It’s hard to fancy Flutter as the UK national lottery operator

Gambling conglomerate’s takeover of Sisal may provide sparkle after a poor year, but online casinos and the lotto don’t mix

Last modified on Thu 23 Dec 2021 15.22 EST

An absence of deal-making is one reason why Flutter Entertainment, the £20bn gambling conglomerate that encompasses Paddy Power, Betfair, Sky Bet, PokerStars and more, has been one of the worst share price performers in the FTSE 100 index this year. The stock is down by a quarter.

Investors had expected the liberalising US market, where Flutter looks well-placed with its FanDuel operation, to deliver the adrenaline rush of highly priced consolidation, but it never quite happened. Two US firms made tentative offers for Entain, the Ladbrokes and Coral operator that is also big stateside, but both pulled back. It may be that the leading global players will have to compete harder with each other in the US, which is a less exciting short-term investment prospect (though probably a better one for American punters).

Still, here comes Flutter with an opportunistic pre-Christmas deal to remind its shareholders that life isn’t all about US excitement. It is paying £1.62bn to buy Italian group Sisal, the country’s leading online gambling operator with a 12% share, which also has a large chain of betting shops and runs regulated lotteries in Italy, Morocco and Turkey.

The purchase, says Flutter chief executive Peter Jackson, who loves his podium metaphors, will secure “a gold medal position” in a market that had been near the top of the target list. What he probably means is that it is tricky for outsiders to gain a decent online foothold in Italy because virtually all betting advertising is banned, a set-up that favours incumbents with shops.

Naturally, Flutter is having to pay a pretty price – almost eight times Sisal’s expected pre-interest and pre-depreciation earnings of €248m (£211m) this year – but bagging the business before the current owner, private equity firm CVC, could float it looks a sound strategic play. The UK group will be able to inject its undoubtedly slick online expertise.

What the purchase of Sisal does not do, one trusts, is signal that Flutter has ambitions to run the UK national lottery. Sisal is pitching for the job, but ownership by a leading UK bookie ought to bring disqualification. This newspaper’s recent revelation of how Sky Vegas, another Flutter operation, offered free “spins” to recovering addicts is fresh in the memory. You don’t get a medal for such mistakes. Keep online casino games and the lottery under separate roofs.

Britain’s restaurants may need more than a billion, chancellor

Unsurprising Omicron finding of the day: regional infection data is roughly reflected in the decline in restaurant-going. So, within the national fall of 14 percentage points in the number of seated diners in the week ending 20 December, according to the flash figures used by the Office for National Statistics, London was down 18 points and Manchester by eight.

The only slight source of consolation was that Manchester diners were (marginally) more numerous than in the same period in pre-pandemic 2019. But it’s not much to cling to. Rishi Sunak should still prepare to be more generous with his support package for the hospitality sector – £1bn may not cut it.

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