An IPO for Betfair could put the company in play for an acquisition, not merely because of its betting market penetration, but also as a technology treasure-house.
The company, which claims the title of largest international online sports betting provider, intends to apply for premium listing on the London Stock Exchange, possibly launching in October. It has just published a profit of £53m for the year ended 30 April 2010, excluding market spending ahead of the 2010 football World Cup.
It will sell off 10 per cent of its full shareholding, which reports estimate will put the company's market capitalisation at between £1bn and £1.5bn – a tidy sum, but not an amount that would deter larger players in the online gambling world.
One suitor in the frame could possibly be Bwin, which published net gaming revenues of €104m (£89m) for its second quarter 2010 last month, on just under 1.4 million customers. Betfair's three million customers would certainly be a welcome addition for Bwin, which is ostensibly a gaming operation and would be complemented by Betfair, primarily concerned with sports betting.
In conversation with CIO, Betfair's CTO Tony McAlister explained there are already informal links with Bwin's technology team and the two companies have shared information on developing markets in the past.
The stated intention of the proposed IPO is to make Betfair more attractive to foreign investors, as it attempts to expand into new markets overseas. The rigour of public financial reporting should lend authority to the company's business strategy as it seeks funding for this global expansion.
In a statement, Betfair chairman Edward Wray said: "Becoming a publicly listed company will provide Betfair with the heightened profile and enhanced transparency that will help us cement our long-term relationships with customers, regulators and business partners around the world."
This boost to Betfair's growth ambitions may also make it attractive to other betting companies that are more firmly rooted in bricks and mortar, such as William Hill. Already a FTSE 250 company, the high street legacy brand published just under £1bn in revenue in 2009, but almost four out of every one of those pounds comes from its retail businesses in the UK, Europe and Israel. Aside from a foothold in Europe, Betfair has licences in the US and, through a joint venture, Australia.
Betfair's real advantage though is in its technology. The company's CEO David Yu was originally its CTO and, as McAlister explained, its home-grown computing technology gives it a powerful competitive advantage as a betting exchange. Betfair has developed financial transaction processing capabilities that even some stock exchanges fail to match. This exchange engine, dubbed LMAX, is expected to be launched in the final quarter of this year.
This technological prowess could make the company attractive to more than just rivals in the betting market. A range of financial services organisations, from stock exchanges to international banks in dire need of powerful computing resources to support demand for faster services in share trading and currency exchange.
This may seem premature to think of Betfair as a takeover candidate even before it has launched, but the company has long been a darling of the UK tech sector, not to mention a high-profile player in the betting market, with a track record for growth, even in a severe economic downturn. Up to now, control of the company has been in relatively few hands. A public offering will release some of that control, making an acquisition attempt all the more possible.