Europe's Gambling Monopolies - Where From Here?

6 September 2004

The European Union proudly represents a frontier-free single market--totaling 25 member states and 470 million citizens--where people, goods, services and money move around "as freely as within one country."

"The European gambling market liberalized by 2009? For dreamers, yes, but I am not a dreamer."
- Tjeerd Veenstra
De Lotto

The words "as freely as within one country" are part of the official text of the E.U. government Web site. It follows with, "The single market relies chiefly on competition and regulatory authorities to maintain a level playing field for the free movement of goods and services."

This text diametrically opposes the first sentence of the report "The European Union and its Impact on State Licensed Gambling Monopolies," which states, "The European gambling market is dominated by state-licensed monopolies backed by restrictive national legislation."

The 40-page survey from Media & Entertainment Consulting Network (MECN) is written in a hopeful tone--at least for the frontier-free mavericks--and that's not so strange considering that it was composed in cooperation with the legal experts Arendts Lawyers pf Germany and Van Mens en Wisselink Lawyers of the Netherlands. Both law firms strongly advocate a Europe without borders, and the countries where they're based are the main legal battle grounds in post-Gambelli Europe, where monopolies and free willies meet.

Of the companies surveyed (40 operators from nine countries), 59 percent believe that regardless of steps taken by the European Union or other bodies, the European gambling market will be liberalized by 2009--mainly because of the Gambelli verdict, which clarifies that European member states cannot block cross-border gambling for competitive reasons.

"Not at all," said Dutch De Lotto's Tjeerd Veenstra, the he man who started the crusade to block foreign I-betting companies from offering their services in the Netherlands. "The Gambelli judgment--and do not forget the Lindman judgment also--confirmed again the prerogative of the individual member states to determine their own gambling policy. The benefit of the judgments is that they gave a better clarification of the Schindler case and therefore better guidelines for the member states."

"The European gambling market liberalized by 2009?" Veenstra asked. "For dreamers, yes, but I am not a dreamer."

Jonathan Fisher, the CEO of ILLF, which operates several Internet lotteries, has a slightly different view view.

"I'm not sure Gambelli in particular will be noted as the definitive judgment to break the monopolies, but it's certainly a tonic," Fisher explained. "Yes absolutely, the European gambling market will be liberalized by 2009."

Eighty percent of the companies surveyed for the MECN report, agree that state-authorized monopolies should be treated as regular business ventures and, therefore, should have to comply with E.U. law.

"It's a strange question for me," Fisher said. "I don't think monopolies should exist anyway, whether they adhere to their original mandate or not. There is a good reason why monopolies are not allowed in every other realm of business; because lack of competition is bad for the consumer. And I believe that to be the case presently with state and national lotteries.

"You have to ask, 'Do the monopolies protect players or simply protect themselves?'"
- Jonathan Fisher

"Yes, they (European operators) should lose monopoly status. I have heard state lottery monopolies saying that they are trying to 'protect' players from these nasty Internet cross-border lotteries that dare to offer consumers some choice, whilst at the same time they spend millions trying to get more players to spend more money with their own lotteries. I've heard of charities not wanting to accept donations from Internet lotteries because they are scared that their national lottery will stop contributing to them. I've seen television stations prevent Internet lotteries showing their draws because they're scared they'd lose the draw rights or advertising from the national lottery. So you have to ask, 'Do the monopolies protect players or simply protect themselves?'"

When asked whether operators should lose their monopolies if it's proven that they do not focus on their original objectives, Veenstra responded, "To deal with these questions is the responsibility of the national judicator and government."

Another thesis from MECN is that the liberalization of gambling laws, as proposed in the United Kingdom, poses a threat to the existence of state-run sports betting and lottery services, and that only a few state operators have the experience and know-how to compete against the top U.K. bookmakers.

"First of all, I notice that this question is not relevant for the present situation," Veenstra said. "And my belief is that this situation will not change in the near future. But if the European gambling market would be liberalized, then state-licensed operators have all the technological and other practical knowledge available that is necessary to compete with anyone. Do not forget that we are in some areas sometimes even frontrunner; for example in the application of new media."

Fisher agrees. "There are some surprisingly good state bookmakers out there," he said. "Those who already have an Internet presence will fare far better."

The report also states that 40 percent of the companies surveyed already have expanded internationally, while 23 percent are not interested in a pan-European expansion. For 91 percent of the operators, national regulations are the biggest obstacles.

In the same paragraph, it is mentioned that the biggest cross-border offerings seems to come from the state-authorized monopolies themselves. French PMU, for example, has a broad market outside its national borders, and Tjeerd Veenstra's own De lotto targets Dutch customers. Germans are selling tickets and setting bets in The Netherland and there is a great deal of overflow from Germany to its westward neighbor.

The effect is far reaching too, with 82 percent of Dutch players outside the Netherlands choosing products offered by the German state-licensed monopolies, while only 2 percent choose offerings from U.K. bookmakers.

Veensta says these numbers are not correct though. "The biggest offerings are coming from illegal betting companies operating on some sort of fancy off shore license," he said.

Rob van der Gaast has a background in sports journalism. He worked for over seven years as the head of sports for Dutch National Radio and has developed new concepts for the TV and the gambling industry. Now he operates from Istanbul as an independent gambling research analyst. He specializes in European gambling matters and in privatizations of gambling operators. Rob has contributed to IGN since Jul 09, 2001.