Scott Longley – The Football Pools: Swimming Against the Tide!

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Scott Longley

Seeing its active player numbers dwindle to around the quarter of a million mark, Scott Longley examines whether ‘The Football Pools’ can be updated for modern consumers. One of the UK oldest betting brands and the subject of multiple acquisition rumours, what role does ‘The Pools’ have in today’s industry. 

We are a long way away now from the days when football pools winner Viv Nicholson once famously declared to the newspapers she was going to “spend, spend, spend” after winning £152,319 in 1961. Nicholson subsequently became the pin-up for a British form of schadenfreude as she and her husband Keith duly frittered away their fortune in a very public spending spree. By 1965 after Keith died in a car crash, she was declared bankrupt and the morality tale was apparently made complete.

Over the subsequent 50 years, football pools winners have been replaced by lottery winners as the canvasses on which the wider population paints its hopes and fears about lucking their way towards extraordinary wealth. Yet despite being largely eclipsed, the football pools remains with us albeit in a much-diminished status and with none of the front-page headlines that previously accompanied the news of a prize winner.

According to the current operator Sportech – which spent the 2000s collecting together the various pools brands under a single Football Pools umbrella – from a peak of 10 million players just before the launch of the National Lottery in 1994, numbers have dwindled to around the quarter of a million mark.

footballpools
Source: Sportech

Given this history of decline it may seem surprising that the Football Pools are currently the subject of a bidding battle. First, Canadian-listed Contagious Gaming failed last summer with a bid for the whole of Sportech; subsequently NetPlay (reported by UK news sources to be part-funded by Teddy Sagi) put in a bid to buy the pools unit (the same company having previously bought the Vernons online gaming elements from Sportech in October 2013).

Now an unnamed consortium led by former Sportech chief operating officer Ian Hogg has emerged as the most likely buyer of the pools business with a bid rumoured to be worth circa £100m. Hogg stepped down from Sportech in 2014, and it is thought that he would take current division head Conleth Byrne to head up the business under the new stewardship. It is also thought the new venture would list on the stock exchange.

The value of the Football Pools lies in the rump subscriber customer base. The customer numbers decline in recent years has been largely as issue with the collections channel where, almost quite literally, the customers have been dying off. But the carrot for any buyer lies in the subscription channel where in its 2015 final-year results Sportech said revenues fell only slightly to £27.3m from £28.1m. Although subscriber numbers fell 8% to 221,000, the business is in the envious position of having over 60% of them tied in long-term via direct debit. As one City analyst put it, these customers are “astonishingly sticky”.

Still the £100m price-tap remains something of a gamble. The division achieved an operating profit of £15.2m this year, compared with £16.6m in 2014 or an 8.4% decline, meaning the buyout multiple is around 6.5 times.

Sportech says the player numbers decline has stabilized, and it is true the rate of decline has slowed. But the subscriber numbers are still falling, from over 420,000 when Sportech bought Vernons to 221,000 as of the end of 2015. The revenue decline is less steep, largely because some of the fall in player number has been offset by 2.4% rise in weekly spend per customer to £2.89.

But Hogg and his bid team will be hoping they can do more than just mitigate losses or persuade the current customers to spend a few more pennies very week. Most obviously, the business is behind the curve on mobile and has yet to hit the market with a mobile app, though the recent results said the launch was imminent. The company also spoke about a newly reconfigured website.

The timing might also be right to re-launch the product with a new, younger and more football-savvy audience. The success of daily fantasy sports (DFS) in the US and closer to home Sky Bet’s popular Super 6 free-to-enter prediction game has encouraged the emergence of a variety of social betting and tipping-type products in recent months including Fenway Games’ ‘Snapbet’ instant betting product and start-up tipping social network WantMyBet.

If the Football Pools can move away successfully move to a model of small stakes and regular modest wins – and engineer a product which provides just that outcome – then it might stand a chance of maintaining its current subscriber base while at the same time re-engineering itself for a new audience. The £100m outlay might come to be seen as a bargain.

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Football betting and industry governance/leadership strategies will be discussed and debated at the ‘Betting on Football Conference’ 21 April Stamford Bridge Chelsea Stadium…book your tickets now!

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