Cyprus: OPAP not just exempt from ban but unregulated

OPAP’s controversial exemption from Cyprus’ online gaming ban took on a new twist yesterday when MPS were told its activities have been unregulated since it established there in 1969.

The Greek gambling monopoly’s shops came under attack from arson and gunfire ahead of the ban on online poker, casino and exchange betting being introduced on 6 July, believed to be connected to disquiet from other gambling operators over OPAP being allowed to continue offering online games of chance such as Kino. 39 people have been charged since the ban came into force, while several betting shops forced out of business have reportedy moved to the British Sovereign Base Areas (SBA) to continue operating.

In a meeting held yesterday to discuss OPAP’s part exemption from the law, however, chairman of the House Legal Affairs Committee Ionas Nicolaou admitted they had seen “the law’s shortfalls”. Thus while it had passed a law to regulate the operation of betting in Cyprus and implement measures to protect players and to avert money laundering, “today we realised no-one in authority was aware of how the bets of OPAP are carried out”, according to the Cyprus-Mail.

This followed the Cypriot state’s legal service and police force informing MPs that OPAP’s exemption from the law, which applied regulations for  online sports betting to all other companies active in the EU Member State’s gambling market, meant it now operated in Cyprus with no comparable regulatory oversight from the State. OPAP Cyprus operates under a bilateral agreement with Greece signed in 1969, which was extended in 2003.

Nicolaou said the meeting had been held to canvas the views of all stakeholders in the country’s gambling market – including OPAP and the betting shop owners through which much of the country’s online gambling had been taking place ahead of the the law being passed – before introducing regulation of OPAP’s Cypriot operations.

OPAP Cyprus’ general director Michalis Himona however said the company’s computer system was directly connected to the finance ministry, which meant the state was able to check all bets as soon as they were placed: “There is full transparency between OPAP and the state,” he said.

The embattled Greek government is reportedly close to selling its 34% stake in OPAP, the largest betting company in Europe, raising questions over the sustainability of the bilateral agreement with Cyprus.

The country’s law to regulate sports betting but ban online casinos, poker and exchange betting will subject operators licensed by the EU Member State to a 10% tax on revenue and a further 3% payable to the new Gambling Board to be established by the new law.

Betfair, which generated 4% of its £92m revenues from the territory last year, said it was looking into legal action over the ban,  arguing it contained “serious flaws” and was “inconsistent” with EU law. The share of the operator’s profit coming from the 1.1 million population island is understood to be higher than that of its revenue – generating similar profits to the 81.5 million-strong German market – due to its Cyprus business operating mainly within a shop environment ahead of the ban. Sports multiples are understood to be particularly popular in Cyprus, with poker and casino combined accounting for approximately 50% of Cypriot revenues, above the group-wide average of 22%.

Retail operator AA Crown Bet, which was forced to close 16 shops offering online gaming services on behalf of several pan-European operators when the ban came into force, also announced through a lawyer that it was considering suing the State over the banning act, arguing it was discriminatory in favour of OPAP and in breach of EU laws. There were around 1,000 privately owned betting shops in Cyprus before the ban.

Casino Choice journalist

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