The knowledgeable and well connected Wall Street Journal columnist Brett Arends, writing in the publication Marketwatch this week, poses the question "Is the World Poker Tour up for sale?"
The indications would appear to suggest it is, with CFO Tom Flahie revealing that he had provided confidential data to third parties, and CEO Steve Lipscomb confirming: "We've had discussions with, and exchanged documents with, some companies that have expressed an interest."
Arends examines the recent and troubled past of the company, observing that it isn't hard to see why the WPT would be in play. "Years of losses and missteps have left it looking like an impulse purchase for a major broadcaster or an online poker company," he writes before noting a stock price at $1.25 for parent company WPT Enterprises, giving it a value around $25 million.
"The company has about $18 million in net cash sitting on its balance sheet. Flahie confirmed that pretty much all of that would be available to an acquirer. So the "enterprise value" — the net cost — would only be about $7 million or so at current prices," Arends comments.
Arends goes on to quote Lipscomb, who says, when he talks to potential sponsors: "The inevitable question when someone is about to pay you $3 million, or $4 million, or $5 million, is (for them) to look and say, ‘Why don't I just buy your company? Oftentimes the answer is: It's not for sale. But of course everything is always for sale."
WPT is apparently doing somewhat better nowadays, which may make it more attractive. It generated positive cash flow last quarter for the first time in more than two years, and Flahie says he's confident they will break even, or better, for the year.
But, Arends observes, it's a long decl,ine for a company that was once valued at half a billion dollars and revolutionised televised poker, playing a key role in creating the poker boom of recent years. WPT launched the tour – a series of high-stakes tournaments in various cities – back in 2003. The key invention was the so-called "hole cam," a camera that let TV viewers see the players' hidden or "hole" cards during the betting, building audience interest and excitement.
In 2005, at its peak, the stock hit $26.
Arends reports that critics diagnose the decline as too many copycats and a company that never found a way to convert its brand name into a reliable revenue stream. Even selling WPT-branded products didn't work: Online casinos give away many of the same things for free. Company mistakes didn't help – from a failed venture in China to letting costs get out of control. From 2004 to 2008 overhead trebled to $22 million while revenues, after a brief boom, fell backwards. This in a world where the poker boom went from strength to strength.
"The poker boom in the U.S. isn't quite as manic as it was a few years ago. But overseas it is still growing like Topsy," Arends writes.
Lipscomb says the World Poker Tour is now broadcast in more than 150 countries. In France, his second biggest market, episodes sometimes get more viewers than in the U.S., and the company has a strong brand in a crowded field and much experience.
Arends concludes his article with a review of the legal position in the United States, where some states may be about to exercise their prerogative to legalise poker as a generator of tax revenues, and Congressman Barney Frank is working at the federal level on trying to legalise online gambling in general in the USA. It poker achieves legalised status, there are clearly some very positive possibilities for companies in the business.
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"Other countries are also taking a second look at liberalizing online gambling laws," Arends comments. "The big reason? Governments desperately need more revenues — and legalizing, regulating and taxing online gambling may give them just that.
"There are reasons to hope that things may look up for the World Poker Tour after all."
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