A shot across the bow? Malta gaming leaders unfazed by Swedish incursion

A report from a Swedish governmental inquiry calls for the creation of a licensing system which would allow gambling operators to apply for licences for specific areas of casino gaming

Matthew Vella
10 May 2017, 9:19am
State-owned casino Svenska Spel have already expressed an interest in adding online casino gaming to its casino offering
State-owned casino Svenska Spel have already expressed an interest in adding online casino gaming to its casino offering
A shot across the bow. At least, it is how one industry insider describes the latest move by the Swedish government seeking to capitalise on the success built by Scandinavian firms who sought out Malta’s licensing jurisdiction and set up one of the island’s major service industries.

A Swedish governmental inquiry has proposed in a new report that the country’s regulated gambling firms should be allowed to offer online casino gambling to their customers, in an effort to increase competition in the industry.

The report calls for the creation of a licensing system which would allow gambling operators to apply for licences for specific areas of casino gaming. It also proposes allowing Swedish casino operators to offer online casino gaming, something which is prohibited under monopoly rules.

State-owned casino Svenska Spel have already expressed an interest in adding online casino gaming to its casino offering, with many other firms tipped to follow suit should the proposed system be implemented.

Today Sweden’s online gaming market is dominated by overseas firms like Bet365, Unibet and Betsson. According to media consultancy Mediavision, an average of between 200,000 and 230,000 gamblers are using these casinos every month. Many of them also have a Malta presence: Betsson alone employs 1,800 – at least 1,000 in Malta at its headquarters at the Ta’ Xbiex waterfront – a place that offers a glimpse into a world of work that offers new values, team-building holidays, and better salaries.

While Sweden’s current laws give Svenska Spel a monopoly over online gambling, which laws have been declared to be in violation of EU treaty law, companies like Unibet spend more on advertising in Sweden than Svenska Spel. If the government accepts the report’s conclusions, the Swedish Gambling Authority will gain the authority to issue licences to operators such as Bet365, Unibet and PokerStars with licence fees that will range from $6,600 to $77,000, annual fees from $3,300 to $110,000, and gambling taxes set at 18% of gross gaming revenue.

That is still not as competitive as Malta, with its maximum €8,500 annual licence fee and remote gaming tax capped at €466,000 per licensee and just 0.5% of gross amount of bets for a remote fixed-odds betting licence.

Christian Sammut
Christian Sammut
At least for now, it seems that Malta’s gaming leaders can study well what is about to happen and plan their next move.

“This is a new proposal by the Swedish government, and there is still a long process to be carried out,” says George Debrincat, who chairs Malta’s Remote Gaming Council, the industry body representing gaming companies.

“The gaming industry wants to operate in regulated markets where clear guidelines exist, since regulated markets protect the consumer and set a base for competition which provides the best service and prices to the consumers. The MRGC is aware of these new proposals, but the industry is not bound by geographical borders, and this means that, companies which have a licence issued by other countries, can still continue to operate from Malta.”

This alone suggests that the Maltese framework for gaming companies derives its strength not just from its licensing body. Today’s gaming companies enjoy low fees and generous tax advantages, and Malta’s low inflation levels have enabled them to keep high salary increases at bay. This has allowed gaming companies to employ Scandinavians at lower, if competitive salaries in Malta, who in turn are attracted to the island’s quality of life.

PokerStars, which offers the largest online poker cardroom in the world, operates from both the Isle of Man and Malta, with other support offices in other locations. Eric Hollreiser, Vice President Corporate Communications, says that the company remains fully committed to its Malta base.

“PokerStars welcomes the online gaming legislation that has been proposed in Sweden. We are strong supporters of smart and sensible legislation that protects consumers, promotes regulatory oversight and provides choice. We are fully committed to our operation in Malta, which is a key office with hundreds of employees from which we operate the PokerStars EU licence across much of Europe.”

Christian Sammut, the chair of Gaming Malta, which is the Maltese government’s investment promotion arm for the gaming industry, is also cautious about this warning shot from Sweden. With an industry that benefits from a lack of EU harmonisation, Malta has profited from what he describes “an articulated patchwork of gaming national rules which differ from one country to the next, from the prohibitive to the more liberal systems.”

“We monitor jurisdictional developments from a gaming perspective and gauge our competitiveness and outreach thereafter. It is too early to comment on this upcoming development and one would have to analyse the legal framework being proposed once it gets notified under the required European process and whether it respects European law.” 

George Debrincat
George Debrincat
The reason behind Malta’s success in this industry today is perhaps illustrated in a ‘national package’ of technology, human resources, and licensing and taxation rules that have turned the island into the primary jurisdiction of establishment for gaming companies. Sammut dubs it “second to none” and that Sweden’s baby steps into opening its market, will not bring forth a new gold rush.

“The opening up of a new jurisdiction would not be the catalyst for a company or operator to relocate his operations to this new jurisdiction, unless that operator is totally and solely facing this single market,” Sammut says. In fact, he adds, it won’t just be an open market in Sweden that will entice an operator to relocate their business.

“They may still opt to service their newly licensed operations in and from Malta in view of the single market principles and freedoms, together with all the incentives Malta offers… Envisaging an adverse impact of sorts would be very premature at this stage.”

Debrincat adds that the Maltese industry carries out a regular analysis of the country’s laws and the added value of the sector’s investment. “The remote gaming industry represents over 12% in gross domestic product… Malta should not be afraid to raise awareness of its regulatory framework and the risk based ongoing compliance efforts undertaken to address legitimate policy concerns.

“I am sure you appreciate that although we are involved in business of odds, no one knows what the future holds. The best warranty against companies moving out is to ensure that Malta remains competitive and the best place for companies to establish themselves successfully.” 

Matthew Vella is executive editor at MaltaToday.