Opap’s Greek Gambling Monopoly Ruled Illegal by EU Court

Greece’s gambling monopoly, owned by Opap SA (OPAP), was ruled illegal by the European Union’s highest court, sending shares of the company down as much as 21 percent.

EU law bars national rules granting exclusive gambling rights without cutting the opportunities to bet, the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled today. The case was filed by Opap competitors Stanleybet International Ltd., William Hill Plc (WMH) and Sportingbet Plc.

The EU’s top court has examined a series of cases brought by betting companies including Bwin.Party Digital Entertainment Plc (BPTY), Ladbrokes Plc (LAD) and Betfair Ltd. over whether state monopolies may block them from operating freely across the 27- nation bloc. Online companies have also called on the EU to take action against what they say are unjustified national restrictions on cross-border Internet gambling.

The decision “clearly shows that the expansion of Opap’s activities is not EU compliant,” Clive Hawkswood, chief executive of the Remote Gambling Association, which includes the three Opap competitors, said in an e-mailed statement. “We hope that this ruling will spur the Greek authorities into action and to bring their legislation into line with EU regulations.”

Photographer: Anax/Bloomberg

A pedestrian passes an Opap betting shop in downtown Athens. Close

A pedestrian passes an Opap betting shop in downtown Athens.

Photographer: Anax/Bloomberg

A pedestrian passes an Opap betting shop in downtown Athens.

The EU court said that Greece could preserve the monopoly by subjecting it to stricter controls to ensure consumer protection. If it fails to do that, the country would have to open it up to competition from other companies in the EU.

Opap shares were down almost 11 percent to 6.32 euros at 12:56 p.m. in Athens, for the biggest drop on the Stoxx Europe 600 Index. Opap declined to comment immediately on the decision.

Gaming Shares

Shares of the other gaming companies rose after the ruling. Ladbrokes rose as much as 4 percent while William Hill jumped as much as 2.4 percent in London.

“For short term trading it leaves open concerns for Opap,” said Yiannis Sinapis, an analyst at Athens-based Euroxx Securities. “However, in our view the ECJ leaves the case open, although with limitations, for Greece’s high court council to have the final verdict.”

An adviser to the EU court in a non-binding opinion on the case in September said the national court can’t conclude the legislation is trying to restrict gambling in Greece if Opap, in which the government is a minority shareholder, pursues an expansionist policy.

The Greek tribunal handling the appeals sought guidance from the EU court in 2011. EU Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier said last year he is working on an action plan to rein in illegal and “unregulated” online gambling.

Addiction, Crime

The EU court has said in some previous cases that gambling monopolies may be justified if they reduce betting addictions or criminal activities in a proportional manner.

Stanleybet, Sportingbet and William Hill -- all U.K.-based companies -- applied separately for Greek licenses to offer gambling in stores and online. Their applications were rejected based on national law, which they argued violated EU rules guaranteeing freedom to provide services and set up business anywhere in the bloc.

The cases are: C-186/11, Stanleybet International Ltd, William Hill Organisation Ltd. and William Hill Plc v. Ipourgos Ikonomias kai Ikonomikon and Ipourgos Politismou; C-209/11, Sportingbet plc (SBT) v. Ipourgos Politismou and Ipourgos Ikonomias kai Ikonomikon.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Bodoni in Luxembourg at sbodoni@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Anthony Aarons at aaarons@bloomberg.net

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