Portugal’s online gambling operators are bracing for the possibility that their casino and poker verticals could be suspended for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last week, Portuguese legislators approved Bill-326, which proposes to establish “partial or total limitations on access to online gaming platforms” during the country’s state of emergency due to the COVID-19 coronavirus.
The bill’s accompanying text notes that Portugal has closed all its land-based gambling venues to prevent further COVID-19 transmission, while claiming that local residents’ self-isolation had exposed them to “unlimited and uncontrolled access to online gaming channels.”
The text singles out “casino games, bingo and poker” as posing a particularly addictive threat in the current crisis. The text includes a link to a site that claims online casino and poker growth has risen by double-digits since the pandemic took hold. This claim turns out to be entirely based on a recent trading update by UK-listed 888 Holdings, which launched its Portugal-licensed site last year.
The government has yet to flesh out the details of what specific curbs it plans to impose, but revoking the right – even temporarily – to offer casino or poker products would be a death blow for Portugal’s online operators, who are already dealing with the cancellation of most live sports events due to the pandemic.
Sports betting accounted for 51% of Portugal’s regulated online market’s revenue in Q4. Last week, local media outlet Diario de Noticias quoted Betclic Everest Group’s Miguel Domingues saying local betting volume was down 70%-75% in March but the loss of other sports options since then meant April’s handle was likely to be off “between 90% and 100%.”
As for the claims of a surge in online casino and poker activity, Domingues said Betclic hadn’t seen “the transfer of [sports] bettors to the casino, nor a significant increase in the number of casino users.”
Bookmakers in other markets have attempted to offset the lack of traditional sports by offering wagers on other products, such as eSports and virtual sports. But these products aren’t allowed under Portugal’s online gambling regulations.
Pedro Miguel Garcia, marketing director at Bet.pt, noted that Portuguese bettors were likely already seeking out internationally licensed sportsbooks where these more exotic products were being offered. As such, authorizing Portuguese licensees to offer these products “would be a way to combat illegal gambling.”
That’s the fundamental flaw in Bill-326, which apparently wishes to undo the gains that Portugal’s regulated online market has made in recent years (despite its punitive tax rates). With no sports betting, taking away local online casino and poker options won’t stop local residents from gambling – it will just stop them from gambling with locally licensed operators.
Speaking of, the Estoril Sol Group announced this week that it was laying off workers at its land-based casinos in Estoril, Lisbon and Póvoa de Varzim. All Portuguese casinos have been closed since March 14. The company said its locally licensed online gambling business will carry on as usual, at least, until the government makes that pointless as well.