylander from Unibet--each expressed a unique perspective on how the industry has fared over the last year.

eGaming Review Editor Scott Longley moderated the discussion and was not hesitant in challenging the panel with incisive questions.

Last year's EiG was undercut by speculation regarding the potential fallout of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA). Unfortunately, the conference ended on the very day that U.S. President George W. Bush signed the bill into law, sending a flurry of U.S.-focused companies packing. This year, perhaps by coincidence, the U.S. government introduced the UIGEA regulations--though 12 weeks late--on the day before the conference was to start.

In light of the U.S. government's seemingly curious sense of timing, Longley asked the panel to react to the proposed regulations.

Martin said that he had not given the regulations a thorough reading given that they were, at the time, less than a day old. In a more candid moment, Martin reflected on the industry's reaction to the UIGEA.

"We shouldn't have been as surprised as we were," Martin said about the enactment of the UIGEA.

McIver, who also acknowledged that he had not read the regulations, said that he did not foresee the company re-entering the U.S. market.

"It would be very hard for us to get back into the United States," he said.

Longley refocused his attention on Martin, who answered the big questions, as he undoubtedly knew he would, given the events of the last year. But he faced them with grace and a certain amount of humor.

He acknowledged, with a slight hint of self-deprecation, that the last year has been a challenge, especially publicly, as Neteller's legal woes grabbed headlines across industry and mainstream media.

Martin added that the events of last year resulted in brand damage, as well as prolonged communicational difficulties with customers. However, he said, the company has launched a new strategy to address these difficulties and repaid $74 million of the $90 million owed to U.S. customers when it left the market in January.

Sportingbet's McIver, on the other hand, feels his brand suffered no damage at all from pulling out of the U.S. market in 2006. He said the Sportingbet brand, in fact, emerged largely unscathed because of the expeditious disposal of its U.S.-focused business.

PKR.com's San, who seemed an odd fit among the panel (if only because PKR.com had not been linked with legal conflict of some kind) said his company was lucky as they launched around the same time as the UIGEA was enacted. Because of that, they decided to launch only in Europe, he said.

Longley was quick to transition into a discussion of gambling monopolies in the European Union and the multiple infringement proceedings initiated by the European Commission.

As the CEO of Swedish operator Unibet, Nylander is well-acquainted with the challenges of cross-border commerce on the Continent, after the company reluctantly decided to pull its Unibet.com cycling sponsorship after several well-publicized feuds with France, Belgium and Italy.

Nylander nonetheless predicts that Europe is moving toward de-monopolization and regulation.

"We are winning the battle," he said. "The last twelve months has been confirming from the European Court of Justice that intellectually we have the upper hand."

Following Nylander's remarks, Longley asked the panel whether the industry could be doing more to lobby the European Union.

McIver said the bottom line is that the gambling industry is not high enough on the political agenda to matter. But, in terms of EU monopolies, if the industry can conquer one country, "maybe we would see a domino effect," he said.

Looking to the future, Nylander said Unibet is focusing on growth in Europe, though was not as committal about Asia, saying that with regard to the region "it is too early to tell."

Martin said Neteller views Asia with a sense of "cautious optimism," adding that the region is largely comprised of immature payment and banking systems.

San's vision of growth entails technology more than geography. Like 888 CEO Gigi Levy, San remains a proponent of the Web 2.0 business model--a recurring theme throughout the conference.

Levy said in his keynote address that gambling sites could have been some of the biggest Web communities in the world, but the industry didn't pick up on the trend. Nonetheless, Longley asked if the gambling industry might be stepping on the toes of other industries (social networking and online auctioning, for example) if it were to go that route.

San, who comes from the video gaming industry, said, "Computer games evolved into social games; I-gambling will go that way as well."

In closing, and perhaps to lighten things up a bit, Longley asked each of the CEOs which of their competitors they would buy if they had unlimited funds?

McIver jokingly said he would buy eGaming Review, while San shot high and answered PartyGaming and 888.

But the funniest answer unequivocally came from Nylander.

"Well, there is a little company called Fran├žaise des Jeux," he said. "I would buy them."


Related Links
European iGaming Congress & Expo (EiG) 2007


Emily Swoboda is the senior staff writer at IGamingNews. She lives in St. Louis, Mo.