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UK bookmaker William Hill is in early stage talks to merge its Australian business with CrownBet, an online gaming company that is part of Australian billionaire James Packer’s gambling empire.
As a wave of consolidation sweeps the global gaming sector, the British betting group said it was “in very preliminary discussions with CrownBet” about a “possible combination” of their businesses. It did not put any value on the potential deal, which was originally reported in the Australian newspaper.
Crown Resorts, whose biggest investor is Mr Packer’s Consolidated Press Holdings and which also has a 62 per cent holding in CrownBet, confirmed on Friday it was in discussions over the online gaming business, but did not say who with.
A person close to William Hill cautioned a deal with CrownBet may not happen any time soon, as the talks were at a very early stage.
“This industry is undergoing consolidation and people in the sector talk to each other all the time,” the person said. “Don’t look too much into this as a firing gun.”
Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation from Crown’s wagering and online social gaming operations, which includes CrownBet as well as Betfair Australasia and a 70 per cent stake in Texas-based DGN Games, was A$14.8m last year.
Australia accounts for 7 per cent of William Hill’s revenues, which were £1.6bn last year, the bulk it from online gaming. It is one of the top three providers of online betting in the country with about 284,000 active customers, according to its annual report.
The division is facing a tighter regulatory environment, however, because of a planned government ban on credit being offered to gamblers by service providers. About 30 per cent of William Hill Australia’s amounts wagered come from customers using credit betting.
The government has said the credit betting ban will come into force in February.
News of the talks has emerged as the world’s biggest betting companies prepare for a round of multibillion-pound tie-ups.
Discussions on a previously thwarted merger between Isle of Man-based online group GVC Holdings and UK bookmaker Ladbrokes Coral have been revived, the Financial Times reported last month. GVC has also been tipped as a potential bidder for William Hill.
Meanwhile, William Hill, Paddy Power Betfair, The Stars Group (formerly Amaya), 888 Holdings, Rank Group and Jackpotjoy have all looked seriously at potential deals as the UK government considers how to clamp down on fixed-odds betting terminals — the lucrative in-store betting machines that campaigners say are addictive and are vital source of revenue for high street bookmakers.
The consolidation trend has also made its way to Asia-Pacific. This week an Australian competition tribunal cleared an A$11bn merger of Tabcorp and Tatts Group, two of the country’s largest gambling businesses.
Crown Resorts has not been in expansion mode this year, having retrenched to its core business of operating Australian casino resorts.
In May it ended a foray into Macau, the only Chinese territory where casinos are legal, by selling out of its joint venture with Melco Resorts, a group controlled by Hong Kong billionaire Laurence Ho.
This followed a plunge in gaming revenues in Macau that was linked to a crackdown by the Beijing authorities on offshore gaming. In June, 19 current and former Crown staff were charged with offences related to the promotion of gambling.
Crown has also shelved plans to spin off a property trust holding most of its Australian assets, announcing an A$500m share buy-back instead.
Shares in William Hill were flat in early morning trade in at 281.3p.