Despite Economic Downturn, Italian Gambling Spend on the Rise

14 April 2009
There may be a global recession on the way, but Italians do not seem to be letting such a dour prospect dampen their enthusiasm for gambling, with turnover overall still increasing and poker figures again reinforcing massive enthusiasm for the new online product.

According to statistics released in the first week of April by the Italian regulator, AAMS, turnover on all forms of gaming increased by 9.2 percent in the first quarter of the year, from 12.05 billion euros in 2008 to 13.16 billion euros in 2009.

Still benefiting from the 100-million-euro rollover prize last autumn, the lottery game Superenalotto has continued its growth after years of relative stagnation. Spending on the game in the first quarter of this year increased 36 percent against the same period in 2008, up to 628 million euros from 461 million euros, while the traditional Lotto game continued to stagnate, with turnover down slightly from 1.487 billion euros to 1.433 billion euros.

Once again, sports betting reported a big rise, up 24 percent to 1.17 billion euros, while betting on horseracing continued to decline, with quarterly turnover down 15 percent to 560 million euros from 660 million euros a year ago.

In common with other European countries like the United Kingdom and Spain, Italy’s bingo sector is still suffering, as dedicated smoking rooms have failed to save the sector from the wider smoking ban. The situation has been aggravated because the authorities continue to drag their feet over the launch of the online version of the game. Initially expected to be approved by AAMS at the beginning of 2008, it appears that the game will finally appear on the Internet by the middle of the summer. Turnover in the country’s bingo halls dipped to below 400 million euros in the first quarter, falling to 389 million euros from 424 million euros the previous year.

However, the inexorable rise of spending on slots and scratchcards seems to know no end. Slot machines, which now make up 45 percent of total spending on gaming in Italy, rose 14 percent. Although first-quarter turnover in 2008 was just over 5.4 billion euros, the figure for the first three months of 2009 was almost 6 billion euros. Growth in scratchcard turnover, meanwhile, was a more modest 4.9 percent, up to 2.6 billion euros from 2.47 billion euros.

The big story for March, and for the first three months of the year, was the continuing online poker boom. According to AAMS data, first-quarter spend on skill games -- primarily poker -- reached 466.6 million euros.

In March alone, six million tournaments were played -- cash games are still not regulated in Italy -- a 46 percent increase on the number played in February. There were 25 million participants, up 34 percent on the previous month.

While buy-ins for the game vary from a minimum of 50 euro cents to 100 euros, the average value for the month fell slightly to 7.25 euros. March’s total spend on skill games was 182 million euros, up 14.9 percent on the February figure, but turnover grew as the month proceeded, with the last Saturday -- March 28 -- registering total tournament fees of 6.5 million euros.

Should the present trends continue -- and there is no reason to believe they won't, particularly as PartyGaming, Everest and a number of other major operators are not yet ready to launch -- then the market is expected to be worth over 2 billion euros by the end of the year.

In fact, Italy is in the throes of an Internet revolution -- especially in the world of gaming. Once considered to be well behind most of its European neighbors for levels of Internet access, broadband connectivity and use of credit cards online, Italy has caught up substantially in recent years, with prepayment and debit cards taking the place of credit cards.

Figures for online gaming have been deceptive in the past, thanks to the popularity of Punti Remoti, bars and Internet Cafés, where it was possible to buy prepayment cards and use PCs on the premises. However, growth has been so substantial over the last 12 months that it is clear that most people are now accessing gaming sites from home or the office.

In March 2009 over 317 million euros was spent online -- 7 percent of the total -- and a 148 percent increase on March 2007, when only 3.1 percent of total gaming spend came via operators’ Internet sites.

While online sports betting continued to grow in March (6 percent on February 2009 and 3.1 percent on March 2008), other forms of gaming have also grown in the first quarter of the year, particularly scratchcards, which averaged over 7.5 million euros in turnover each month compared to just over 5 million euros during the previous quarter.

Italy’s gaming sector may appear to be in continual turmoil -- with court cases and legal challenges accompanying each of the many changes introduced by the authorities in recent years -- but its strength isn't in doubt. The opportunities to be had from the addition of new products and Italy’s belated adoption of e-commerce continue to be profitable for those companies able to navigate the somewhat complex business landscape that exists there.

Mr. Wood is a veteran of the international betting and gaming industry, having worked in the past for companies like Ladbrokes and Victor Chandler. He is now an established consultant and researcher advising companies on market entry and business development projects in Europe.