Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Suppose They Gave a Party ...

Tom Precious of the Blood-Horse is reporting that Delaware North, one of the six registered bidders for the long-delayed Aqueduct slot machine contract, is pulling out of the bidding. Bids are due at 4 pm today in the latest attempt to name a racino operator.

Delaware North is one of the more experienced slot-machine operators among the six potential bidders, with some 10,000 slot machines scattered across the US, including the racino at the upstate New York Finger Lakes track. Presumably, the company knows how to do its sums before making a bid, so its last-minute decision to pull out is, well, troubling.

Although no one at Delaware North was speaking publicly, Precious cites unnamed sources as saying that the reasons for the pullout included the 1% cut in operator fees included in the latest version of the New York state budget, the requirement that the winning bidder pony up $300 million BEFORE negotiating a final agreement with the state, and doubts as to whether New York State can manage to borrow the $350 million it's supposed to come up with to finance construction of the Aqueduct racino. Sound like good reasons to me, although the $300 million up-front payment has been part of the deal from the beginning of this round of bidding, so there's no cause for surprise there.

The real reason, it seems to me, is likely that Delaware North has spent the past month observing the New York state government in action, and what it's seen has certainly not been encouraging. The state may indeed have a budget sometime later today, but, if I were an investor about to put $300 million into a venture dependent on the Albany Follies, I'd certainly be having second thought.

Still three and a half hours before the bidding deadline. Wonder how many others among the bidding groups -- Penn National, S.L. Green Realty Corp., Empire City Casino/Yonkers Raceway, Genting New York, and Clairvest Group -- will also have second thoughts. Could be a pretty small party by the deadline.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Churchill's Ongoing Makeover

Now that Churchill Downs Inc.'s annual meeting is over, it's an opportune time to take a close look at the leading US race track operator's financials. As we've pointed out here in prior years, Churchill has a long-term strategy of increasing the profits from its online betting operations (Twin Spires and the newly merged YouBet) and casino gambling (in Louisiana, and now at Calder in Florida), while managing the ongoing decline of revenue from live racing. That trend continues to be evident in Churchill's numbers the calendar year 2009 and for the first quarter of 2010.

In fact, it appears that the trend is accelerating. In comments at yesterday's annual meeting, and in an interview with the Lexington KY Courier-Journal, Churchill CEO Bob Evans (definitely not a racing guy) said that the future of live racing at Arlington Park in Chicago -- without slot machines and without access to loans from the Illinois state government -- was in serious doubt, ands, even more surprising, said that there was a good chance that the number of live racing days would be reduced at Churchill Downs itself. Churchill, according to Evans, is starting a review of all its live racing sites -- Churchill Downs, Arlington, the Fair Grounds and Calder -- with a view to determining how much, and , to cut racing days. And, even before that review gets underway, Churchill has already reduced its racing dates for 2010 as compared to last year -- 4 fewer at Churchill Downs, 2 fewer at Calder, 7 fewer at Arlington and 6 fewer at the Fair Grounds, for a total reduction of 19 days, or about 5%.

That may be bad news for owners and trainers, but it's apparently good news for the shareholders. Churchill's stock price is currently well over $34 a share, significantly up from the $20 low point it reached in 2009.

Churchill's shift of emphasis from live racing to online wagering and slot machines has been underway for some time. In 2006, live racing accounted for 88% of the company's revenue; in 2009, that percentage was only 53%, and in the first quarter of 2010, for the first time, non-racing sources for more than half of all revenue.

Even with the recent reductions, Churchill still runs some 4,100 races a year at its four tracks, or about 8% of the US total. That makes it the largest single track operator in the country, even as it looks to steadily reduce its dependence on live racing.

In its place, and, to a considerable extent, in competition with its own live product, Churchill is expanding its online and off-track wagering operations. The company runs a network of OTBs in Kentucky, Illinois and Louisiana (New Yorkers take note: some places have figured out that having the tracks own the OTBs might actually work). It also owns the expanding Twin Spires online wagering platform, now merging with Youbet.com, as well as the Bloodstock Research online date supplier. In the first quarter of 2010, the online operations accounted for $18 million in net revenue, about a quarter of the company's total. And, as a corporation, Churchill actually prefers to have bets placed through its online network rather than at the track, since the share of the takeout that goes to purses is much less for online bets than it is for on-track betting. Not a good thing for horsemen when your track operator doesn't have any incentive to charge online bet-takers the maximum it can get.

Even though Churchill is still a small player in the non-racing gambling business, with just 1,200 slots at Calder and 1,400 machines in Louisiana, that sector accounted for $26 million in net revenue in the most recent quarter, or more than one-third of the company's total. As, inevitably, Churchill adds more slot machines and other casino-style revenue sources,the gaming side of its revenue will continue to increase, at least vis-a-vis revenue from live racing.

While Churchill still has a comfortable balance sheet, with $17 million in cash and some $187 million in a credit line available as of the end of the first quarter of this year, it does face some hurdles down the road, with some $70 million in debt repayment due in 2013-14. By then, though, if things keep going as they are, Churchill will be even less of a horse racing company and more of an online wagering and slot-machine operator. They're doing what it takes to stay alive, but is it good for the racing game?

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Getting It Wrong: The FTC and Policies for the Future of Journalism

Following hearings on the state of newspapers this past year, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission staff has now prepared a discussion paper of potential policy recommendations to support the reinvention of journalism.

It is a classic example of policy-making folly that starts from the premise that the government can solve any problem—even one created by consumer choices and an inefficient, poorly managed industry. Most of the proposals are based in the idea of using government mechanisms to protect newspapers against competitors and to create markets for newspapers offline and online.

The FTC’s staff ignores the fact that most newspapers are profitable (the average operating profit in 2009 was 12%), but that their corporate parents are unprofitable because of high overhead costs and ill-advised debt loads taken on when advertising revenues were peaked at all time highs. It also fails to make adequate distinction between longer term trends affecting newspapers and the effects of the current recession. The staff thus blends the two together to give a skewed picture of the mid- to long-term health of the industry.

Policy alternatives suggested by the staff for consideration include:
  • Limiting fair use provisions of copyright and providing new protection for “hot news,” which would give first news organizations to distribute a story a proprietary right to the facts in their article
  • Providing a variety of types of subsidies for news providers
  • Changing tax exempt status laws to make it easier to obtain not-for-profit status and funds from charitable donors
  • Taxing advertising, spectrum, internet service provision, consumer electronics, and cell phones to provide funds for news organizations
  • Creating new antitrust exemptions allowing price collusion and market division
It is hard to ignore the irony and incongruities of a government agency whose purpose is to protect competition and effective markets suggesting anti-competitive practices and taxes that will have negative effects on consumers, competitors, and other companies. Setting those aside, however, none of the suggestions deal with the real underlying economic and financial problems of the news industry: that fact that many consumers are unwilling to pay for the kinds of news provided today and that news organizations need to radically change their management practices and begin reducing organizational inefficiencies.

If commercial news enterprises can’t effectively manage themselves, compete in markets for their products and services, or find effective business models for themselves, why does anyone think that bureaucrats in the government have any ability to solve those problems for the news industry?