Is Britain’s poker boom folding?

Between 2004 and 2007, Mintel says in a report to be released today, growth was spectacular. It seemed everyone thought they could emulate the likes of Phil Hellmuth, Amarillo Slim and the grandaddy of them all, Doyle Brunson, by becoming a poker millionaire through the click of a mouse.

But after a growth of 72 per cent between those years (Mintel says), last year the online poker market stagnated, with a gross gaming yield of £265m.

What is more, this year online poker is expected to decline by 7 per cent to £247m. Worryingly for the industry, Mintel says almost a third of players admit to having changed their poker habits as a result of the impact of the recession ? playing the game less often or for smaller stakes.

Average spend per year has fallen by nearly a fifth in the past two years, down from £345 in 2007 to £281 in 2009. Time for investors to “fold”, then?

Paul Leyland, gaming analyst at Collins Stewart, says the industry certainly faces some significant headwinds.

“The problem you face with poker, as opposed to other forms of gambling, is that you need volume to make the model work. You can’t just focus on high rollers, as you might with a sports book or a casino. You have to bring volume in to supply your higher rollers with people to play.

“What that does is drive up your costs and reduce your yields because you have to incentivise people to sign up. This favours operators who already have customers to whom they can cross-sell, like a William Hill, for example. They can acquire new poker players at a lower cost.”

He also points to the impact of the recession, but also notes that the players who were signed up a few years ago, when poker was the latest craze, now have wives, and families. They just don’t have the time to invest in staring at a screen playing poker. At least if they want those marriages to last.

Matt King, senior leisure analyst at Mintel, also sees the recession as a major issue. “Around a third of poker players now play less often or for lower stakes because of the economic downturn,” he says. But like Paul Leyland, he also sees structural issues. “Rakeback promotions, for one thing, are minimising margins, and this shows the emphasis is on customer numbers, not the profit generated per customer. Lack of time is another factor impacting on play, possibly suggesting work pressures in the current recession are having a toll on players’ free time.”

But even he notes that the industry does still enjoy a loyal base of players who have taken up online poker as a serious pursuit, which will last beyond the current downturn.

And others say that long-term growth will return. In a recent report, Richard Carter of Deutsche Bank says that the European poker market is still expected to show “strong growth”.

The global online poker market is forecast to reach $6.2bn (£3.7bn) by 2012, which represents a four-year compound annual growth rate of 12 per cent.

That might not be the breakneck pace of the boom years, but it is still impressive. And with gaming regulation in Europe liberalising, even if the UK is slowing, there is still plenty to shoot for on the continent. Carter points to Italy as being a star, while saying that improvements in broadband and a rising social acceptance of online gaming generally should keep the market healthy.

John Shepherd of PartyGaming, the sector leader, also points out that the figures used by Mintel do not include the likes of Full Tilt and PokerStars, which are popular because they have defied the ban on online gaming in the US and still accept American players.

The precedence of Americans draws many British players to their sites, despite the dubious legality in which they operate.

Shepherd says: “Given the backdrop of the recession, yes, growth has been impacted, but then if you look at the overall picture, the market has still grown. Poker remains a challenge from a competitive standpoint, as we have said. But we were encouraged by the traffic in September and October.”

Shepherd says initiatives such as player-retention programmes and offers to get lapsed players interested again can work, and keep revenues flowing.

So is the industry simply undergoing a slowdown caused by the recession? Will the chips start flying when the recovery is under way?

Perhaps. The craze phase of telephone-number growth, at least in Britain, is done. Poker is harder to find on Sky (although it’s still there), and many players have given up.

But the industry is not going to go away any time soon. And then there’s the elephant in the room ? the US. If the UK quoted operators (Party, 888, Empire Online) are allowed back in, that would provide a major boost to liquidity and serve as a shot in the arm. The poker companies are not laying their hands down yet.

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