TSG: Stars Group Analysis and Research Report
2018-09-10 - by Asif , Contributing Analyst - 104 views
The Stars Group is a leading provider of technology-based products and services in the global gaming and interactive entertainment industries. The Stars Group’s gaming business is its primary business and source of revenue and currently consists of the operations of Stars Interactive Holdings (IOM) Limited and its subsidiaries and affiliates, which it acquired in August 2014 (the “Stars Interactive Group Acquisition”), and CrownBet Holdings Pty Limited and its subsidiaries and affiliates (“CrownBet”), in which it acquired a majority equity interest in February 2018.
Through its Stars Interactive Group division, which is based in the Isle of Man and operates globally, and CrownBet, which operates and is based in Australia, The Stars Group owns and operates gaming and related interactive entertainment businesses, such as online (including desktop and mobile) real-money poker, casino and sports betting (also known as sportsbook) and play-money poker and casino. The Corporation offers these products and services under several ultimately owned brands, including, among others, PokerStars, PokerStars Casino, BetStars, Full Tilt, and the PokerStars Players No Limit Hold’em Championship, European Poker Tour, PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, Latin American Poker Tour, Asia Pacific Poker Tour, PokerStars Festival, and PokerStars MEGASTACK live poker tour and event brands. These brands together have millions of registered customers globally and collectively form the largest poker business in the world, comprising online poker games and tournaments, sponsored live poker competitions, marketing arrangements for branded poker rooms in popular casinos in major cities around the world, and poker programming and content created for television and online audiences. The Stars Group currently estimates that PokerStars holds a significant majority of the market share of real-money poker player liquidity, or the volume of real-money online poker players, in regions where it offers real-money online poker and is among the leaders in play-money online poker player liquidity. The Stars Group also estimates that its combined online casino, including PokerStars Casino, is currently among the world’s largest and fastest growing and currently has one of the largest active player bases among its competitors. The Stars Group also has an emerging sportsbook, BetStars, that is currently primarily focused on regulated jurisdictions within the European Union and a majority equity interest in CrownBet, which currently operates in the regulated Australian online sports betting market.
The Stars Group offers online poker primarily through its PokerStars and Full Tilt brands, including through its desktop client interface, and online and mobile offerings. While the brands are distinct, all poker customers currently play on the same PokerStars platform, improving liquidity and allowing the Corporation to focus R&D and operational resources on a single platform. Descriptions of these brands and their respective offerings are provided below.
PokerStars, which launched in 2001, is the world’s largest online poker site with an estimated significant majority of the market share of real-money online poker player liquidity in regions where it offers real-money online poker. PokerStars and its related brands (including Full Tilt) have millions of registered customers globally, supported in 16 different languages. In online poker, PokerStars provides desktop (including through its downloadable client interface), online and mobile offerings to its customers. Among PokerStars’ current real-money poker offerings are ring (or cash) games, including traditional games and fast-fold variants, such as Zoom, and tournament-style games, including scheduled multi-table game variants and sit and go variants (which are tournaments that do not have pre-assigned start times but rather begin when all the seats are filled), such as Spin & Go (which is a fast-paced sit and go with variable prize pools that can be multiples of the applicable buy-in). PokerStars’ poker product offerings are also currently varied among buy-in and limit amounts and types, as well as among numerous poker game variants (e.g., Texas Hold-‘Em, Omaha, Stud, Draw and mixed games). The Stars Group believes that PokerStars is home to some of the largest online poker events and the biggest weekly tournaments, both in terms of dollar amount and number of players, and has greater player liquidity and offers more daily tournaments than any other online poker site. More than 182 billion hands of poker have been dealt on PokerStars since inception, which is more than any other online poker site. PokerStars has set many records, including the largest number of players in an online poker tournament (more than 253,000), the largest prize pool awarded for a series of online tournaments (approximately $93.8 million), and the largest ever single online tournament prize (approximately $12.4 million). PokerStars’ mobile applications are currently among the most popular real-money poker applications on the iOS and Android platforms according to App Annie and Apple’s iTunes App Store and based on the number of downloads and overall customer ratings.
PokerStars also offers play-money and social poker through its desktop client and/or mobile applications, including through PokerStars.net, and its PokerStars Play, Solitaire Poker by PokerStars, Jackpot Poker by PokerStars and Casino Rush by PokerStars games, which are available on various online, mobile, social and television platforms and applications, such as Facebook, Apple’s iOS and Apple TV, Google’s Android and Amazon’s Kindle. Play-money and social poker involve playing poker games for play-money, or virtual currency, through free websites, social networks, or other mobile or television applications. Such “free-to-play” products are designed to create social interaction, engagement and competition, provide PokerStars with an additional customer acquisition channel, and globally promote the game of poker, and are monetized through advertising and the sale of play-money chips (although cash prizes are not awarded).
The Stars Group’s product development team continuously analyzes the data generated by its customers’ game play and social interactions, as well as customer feedback, to guide the creation of new content, features, games and game variants, and to enhance its platforms. For example, following the launches of Rush in 2010, Zoom in 2012, Spin & Go in 2014 and Knockout Poker in 2016, The Stars Group continues to focus on developing new and innovative poker products and variants to attract new audiences (including those who may not have previously considered playing real-money poker games, such as play-money or social players and the video gaming community), reactivate inactive players with exciting new games, and continuously engage and retain existing active customers. In 2017, PokerStars announced the beta launch of its PokerStars Power Up product, which is an innovative new variant of online poker that combines traditional poker with modern video games through the ability of the player to influence hands and change game play in a variety of ways.
The Stars Group believes it has a premier, scalable platform that diversifies its products and services both geographically and across verticals and as such, continuously works to enhance this proprietary platform. The Corporation has invested significantly in its technology infrastructure since inception to provide a positive, best-in-class experience for its customers, not only from a gameplay perspective, but most importantly, with respect to security and integrity across its product and service offerings. The Stars Group dedicates nearly all of its R&D investments to its online gaming business, which seeks to provide broad market applications for products and services derived from its technology base, and expects to continue investing significantly in R&D in an effort to constantly improve customer experience and engagement. To support its strong reputation for security and integrity, The Stars Group employs what it believes to be industry‑leading practices and systems with respect to various aspects of its technology infrastructure, including, but not limited to, information and payment security, game integrity, customer fund protection, marketing and promotion, customer support, responsible gaming, and loyalty programs, rebates and rewards (i.e., incentives).
The Stars Group also monitors and assesses its products and services, including through advanced business intelligence analytics regarding customer engagement and behavior, to continuously improve the experience for all of its customers and to ensure a safe, competitive and enjoyable environment. This includes implementing policies and controls over the use of abusive technological tools and software, assessing pricing and incentives, and introducing improvements to product ecosystems. In particular, The Stars Group has implemented, and continues to implement, policies and controls to significantly reduce or eliminate the use of certain sophisticated technology that may provide an artificial competitive advantage for certain customers over others. It has also made, and may continue to make, changes to its pricing and incentives to ensure that they align with its objectives to reward customers for loyalty and behavior that is positive to the overall customer experience and the particular product’s ecosystem. For example, since the beginning of 2016, The Stars Group has introduced certain improvements in the poker ecosystem to benefit and attract high-value, net-depositing customers (primarily recreational players) and reduce incentives for high-volume, net-withdrawing customers, and adjust the pricing on poker games and tournaments (also known as rake and tournament fees) on certain offerings (which resulted in an effective increase in pricing). Most recently, the Corporation launched the Stars Rewards program in July 2017, which is an integrated cross vertical loyalty program focused on improving customer engagement, retention and the player experience. The Stars Rewards program seeks to offer an exciting, personalized gaming experience that rewards players for their overall gameplay across poker, casino and sportsbook, in each case where available. Stars Rewards gives players randomized prizes based on a number of factors, including the time passed since the player made his or her first real-money deposit, volume of play, player impact on the overall ecosystem, such as whether the player is a net-withdrawing versus net-depositing player, and product and game selection.
The Stars Group anticipates that these and future planned improvements, despite an expected overall decrease in volume of gameplay and total deposit balances held by high-volume, net-withdrawing players, will create a more attractive environment and experience for recreational players, allowing them to play longer on its platforms and engage in its various product offerings. The Stars Group believes these initiatives have led and may continue to lead to an increase in net deposits (as defined in the 2017 Annual MD&A). The Stars Group has been, among other things, reinvesting resulting savings and funds from the poker ecosystem improvements into marketing, increased incentives for certain customers, bonuses and promotions, new poker products and services, R&D, and to help offset costs in the business, including gaming duties and other costs related to promoting the regulation of online gaming in various jurisdictions.
Full Tilt, which launched in 2004, quickly became a popular online poker site by delivering what the Corporation believes was innovative and realistic online poker game play, which evolved from and was based on input from some of the world’s leading poker players. Prior to its migration onto the PokerStars platform in May 2016, Full Tilt served a global customer base of more than 23.9 million registered customers and had dealt more than 36.5 billion hands of poker on its proprietary software. Similar to PokerStars, under the Full Tilt brand customers can play both ring games, including traditional games and its fast-fold variants, such as Rush, and tournament-style games, including scheduled multi-table games and sit and go variants, such as Jackpot Sit & Go.
Online Casino and Sportsbook
In addition to pursuing growth opportunities in poker in existing and new markets, including through the innovation of new product features and enhancements, geographic expansion, improvements to the poker ecosystem, and increased marketing campaigns in 2018, The Stars Group believes there are potentially significant opportunities for growth and diversification of revenues in the online casino and sportsbook verticals. The Stars Group believes that such potential opportunities include the ability to leverage its brand and product recognition (particularly poker) to acquire new customers, including recreational customers, and capitalize on network effects and cross-selling these new verticals to its existing and new customer base. The Stars Group continues to improve its online casino and sportsbook product offerings, including through mobile applications and other enhancements, expanding its game and sports portfolios and geographic reach, and launching external marketing campaigns. In addition to online casino and sportsbook, The Stars Group currently intends to expand upon and explore other growth opportunities, including, without limitation, expanding upon its current social gaming offering, and pursuing other interactive entertainment opportunities.
In January 2014, Full Tilt expanded its game portfolio by initially offering a variety of play-money table and casino games on its global online sites, including a range of single- and multi-player variations of blackjack and roulette, online slots and live dealer games. In November 2014, The Stars Group completed the introduction of play- and real-money casino games under the PokerStars brand to players in eligible markets, beginning with casino table games, single- and multi-player blackjack and roulette through the PokerStars desktop client interface. Throughout 2015, The Stars Group expanded its PokerStars online casino game offerings in certain markets to include live dealer games and slot machines as well as offering a limited selection of slot machines on its mobile applications, and in 2016, The Stars Group introduced the PokerStars Casino brand while adding a standalone mobile application for the brand, a “Vegas” tab, which provides access to additional slots, Millionaire’s Island, the Corporation’s first in-house developed progressive jackpot slot game, and additional tier-one slot games. In 2017, The Stars Group launched Stars Mega Spin, its second in-house developed progressive jackpot slot game with a $1 million jackpot guarantee, and just over 170 new slot games from industry-leading game studios.
Since the introduction of online casino, The Stars Group has focused on improving its casino offerings, including through the integration of more games across platforms and expanding their availability into new geographies, and on cross-selling its casino offerings to its existing online poker customer base. However, in addition to continued cross-sell efforts, the Corporation continued measured external marketing efforts for its online casino, which it began in late-2016, to attract new customers and retain existing customers and expects to continue to do so throughout 2018.
While the Corporation continues to improve its product offerings, including by enhancing its mobile offering and expanding both its game portfolio and, to a lesser extent, its geographic reach, it estimates that its combined online casino, including PokerStars Casino, is currently among the world’s largest and fastest growing and currently has one of the largest active player bases among its competitors. Currently, approximately three quarters of The Stars Group’s aggregate real-money active unique poker customers are located in jurisdictions where its online casino offerings are available (primarily in Europe). To expand The Stars Group’s online casino offerings, it currently anticipates focusing on integrating additional casino games, including top performing slots and additional in-house developed games, expanding into certain additional jurisdictions, adding to its portfolio of unique and bespoke promotion tools, improving its Stars Rewards cross-vertical loyalty program and its VIP treatment program and the overall customer experience, enhancing its mobile applications, and continuing its cross-sell efforts along with measured and targeted external marketing campaigns.
The Corporation also offers play-money and social casino through its desktop client and mobile applications, including through PokerStars, Jackpot Poker by PokerStars and Casino Rush by PokerStars, which are available on various online, mobile, social and television platforms and applications, such as Facebook, Apple’s iOS and Apple TV, Google’s Android and Amazon’s Kindle. Play-money and social casino involve playing casino games for virtual currency through free websites, social networks, or other mobile or television applications. Such “free-to-play” products are designed to create social interaction, engagement and competition, provide the Corporation with an additional customer acquisition channel and are monetized through advertising and the sale of play-money chips (although cash prizes are not awarded).
Real‑money online sportsbook involves online wagering on certain sporting and non-sporting events using real-money. The Stars Group initially launched limited sports betting during 2015 and later announced the introduction of its BetStars brand in December 2015, under which it currently offers sports betting products and services that are currently primarily focused on regulated jurisdictions within the European Union. Similar to real-money online casino, The Stars Group believes that real-money online sportsbook may attract new customers, primarily by cross-selling PokerStars customers to the BetStars brand, as well as acquiring new customers directly to the BetStars brand through external marketing.
Currently, almost two thirds of The Stars Group’s aggregate real-money active unique poker customers are located in jurisdictions where its online sports betting offerings are available (primarily in the European Union) through both online domains and dedicated iOS and Android mobile applications. To expand its offering in the future, BetStars intends to introduce innovative new betting products on the platform to distinguish the brand from competitors, such as the Spin & Bet product introduced in January 2016, which provides customers with the opportunity to potentially enhance their odds and potential payout, and expand into certain additional jurisdictions. In 2017, BetStars announced the launch of its new mobile betting application across certain European Union markets, which was designed to enhance the overall user experience. The Stars Group intends to continue focusing on increasing its cross-sell to poker players and developing sportsbook as a strong secondary customer acquisition channel to poker by, among other things, improving the localization of its offering in certain European markets, improving the user experience, closing product gaps, enhancing its mobile applications, increasing marketing initiatives and utilizing unique promotional programs.
BetStars offers a range of betting options across dozens of sports, including football, tennis, basketball and horseracing, as well as specialty offerings such as eSports and poker. The brand also features a range of in-play betting options and exclusive offers and promotions.
The Corporation intends to leverage third-party services for certain features of its sports betting offering while it continues to control the payments, customer service, marketing and other key differentiating factors of the business.
In addition to BetStars, the Corporation acquired a 62% equity interest in CrownBet from Crown Resorts Limited (ASX: CWN) in February 2018. On March 6, 2018, the Corporation also entered into agreements to increase its equity interest in CrownBet from 62% to 80% and for CrownBet to acquire William Hill Australia Holdings Pty Ltd. (“William Hill Australia”), an Australian-based online sportsbook. Business Strategy of the Corporation
The Stars Group focuses on the creation of long-term shareholder value by building upon its existing strengths and expanding and strengthening its portfolio of products and services that it expects will deliver sustainable, profitable long-term growth. To do this, The Stars Group seeks certain ongoing, principal strategic initiatives, including:
- Strengthening and Expanding its Products and Services and Creating the Best Customer Experience: The Stars Group currently intends to expand its current online gaming offerings through, among other means, the continued rollout and introduction of new and innovative poker offerings and marketing campaigns, continued improvements in the poker ecosystem to benefit and attract high-value, net-depositing customers (primarily recreational players), continued improvements to its customer loyalty program, Stars Rewards, the continued development and expansion of its online sports betting and casino products and services, and increased marketing for its BetStars brand to facilitate customer acquisition through a secondary channel. The Stars Group’s primary focus will continue to be on its core poker offerings, which are currently its primary customer acquisition channels and in which the Corporation believes it currently has a competitive advantage. However, through the continued expansion of its sports betting and casino offerings, The Stars Group expects to cross-sell to existing customers, attract new customers, and keep customer leisure time and spending within The Stars Group’s various products and services, all while implementing a consistent brand strategy across all three verticals. In addition, The Stars Group currently intends to selectively expand upon its current social gaming offerings and pursue other interactive entertainment opportunities. The Stars Group seeks to become a global market leader across its online gaming verticals through not only its comprehensive and innovative product offerings, but also its focus on creating the best customer experience in the industry, by concentrating on customer enjoyment, engagement and service as well as its dedication to responsible gaming, security, game integrity and transparency. Moreover, The Stars Group seeks to develop its products and services and the intellectual property underlying them by, among other things, (i) developing product enhancements and improvements, including with respect to the security of its technology and customer information, as well as new content and features to enhance the overall customer experience, (ii) expanding the flexibility of its product offerings and technology infrastructure to allow for customization and integration to address new markets and jurisdictional demands, including new niche markets, (iii) improving its product and service offerings and underlying software and technology platform to adapt to the rapidly changing nature of the gaming and interactive entertainment industries and to ensure customers are engaged in a safe, competitive and enjoyable environment, and that it is at the forefront of responsible and sustainable gaming, (iv) developing and reinforcing its machine learning and data analytics capabilities to support the foregoing and future growth, and (v) protecting its intellectual property in jurisdictions where it determines there are strategic or other benefits for doing so.
- Expanding its Geographical Reach and Promoting Regulation: The Corporation currently intends to expand its geographical reach by offering its products and services in certain additional jurisdictions, including through the promotion of the regulation of online gaming in new and emerging markets and potential partnerships or arrangements with existing operators or other third parties, including, without limitation, states within the United States, and certain countries within Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. The Stars Group currently expects that these and other jurisdictions may become significant growth opportunities. With respect to the United States, certain subsidiaries of the Corporation hold a transactional waiver authorizing them to conduct online gaming in New Jersey using the PokerStars and Full Tilt brands, and The Stars Group intends to seek approval to offer its online gaming products in certain other U.S. states if and when they regulate and establish an applicable licensing regime, including Pennsylvania, which passed legislation in late-2017 permitting certain online gaming within that commonwealth. The Corporation’s current strategy in Asia, including India, Latin and South America and Eastern Europe primarily seeks to promote brand awareness and market development through various gaming, non-gaming and land-based efforts, including, as applicable, establishing relationships with existing operators, the PokerStars sponsorship of brand ambassadors, and sponsored live events, the PokerStars LIVE branded poker rooms and the Corporation’s play-money offerings. The Stars Group also promotes shared liquidity for online poker in and across jurisdictions where it believes there would be a benefit not only to its business, but also to its customers, those jurisdictions and the overall online gaming industry. For example, in January 2018, the Corporation became the first online operator approved to offer a shared player pool between the locally licensed markets of France and Spain, and it intends to seek approval to enter into additional shared player pool markets in countries such as Italy and Portugal if and when they become available. The Stars Group’s overall strategy to expand its geographical reach includes, but is not limited to, (i) building relationships with governments and private operators, and (ii) working with regulators and government officials to implement regulations beneficial to its customers, the citizens of the regulating jurisdiction and the industry as a whole. Pursuing Operational Efficiencies: Beginning in 2016, the Corporation launched its operational excellence program to review its expense structure and identify areas for improvement that it believes will enhance shareholder value. So far, this program has resulted in rationalizing the Corporation’s operations, including consolidating and moving certain office locations. For example, during 2016 and 2017, certain office locations and departments, including in London, Sydney and Dublin, underwent various adjustments and restructurings to reduce costs and increase efficiency and focus. In early 2018, the Corporation opened an office in Bulgaria, which is generally a lower cost jurisdiction to place qualified personnel, and intends to relocate certain business operations functions there beginning in 2018. The Corporation expects to continue to focus on further optimizing its operations to potentially achieve a higher level of efficiency, effectiveness and quality throughout the organization, including capital investments to further automate and improve the effectiveness of certain business processes. The Corporation will also continuously assess and monitor the overall impact of these initiatives on its operations and performance throughout the year and expects to reinvest resulting savings into, among other things, R&D, and to help offset costs in the business, including gaming duties and other costs related to promoting the regulation of online gaming in various jurisdictions.
- Pursuing Strategic Transactions: In August 2014, The Stars Group completed the Stars Interactive Group Acquisition, which along with several previously announced divestitures of legacy businesses during 2015 and the divestiture of its non-core gaming investments in late 2017, transformed the Corporation into the leading online gaming company it is today. The Stars Group may pursue additional strategic acquisitions, partnerships or joint ventures to leverage its large customer base and further its strategy of long-term growth and to enhance shareholder value if appropriate opportunities arise, such as the Corporation’s previously disclosed acquisition of a 62% equity interest in CrownBet in February 2018 and its agreement to acquire an additional 18% equity interest in CrownBet and for CrownBet to acquire William Hill Australia. Pending any further strategic transactions, The Stars Group intends to continue its strategy of maximizing long-term shareholder value and pursuing sustainable, profitable growth, particularly through the growth and development of its core product offerings, online poker, casino and sportsbook.
Marketing Strategy and Revenue Model
The Stars Group markets its brands, products and services through various platforms and channels, including, without limitation, various media outlets, sponsored live poker tours and branded poker rooms (which also generate nominal revenue), and endorsement agreements. Below is a general description of such platforms and channels. Although The Stars Group’s primary focus has been and currently is on online poker, it intends to begin increasing its focus and attention on marketing efforts that highlight its online casino and sportsbook offerings.
The Stars Group has a multimedia approach that focuses on acquiring and retaining customers both online and offline for its brands, products and services. This multimedia approach includes, among other things, television programming and television advertisement campaigns, affiliate partnerships, digital advertisements and online campaigns, paid search optimization, various social media campaigns, including live-streaming, and other productions and content.
The Corporation broadcasts various televised poker programs and advertisement campaigns that run throughout the year at different intervals. Live poker tournaments are also filmed at various PokerStars sponsored events, including The Stars Group’s PokerStars sponsored tours, and broadcast as television shows in several countries. These sponsored live events are also broadcast online on various sites, including YouTube, Facebook, Twitch and PokerStars.tv. Other forms of television programs that the Corporation broadcasts include reality shows and poker-based dramas, which are developed and produced together with various production companies.
The Corporation also engages third-party search engine and online traffic optimization companies to increase the Corporation’s online presence and traffic to its websites. In addition, the Corporation employs various display campaigns through banner advertisements, social media campaigns, and paid-for placements in search engines. These campaigns are directed at both existing and new customers across all the Corporation’s platforms.
Poker Tours and Events
In addition to providing online and mobile gaming products and services, The Stars Group, through Stars Interactive Group, also sponsors some of the world’s largest live poker tours and produces televised or streamed coverage of such poker events.
PokerStars’ primary sponsored global live tours include PokerStars Players No Limit Hold’em Championship, European Poker Tour, PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, Latin American Poker Tour, Asia Pacific Poker Tour, PokerStars Festival and PokerStars MEGASTACK. As the sponsor, PokerStars promotes the brand through each tour’s widespread television or other multimedia distribution. The live poker tours consist of a number of events operated by local casinos and are largely marketed through various media sources and news coverage. In 2017 alone, PokerStars sponsored tours included more than 1,200 tournaments, with more than 200,000 player entries, representing over 100 different countries and awarding more than $265 million in prize money, increasing the total prize money awarded at PokerStars sponsored live events since inception to more than $1.5 billion. In 2018, the Corporation expects the sponsored tours and events to visit various cities and countries, including Barcelona, Dublin, Lille, London, Macau, Manila, Marbella, Monte-Carlo, Nassau, Prague and Sochi.
Founded in 2004, the European Poker Tour is known in the industry as Europe’s most popular poker tour, and has staged and hosted successful tournament series across Europe. The European Poker Tour is filmed and widely televised in various countries throughout the world and, in 2017, was live streamed with over 16.8 million cumulative unique daily viewers. The European Poker Tour attracted more than 13,000 players from 80 countries and offered lucrative prize pools, totaling approximately €150 million in 2017. The Asia Pacific Poker Tour, which hosts events at luxury casinos throughout Australasia, started in 2007 and The Stars Group believes it helped expand the popularity of poker in Asia. The Asia Pacific Poker Tour is responsible for bringing the first major government-sanctioned real-money “Texas Hold-‘em” poker tournaments to certain Asian countries, including South Korea. Founded in May 2008, the Latin America Poker Tour brought world-class poker tournaments to locations such as Chile, Panama, Brazil, Peru and Uruguay, and attracted more than 2,400 players from 30 countries with a total prize pool of approximately $4.5 million in 2017. The PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, which was founded in 2004 on a popular Caribbean cruise ship, is held each year at the Atlantis Resort and Casino on Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas. The PokerStars Caribbean Adventure is considered in the industry as one of the most popular poker events in the world and, since inception, has awarded more than $260 million in prize money. The PokerStars Caribbean Adventure has involved thousands of players since its inception, including hundreds of qualifiers each year from PokerStars sites, as well as various professional athletes and celebrities. In 2017, each of the European Poker Tour, PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, Asia Pacific Poker Tour and Latin America Poker Tour ran under the PokerStars Championship and PokerStars Festival names, but will return under their original names in 2018.
In late 2016, The Stars Group introduced PokerStars Festival, which is a sponsored live poker series that offers players a more recreational, relaxed atmosphere with lower buy-ins and greater prize pools and tours primarily throughout Europe, and in 2017, The Stars Group introduced PokerStars MEGASTACK, which also brings low buy-ins, but provides players with a more professional experience at entry-level tournaments held at live venues around Europe and the United States. In addition, in December 2017, The Stars Group launched the PokerStars Players No Limit Hold’em Championship, which is a $25,000 buy-in poker tournament that will be held in the Bahamas in January 2019 as part of the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure and will include $8 million in free tournament packages that The Stars Group will award to players throughout 2018 and an additional $1 million added by the Corporation to the winner of the tournament.
Branded Poker Rooms
The Stars Group also has marketing arrangements for branded live poker rooms, under the PokerStars LIVE name, at popular casinos in major cities around the world, including at the Hippodrome Casino in London, the Casino Barcelona in Barcelona and the City of Dreams Casino in Manila. The Corporation strives to enter into marketing arrangements for branded poker rooms at premier leisure and entertainment destinations around the world, particularly those that it believes have thriving gaming communities. These PokerStars LIVE branded rooms are operated by the local casino and adhere to the same global design concept but are tailored to the specific location, which in each case is developed by the Corporation along with a design agency, and is intended to provide a strong brand presence through common elements across each location.
The Stars Group endorses several ambassadors to promote its products and services, both at global and regional levels. These ambassadors include some of the most prominent professional poker players in the industry, sports stars and professional athletes, global celebrities, and friends of the brand who have a personal connection to or interest in poker, gaming or the Corporation’s brands in general. Each category is generally engaged to generate new customer participation and vertical growth as well as to enhance the customer experience and customer retention.
The Stars Group’s revenue model for its core product offerings is based primarily on two main offerings, real-money games and play-money games. Nearly all of The Stars Group’s revenues during the year-ended December 31, 2017 were, and the Corporation expects its revenues to continue to be, generated by its real-money online gaming offerings. For the same time period, the significant majority of The Stars Group’s revenues were generated through the provision of real-money online poker offerings, followed by online casino and sportsbook offerings combined, in each case derived entirely by group entities based outside of Canada and predominantly from customers based in the European Union. Gaming revenue comprises almost the entirety of the Corporation’s reported gaming revenues, with the remaining reported revenues generated from certain related real-money gaming revenues, including currency conversion fees. For additional information, see the 2017 Annual MD&A and 2017 Annual Financial Statements.
The Corporation’s revenues can be influenced by numerous factors, many of which it is unable to predict or are outside of its control, including without limitation, the impact of seasonality and the Corporation’s gross win margin, as described below under “Business of the Corporation—Seasonality and Other Factors Impacting the Business”, and the other risks and uncertainties set forth in this annual information form and the 2017 Annual MD&A, including under the headings “Risk Factors and Uncertainties” hereunder and thereunder.
The Corporation’s current core real-money online gaming offerings are poker, casino and sportsbook, each with its own revenue model.
In poker, players play against each other in either ring games (i.e., games for cash on a hand-by-hand basis) or in tournaments (i.e., players play against each other for tournament chips with prize money distributed to the last remaining competitors) or variations thereof. The Corporation collects a percentage of each pot, or the rake, up to a capped amount in ring games and a tournament entry fee for scheduled tournaments and sit and go tournaments, and does not generally have any of its own capital at risk (with an exception being the Spin & Go product where the tournament prize pool is a randomly determined multiple of the buy-in). These amounts are then reduced by applicable VAT in certain jurisdictions and offsets (as described below) to arrive at revenue.
Online casino offerings typically include the full suite of games available in land-based casinos, such as blackjack, roulette and slot machines. For these offerings, the Corporation functions similarly to land-based casinos, generating revenue through hold, or gross winnings, as players play against the house, and then these amounts are reduced by applicable VAT in certain jurisdictions and offsets to arrive at revenue. In online casino, the Corporation believes there is typically lower volatility from the statistical norm versus land-based casinos as there is generally a larger number of bets placed at small denominations.
Sportsbook involves customers wagering on certain sporting and non-sporting events, also referred to as turnover. Like casino offerings, the Corporation generates sportsbook revenues through hold based on a certain margin to ensure that the house has an advantage, and then these amounts are reduced by applicable VAT in certain jurisdictions and offsets to arrive at revenue.
Offsets for each vertical are the portion of gross revenue that the Corporation allocates to rebates, incentives and promotions, which are awarded as a result of game play or at the Corporation’s discretion, as applicable, though loyalty programs, free plays, sign-up bonuses, discounts, rebates, other rewards and incentives, and tournament overlays. Offsets are generally used to acquire new customers and retain and reactivate existing customers.
Play-money gaming involves players receiving virtual currency for free, or paying a fee to receive additional virtual currency, which can be used to play certain gaming offerings. Play-money gaming is permitted in various jurisdictions that may not otherwise permit real-money gaming, including most of the states in the United States. In the future, the Corporation may also generate revenue from advertising through its play-money gaming offering. The Corporation’s current play-money game offering primarily consists of poker, including on PokerStars.net and FullTilt.net and through the social gaming brands PokerStars Play, Jackpot Poker by PokerStars and Casino Rush by PokerStars. In these circumstances, there are no cash prizes or other prizes for monetary value, and in most cases, all the player fees are passed to the Corporation as revenue, unless the games are played through social platforms, in which case the platform operator retains a certain percentage (typically 30%) for distributing the offering. The Corporation’s play-money games may be played through the desktop client interface or through online, television and mobile platforms, including on social gaming platforms. The revenue for play-money is the sum of fees paid by customers (net of any percentage of the same retained by the particular platform operators), less applicable VAT in certain jurisdictions and certain promotional costs. The Corporation includes such revenue in its other gaming revenues.
Poker Tours and Events and Branded Poker Rooms
As described above, the Corporation sponsors certain live poker tours and events, uses its industry expertise to provide consultancy and support services to the casinos that operate the events, and has marketing arrangements for branded poker rooms at various locations around the world. The Corporation generates revenue from these sponsorships and marketing arrangements and includes such revenue in other gaming revenue.
Technology Infrastructure and Research and Development
The technology infrastructure used for The Stars Group’s online gaming business was designed to support its growth by having the flexibility and scalability to adapt and conform to the demands and changes in its products and services. The Stars Group’s product development philosophy is focused on continuous innovation in creating and improving its products and services. In addition, as the Corporation’s customer base grows, and the level of engagement from its customers increases, including on mobile devices, the Corporation’s computing capabilities and power will need to expand. The Stars Group continuously develops its proprietary platforms, games and content, and has invested significantly in its technology infrastructure to ensure a positive experience for its customers, not only from an entertainment perspective, but most importantly with respect to security and integrity across business segments and verticals. To support The Stars Group’s strong reputation for security and integrity, The Stars Group employs what it believes to be industry‑leading practices and systems, including machine learning based real-time data analytics, led by an internal information security group with respect to various aspects of its technology infrastructure, including, but not limited to, application level security, information and payment security, game integrity, customer fund, information and data protection, marketing and promotion, customer support, responsible gaming and loyalty and VIP programs.
The Corporation also uses third parties to provide cyber security, including, without limitation, anti-virus software, network monitoring software, firewalls, penetration testing and similar protection. These security and integrity systems routinely review and evaluate attempted breaches of the Corporation’s infrastructure, as well as customer backgrounds, game play, financial and transactional activity and related risks through a variation of management systems, including, without limitation, “know your customer” and related background screening (which collects age and identity information, as well as monitoring against certain prohibited persons and other watch lists), location screening through geolocation and other software, deposit screening, abnormal game play and movement of funds detection, withdrawals screening, collusion detection, bots and artificial intelligence detection (which detects artificial intelligence-driven game play) and prevention (including through changing aspects of or enhancing current product offerings or innovating new variants), multiple account alerts, account restriction and ban detection and a safe mode system (which is based on a customer’s risk profile and limits access to high risk deposit methods). These systems also include controls that, among other things, (i) restrict the use of third-party software components, also known as third-party tools (such as “heads-up displays” and “seating scripts”), for the purpose of collecting additional gameplay information or selecting specific opponents and (ii) prohibit data-mining of certain products (or the practice of accumulating a large set of information, such as poker hand histories, through the use of software as opposed to actual gameplay) for the purpose of analyzing and exploiting another customer’s activity, playing styles and tendencies. The Stars Group’s technology infrastructure and software is also subject to rigorous management and certification process testing and meets applicable compliance and regulatory requirements in numerous jurisdictions. See also “Regulatory Environment” and “Risk Factors and Uncertainties—Risks Related to Regulation” and “—Risks Related to the Corporation’s Intellectual Property and Technology.”
The Corporation’s R&D strategy seeks to provide broad market applications for products derived from its technology base. The Corporation’s R&D efforts are focused primarily on: (i) developing and delivering the Corporation’s pipeline of new products and services; (ii) revitalizing its existing product and services offerings through continued innovation; (iii) developing core technology and platforms for existing and future verticals; (iv) evolving the functionality, security and performance of its offerings and platforms; (v) continuously developing and extending the number of supported client platforms; (vi) developing infrastructure systems to provide the underlying support for the Corporation’s offerings, systems and platforms; (vii) providing a platform and tools for operations and marketing; and (viii) improving development and testing technologies. The Corporation also engages from time to time in longer term fundamental research and may do so in the future either directly or through the funding of third-party projects. The Corporation currently dedicates nearly all of its R&D investments to its online gaming business.
Markets and Customers
The gaming industry in general operates in a large, dynamic and growing global market with a variety of segments, including online (including mobile) and land-based poker, sports betting, casinos, bingo rooms, lotteries and other gaming mediums. According to gaming industry consultants, H2 Gambling Capital (“H2GC”), from 2003 to 2017, the combined global (including markets where The Stars Group does not currently operate real-money online gaming) interactive gaming verticals, including online real-money poker, casino, sports betting, horseracing, bingo, lotteries and skill-based and other games, have grown from approximately €6.6 billion to €40.5 billion in gross gaming revenues (“GGR”), defined as wagers or rakes plus bonuses, promotions, overlays and loyalty rewards, less prizes or winnings. Of this total, H2GC estimates that in 2017 alone, betting, i.e., racing and sports betting, comprised 50%, casino comprised 26%, state lotteries comprised 9%, poker comprised 6%, skill and other gaming and commercial lotteries comprised 5%, and bingo comprised 4%. H2GC estimates that the combined global interactive gaming GGR to grow to approximately €56.7 billion in 2022 (data as at February 8, 2018). This reflects a compounded annual growth rate (“CAGR”) of 7.0% from 2017 to 2022.
Online gaming operators take advantage of scale and technology to provide gaming to large networks of customers. Originating in the mid 1990’s, online gaming has grown steadily over time with improvements to technology, security and public sentiment coinciding with growth in national and local regulation of online gaming.
Set forth below is a general overview of the current market for the Corporation’s core verticals, i.e., real-money online poker, casino and sportsbook.
Online poker saw a rapid rise in popularity beginning in 2003 when Tennessee accountant Chris Moneymaker won the main event at the World Series of Poker, a prize of $2.5 million, after winning his entry in a $39 buy-in online satellite tournament on PokerStars. This rise in popularity saw global online poker grow significantly, notably in Europe and North America, until 2010. In 2011, two of the industry’s largest brands, PokerStars and Full Tilt, exited the U.S. market, where they held a significant majority of the online poker market share, impacting global poker player liquidity. Currently, The Stars Group does not offer its core real-money online poker offering in over 30 jurisdictions around the world, including the United States (except in the regulated market of New Jersey, and potentially in the near future in Pennsylvania). The Stars Group’s primary markets for real-money online poker include the European Union, certain other jurisdictions in the rest of Europe and the Americas (excluding the United States). Various industry data sources currently estimate that the United States still represents a potential growth opportunity for real-money online poker between 2017 and 2022, subject to more U.S. states regulating online poker, or online gaming or betting more broadly; currently, only New Jersey, Nevada, Delaware and Pennsylvania have, or recently passed legislation regarding, regulated online poker or online gaming. However, in recent years multiple states have considered or are currently considering proposed legislation to regulate online poker or online gaming, including Illinois, Michigan, New York, Massachusetts and California; while the Corporation currently believes more states will regulate online poker or online gaming in the future, there can be no assurance when this will happen, if at all.
Online casino has also seen rapid growth over the past decade, with GGR from the global market growing from €1.6 billion in 2003 to €10.6 billion in 2017 according to H2GC (such estimates include markets where The Stars Group does not currently operate real-money online casino). As online casino operators continue to expand content and increase product offerings, and more markets regulate online casino, H2GC forecasts GGR to grow to €15.1 billion in 2022, or at a CAGR of 7.4% from 2017 to 2022. According to H2GC, the majority of this growth is currently expected to come from Europe. The primary market for The Stars Group’s combined online casino offering is Europe, which comprised approximately 62% of the global online casino market in 2017 according to H2GC.
According to H2GC, online betting, comprising racing and sports betting, makes up the largest segment of the online gaming market at approximately €20.2 billion in GGR in 2017. As with online poker and online casino, according to H2GC, online sports betting saw significant growth from 2003 through 2016 as technology improved, e-commerce became more mainstream and national regulation of online betting grew (such estimates include markets where The Stars Group does not currently operate real-money online sportsbook). H2GC estimates online betting will continue to grow, with GGR reaching €27.4 billion in 2022, or at a CAGR of 6.3% from 2017 to 2022. The primary market for The Stars Group’s online sports betting offering is Europe, which comprised approximately 43% of the global online betting market in 2017 according to H2GC. See below under “Regulatory Environment—Regulation of the Corporation’s Business—Local Licenses and Approvals” regarding the potential future of sports betting in the United States.
For detailed information regarding the regulatory environment in which The Stars Group currently operates, The Stars Group’s current licenses and approvals, and The Stars Group’s current regulatory strategy, see “Regulatory Environment” below.
Seasonality and Other Factors Impacting the Business
The Stars Group’s business can fluctuate due to seasonal trends and other factors. Historically, given the geographies where the majority of the Corporation’s customers are located, and the related climate and weather in such geographies, among other things, revenues from the Corporation’s operations have been generally higher in the first and fourth fiscal quarters than in the second and third fiscal quarters. In addition, changes to the Corporation’s Stars Rewards loyalty program have an impact on net gaming revenue, which could also cause fluctuations in The Stars Group’s business. In online sports betting, fluctuations can also occur around applicable sports seasons, with increased customer activity around notable or popular sporting events, and with respect to gross win margin (or the total customer wagers less customer winnings as a proportion of the total amount wagered). As such, prolonged periods of high gross win margin can negatively impact customer experience, enjoyment and engagement levels thereby resulting in lower customer wagering volumes on sports betting or other gaming verticals. Conversely, while periods of low gross win margin tend to negatively impact revenues, this may be mitigated to an extent by increased customer wagering volume (generally referred to as recycling of winnings) due to the positive impact of customer-friendly results on customer experience, enjoyment and engagement. Notwithstanding, the impact on revenues may be mitigated by the positive or negative impact of gross win margins on customer wagering, which can fluctuate inversely with such margins.
As a result of the foregoing, results for any quarter are not necessarily indicative of the results that may be achieved in another quarter or for the full fiscal year. There can be no assurance that the seasonal trends and other factors that have impacted The Stars Group’s historical results will repeat in future periods as The Stars Group cannot influence or forecast many of these factors. For other factors that may cause The Stars Group’s business and results to fluctuate, including, without limitation, market risks, such as foreign exchange risks, see “Risk Factors and Uncertainties” below, and the 2017 Annual MD&A.