The world’s biggest betting companies are preparing for a round of multibillion dealmaking that is set to kick off as early this month, as groups join forces in an effort to secure dominance.
First off the block is set to be a previously thwarted merger between Isle of Man-based online group GVC Holdings and UK bookmaker Ladbrokes Coral. The two companies are further towards completing a deal than previously known, having agreed on the shape of a new executive team and board, according to several people close to both groups.
Meanwhile, William Hill, Paddy Power Betfair, The Stars Group (formerly Amaya), 888 Holdings, Rank Group and Jackpotjoy have drawn up their own battle plans as they attempt to “game out” their next moves.
Interviews with more than 15 senior industry executives, including several involved in tie-up talks and speaking on condition of anonymity, reveal that a flurry of deals is expected after the outcome of a UK regulatory review due this month. The companies declined to comment.
The unknown impact on income of any regulatory reform has made it impossible to assess the value of gambling companies, leading rivals to prepare plans that can be triggered after its release.
“After the review, it won’t be the commencement of talks, it will be the continuation of them,” said David Jennings, head of leisure research at Davy, the Irish wealth managers.
Across the industry, the prize is similar. Gambling groups believe greater scale can help to stave off fierce competition from online upstarts and increased regulatory scrutiny. Newly enlarged companies would operate several different brands, but split costs by bringing online systems together on a single platform, sharing marketing spend and unifying back-office functions.
In August, the Financial Times revealed that GVC had offered up to £3.6bn to take over Ladbrokes, but negotiations collapsed and Kenny Alexander, GVC’s chief executive, has said he will not consider any deal until after the review. The groups held merger discussions last year, as Ladbrokes was completing its £2.2bn combination with Coral.
But four people close to the talks said Ladbrokes and GVC went as far as discussing an executive team structure; Mr Alexander would become chief executive at the new group, while Ladbrokes Coral chief, Jim Mullen, would leave.
Ladbrokes Coral’s chief operating officer Andy Hornby would take the same position at the new entity, and GVC’s finance head Paul Miles would have a deputy role under Ladbrokes Coral’s chief financial officer Paul Bowtell.
One person close to the conversations said most board seats would be taken by existing GVC board members, while another added that, below the chief executive’s role, the positions were not settled.
GVC turned its interest towards Ladbrokes Coral last year, having previously opened talks with William Hill. People close to GVC said it was keen to expand its sports betting business, so has not ruled out a move for William Hill, but has come to believe that Ladbrokes Coral represents a better “cultural fit”.
Yet, major sticking points remain. Both Ladbrokes Coral and William Hill have expressed strong reservations about GVC’s business in Turkey, where most forms of gambling are banned and the government has launched a crackdown on illegal gaming.
In a key concession that could break the impasse, GVC’s leadership has agreed it will dispose of its Turkish arm — including a sale or spin-off — “if there was a bigger prize to be had”, according to people close to its thinking. The offer has not previously been presented to Ladbrokes or William Hill.
GVC’s talks with William Hill were nixed last October when it emerged that William Hill chairman Gareth Davis had begun talks with Canada’s Amaya, operator of PokerStars. Discussions broke down after William Hill’s largest shareholder, the hedge fund Parvus Asset Management, objected to the combination.
That deal could soon be resurrected, however. People close to the companies said Philip Bowcock, William Hill chief executive, favoured a deal with the Canadian group, which could allow the bookmaker to diversify its UK-focused business into international markets. They added that The Stars Group is also keen on the tie-up, but it remains unclear if Parvus continues to hold objections. William Hill is also open to approaches from GVC and 888.
Other combinations could emerge. In 2015, Paddy Power and Betfair united in a £7bn deal to create the world’s largest gambling company. The group is still integrating, while last month, its chief executive Breon Corcoran announced he is to leave.
One person close to its leadership said these issues made it less likely Paddy Power Betfair would engage in another major UK deal soon, though it plans “opportunistic” acquisitions and has developed internal plans to buy groups in Australia.
According to people familiar with the talks, UK bingo hall operator Rank Group — which alongside 888 proposed a three-way merger with William Hill last year — has “run the numbers” on acquiring online bingo group Jackpotjoy.
But Rank, along with others, was deterred by concerns over the complex corporate structure of the UK-listed but Bahamas-based group.
“The band is warming up and the dance is about to begin,” said one gambling industry executive. “People are working out who their dancing partner will be. I doubt many will stay standing against the wall.”