ECJ to Scrutinize OPAP Monopoly; Brussels Watching 'With Interest'

9 February 2009
The legitimacy of Greece's betting monopoly should be scrutinized by the European Court of Justice, reporting judges for Greece's highest administrative court recommended Monday.

In cases brought by William Hill and Stanleybet International, private betting operators seeking licenses in Greece, the Council of State ruled the Greek government -- by failing to allow both operators to apply for those licenses -- had not complied with European Community law.

Under Greek law now, OPAP S.A., one of Europe's largest commercial betting operators, is given exclusive control over Greece's land-based betting market. The company has held and defended that position aggressively since 2000, when the government awarded it a 20-year tender for 323 million euros.

In November 2008, two Stanleybet shops -- one in Athens, the other in Thessalonki -- were raided and closed by Greek authorities: Four people were arrested -- one employee and three bettors -- though all were subsequently released without charge. An administrative court in Athens ruled in January, though, that the Athens shop could reopen pending the outcome of a hearing that has yet to take place.

OPAP's chief executive, Christos D. Hadjiemmanuil, has gone on record numerous times with the European press threatening legal action if commercial bookmakers like Stanleybet establish shops on Greek soil without a license.

In addition to the license-application refusals, meanwhile, the court has questioned OPAP's position because the company's commercial agenda and footprint do not square with European Union rules by which monopolists must abide.

The country's gambling law has also drawn criticism from the European Commission since 2007, when infringement proceedings began.

Oliver Drewes, spokesman for the internal market commissioner, Charlie McCreevy, told IGamingNews Monday that Mr. McCreevy's office had taken note of the reporting judges' recommendation and would continue to watch developments "with interest."

Mr. Drewes could not provide a concrete date on when the commission would determine whether to refer its proceeding against Greece to the European Court of Justice, but said a decision was expected sometime in 2009.

Looking ahead, Nikos Lianeris, an analyst with Proton Bank S.A. in Athens, believes the OPAP brand -- in spite of overhanging legal circumstances -- will remain Greece's most salient.

"Under any circumstances, our main thesis remains unchanged: OPAP is still far from losing market share to competing networks given that (a) the legal procedures are lengthy and (b) competitors themselves are far from having a meaningful network and a respected brand name in the Greek market," Mr. Lianeris wrote in a note to clients Monday.

Representatives from William Hill and Stanleybet did not return phone calls Monday, and OPAP could not be reached for comment.

Chris Krafcik is the editor of IGamingNews. He lives in St. Louis, Mo.