ALEX BRUMMER: Online bets beat the odds for Entain

Among the perennial complaints about UK plc is that as a nation we have been rubbish at creating tech champions. That is not strictly true.

When we do build firms such as Arm Holdings and Worldpay they speedily vanish into overseas hands, often never to be heard of again.

The latest target is British gambling group Entain which has been among the global pioneers in electronic sports betting.

Addictive: Entain’s ruthless exploitation of online gaming through relentless advertising at and during televised and streamed sporting events helped it acquire 160m users on its platform

Entain’s rise to fame and fortune has been built on a series of bold takeovers, which saw its predecessor company GVC Holdings – largely the creation of former chief executive Kenny Alexander – seize control of Ladbrokes Coral, Bwin and Sportingbet, among others.

Its ruthless exploitation of online gaming through relentless advertising at and during televised and streamed sporting events helped it acquire 160m users on its platforms, making up to 2m bets a day.

Any of us who know inveterate gamblers know how damaging that can be to individual addicts, families and communities. This is one tech takeover it is hard to object to.

The latest offer from Entain, which has so far kept its would-be casino operator partner MGM at bay, is at a whopping price of £16.4billion from US upstart Draftkings. 

Over the past five years Entain’s value has soared from just £2.2billion to £14billion, having rejected an £8bn offer from MGM along the way.

The American gambling industry is looking to UK players for their tech and marketing expertise as the US, after many decades of trying, has finally opened itself up to sports betting, which was previously confined to casinos only.

The legacy of Shoeless Joe Jackson, the Chicago White Sox baseball legend, who conspired with crooks to fix the 1919 baseball World Series, lives on 100 years later.

One wonders what American sports fanatics and a country prone to organised crime syndicates will eventually make of online gambling. 

As for the suitor, Draftkings, it is just another debt-fuelled American entity, which struggles to make a profit, seeing an opportunity to use cheap borrowing and a favourable tax regime to make a killing.

There are even suggestions that Draft-kings might seek to arbitrage Entain by selling it on to MGM, which already has a 50/50 stake in a sports betting joint venture.

Executives, looking forward to eye-watering payouts of £110million, will find it hard to resist the approach, as will big-battalion shareholders who kept the faith in spite of the ethical cloud. 

There is a sadness that Ladbrokes and the Sport of Kings, where it all began, will be buried beneath the social quagmire of online betting.

But that horse bolted a long time ago.

Health hazard

The easiest way for Glaxosmithkline to rescue itself from the hands of the activists would be to dump chief executive Emma Walmsley, one of a handful of FTSE 100 women bosses.

Activists Elliott, now followed by Bluebell, need to recognise that turning around a pharma giant is not a short-term exercise given the time it takes – Covid vaccines notwithstanding – to deliver new compounds and navigate the regulatory maze.

Swapping Walmsley for, say, research chief Hal Barron would leave the learned scientist with less time to bring some promising medicines to market.

Walmsley’s plan has always been to spin out consumer healthcare, keep a stake back, and use the income from that to fund R&D and new products.

Selling off consumer healthcare to satisfy a few dissidents should not be on offer.

One cannot help but think, however, that if a stonking bid came along from a trade or private equity buyer, as some think it will, it would be hard for the board headed by loyal chairman Jonathan Symonds to resist.

Seeds of doubt have been planted.

Dark side

The Netflix decision to acquire the works of Roald Dahl for further exploitation on the silver screen and beyond may look sensible enough on commercial grounds.

The family of the author stand to collect several hundred millions of dollars for the enterprise. 

Dahl’s writings, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and The Witches, have entranced generations of kids.

But one wonders how the Hollywood woke brigade will feel about Netflix ownership of the rights of an author known to have racist and virulently anti-Semitic views?

Just asking.