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January 13, 2010 News & Reports, 2010

Yet another very busy year is about to kick off for the Italian gaming market regulations-wise.

Yet another very busy year is about to kick off for the Italian gaming market regulations-wise. Indeed if 2009 marked the completion of a 3-year long progressive liberalisation of the domestic market whose cherry on the pie was the legalisation under Law No. 77 of 24 June 2009 of online fixed odds games of chance (ie online casino and other Vegas-style games) as well as online poker and ring games (altogether referred to below as “the New Games”), this year will see their actual launch once AAMS – the Italian gaming regulator – rolls out the relevant implementing regulations any time soon.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of the New Games is their brand new tax regime which will feature a flat 20% tax rate on gross profits. This provision is of paramount importance as it paves the way to the launch of games that otherwise could have never been offered in Italy given its penalising turnover-based tax regime that notably will continue to apply to sports and horse races betting, bingo, lotteries and skill games (including online poker tournaments that will in fact continue to be taxed at 3% of the total tournament buy-ins sold by the operator)

Initially the New Games, once regulated, will be offered only by the existing AAMS licensees ie those 60 operators or so already holding an Italian remote gaming licence, who will be entitled to offer casino and poker services on their Italian gaming platforms subject to seeking an ad hoc authorisation from AAMS that will have to vet and approve each proposed New Game to ensure it fully complies with the relevant regulations

When AAMS re-opens the licensing process later this year, also other operators currently unlicensed in Italy but willing to enter the local market will eventually be able to legally and legitimately join the bunch. In this regard it should be mentioned that at request of the European Commission, on 18 December 2009 AAMS notified to Brussels also the full package of secondary rules attached to Law no. 88 of 7 July 2009 devising the new remote gaming (ie. online, mobile and interactive television) frame legislation and related licensing rules, that notably had already been scrutinised and approved by the EC authorities.

As a result of the above mentioned second notification round which is currently pending, the re-opening of the AAMS licensing process will be delayed until sometime in the Q2 because the EC wants to take a closer look to all the administrative, technical and operational guidelines attached to the new licensing rules.

In light of such regulatory lag and the quite possible jam of applications that will inevitably ensue when AAMS gives the green light and all applicants will almost simultaneously rush their filings, a possible option to gain quicker market entry for currently unlicensed operators might be that of seeking a shortcut by either taking over an existing licence (in which case they should obviously be prepared to pay premium money) or entering into white label arrangements with an AAMS-licensed operator.

As a quick refresher for those not already familiar with the main features of the Italian-style remote gaming as re-shaped under Law 88/09, these can be listed as follows:

· An AAMS-granted licence is absolutely required for the offer of remote gaming services to Italian residents. Not only offshore-based, but even operators licensed elsewhere in the EU will not be allowed to carry out across-the-border services in Italy
· The one-off cost of the licence will be €360.000 (VAT included) payable upon licence issuance. All licences, no matter when actually granted, will lapse on 30 June 2016
· The remote gaming licence will cover fixed odds/pool sports and horserace betting, skill gaming (including online poker and any other card tournaments which are all eligible for skill gaming classification), online scratch-and-win (subject to a sub-distribution agreement with the current exclusive licence holder), online bingo (subject to payment of an extra €50.000 fee), online casino, online poker and other cash games, bets on virtual events and betting exchange (subject to these two games being regulated by AAMS)
· The AAMS licence is open to any applicant based in an European Economic Area jurisdiction (“EEA” ie European Union countries plus Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein).
· The licence may be issued directly to a foreign applicant provided he holds an EEA passport
· The licence may be issued even to a non-operator (such as a startup or a company coming from a totally different business) subject to (i) release in favour of AAMS of an €1,5 million bank guarantee and (ii) certification by an independent auditing firm that the applicant holds all required technological infrastructure and management resources to run the licence
· Remote gaming services can only be offered to Italian residents through a dedicated platform which must be linked up the centralised system ran by AAMS via its technological partner SOGEI so that each bet/wager placed by an Italian customer may be recorded, monitored, tracked, validated and taxed in real time
· Provision of remote gaming services from a foreign-based ‘.com’ platform to Italian residents is strictly forbidden and subject to the blacklist restrictions currently enforced by AAMS as well as to prosecution
· Whoever offers online gaming services in Italy without holding an AAMS-granted licence is subject to imprisonment from 6 months up to three years
· Whoever organises, offers and takes remote bets in Italy on any games regulated by AAMS but in a way other than that required by the AAMS rules, is subject to arrest from three months up to one year and to a fine ranging from €500 to €5000 even if the violator does hold an AAMS licence
· Foreign-based AAMS licensees are allowed to keep their gaming servers abroad provided they are located in the EEA space and a full, real time connection with the AAMS centralised system is in place
· The gaming software running on all games offered on the Italian platform must be certified by an AAMS-approved testing laboratory

Let alone the New Games, the 2010 year will see also other important developments in the gaming field.

With regard to online bingo, the first-ever virtual hall just went live and it is anticipated that other operators will follow suit shortly.

As for lottery games (both online and offline), in the wake of the stay order issued by the first instance administrative court that late last year froze the award of an exclusive 9-year licence to the only bidder (Consorzio Lotterie Nazionali of the Lottomatica group), it will now be up to the central administrative court of appeals (Consiglio di Stato) in the next few months to adjudicate the case by definitely confirming the licence to CLN as opposed to ruling that the licence tender is to be carried out afresh so as to redress certain procedural irregularities. The current licence, always held by CLN, is due to lapse in May this year so a decision is expected fairly shortly.

Another brand new gaming product that will be launched during the course of 2010 is the video lottery (“VLT”). AAMS is currently in the middle of a testing process of various server-based VLT systems which is a condition precedent to then call later this year a proper licence tender open to national and EEA-based bidders. The VLT tests are being conducted by the 10 national operators already holding a licence to remotely connect the terrestrial network of slot machines to the AAMS centralised database, with whom all major VLT system providers and software manufacturers have teamed up to exploit this important market opportunity. Indeed, once VLTs are made available in dedicated premises such as gaming arcades, betting shops and bingo halls, Italians will be able to play on much more powerful and upgraded machines than the current slots delivering a more entertaining and interactive game with better payouts and higher jackpots.

Bearing in mind that in the past month of November the total coin-in figures concerning the card-operated, low-sophisticated slots currently active on the market amounted to nearly €2.250mln, it is easy to predict that after the advent of VLTs the total turnover figures will receive a big boost.

As already mentioned, the VLTs will be hosted in dedicated areas within larger gaming facilities with a strict ratio between maximum allowed number of machines and actual size of the facility itself. The one-stop-shop logistic solution where an integrated offer of gaming services is made readily available to consumers thereby enabling them to place a sports bet, play bingo or have fun with a VLT all at the same time and in the same premises, will result in the establishment of as many “mini-casinos” scattered throughout the national territory. In a situation where the legislative and regulatory status quo on terrestrial casinos (notably seeing just four old-fashioned, off-licence, brick-and-mortar casinos) is not poised to be affected by the liberalisation wave for the foreseeable future, the “mini-casinos” are bound to bring a serious challenge to the quadripolistic regime currently existing in Italy on land-based gambling much to the advantage of the end consumers on the one hand, and the free competition on the other.

The year ahead is also likely to see further convergence and integration between AAMS-licensed operators and the market conditions will most probably lead to new joint venture and partnership deals being struck between operators holding an Italian licence and outsiders willing to do gaming business in this country in a law-abiding and competitive fashion.

Although the Italian gaming arena is undoubtedly quite packed already, the market is not yet fully saturated and there still appears to be some leeway for those newcomer operators prepared to take up ever tougher challenges, operationally, financially and commercially, in an effort to get their own slice of the Italian cake. Particularly so, in a situation where other first-tier European markets do not seem to be proceeding at the same speedy and rather operator-friendly pace as Italy when it comes to opening up their respective gates to international operators eager to penetrate new territories and gain new customers across the Old Continent.

*Quirino Mancini is a partner -Head of the sports, media & gaming practice at Sinisi Ceschini Mancini


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