Zynga is screwed and its share price shows it. The game maker’s shtick of selling virtual hay for virtual horses is looking more like an internet fad rather than a viable business model. Meanwhile, Zynga’s recent games have been a flop and its longtime ally, Facebook, is looking for new partners.
This sorry situation means that Zynga has been looking to gambling as a lifeline. Reports this week say Zynga spent around $75,000 on lobbyists last quarter in efforts to bring online gambling to California and its CEO, Mark Pincus, recently told investors that the company hoped to enter international gambling markets by the first half of next year.
For Zynga, gambling could be a way to replace revenue lost from the virtual sheep people are no longer buying. The problem, though, is that the company is late to the online poker table.
According to Chris Griffin, CEO of gambling hub Betable, the winners and losers in the internet gambling market are being determined very quickly and Zynga will be hard-pressed to catch up. Griffin points to the mobile launch this week of Big Fish Casino — a game that lets people gamble on their iPhone in places like the U.K. The presence of these rivals mean there could be little left for Zynga.
“Big Fish has a six to nine month head start on Zynga … It’s a false notion that gambling will save them because the valuable players are already locked up and there is loyalty there,” says Griffin, who adds that the current population of Zynga users are unlikely to become overnight gambling fiends.
Griffin has skin in the gambling game so his words should be taken with a grain of salt. Betable, which received a large seed-round of investment this summer (see disclosure below), provides back-end services like payment clearing and legal permits that allow developers like Big Fish to offer gambling in the first place. But that doesn’t mean Griffin is wrong about Zynga.
Even if the game-maker can get gambling up and running, possibly with the help of casino giant Wynn Resorts, it will still need customers. And for now those customers are in the hands of established gambling brands like Poker Stars or the upstarts like Big Fish. To compete in Europe and the U.K., Zynga will have to outspend the incumbents on marketing (impossible) or else offer cheaper rates — leading to the prospect of more revenue but minuscule profit. Meanwhile, Facebook is going its own way with gambling in Europe.
But what about America? Online gambling was illegal until last December when the feds said it could take place in states that pass a law to allow it. This could give Zynga a fresh playing field on home turf.
The problem is that the state by state approval process is a muddle. While bills are inching forward in places like New Jersey, the process is still tied in politics and red tape, meaning it could be years before online gambling is up and running. And even if some states do allow it, only a handful of them have large enough populations to ensure a reliable supply of players at an online poker table. Finally, will American gamblers gravitate to Zynga or, more likely, will they seek out familiar gambling brands like Pokers Stars?
The bottom line is that gambling may be a huge potential revenue stream but that doesn’t mean any of it will go to Zynga.
Disclosure: True Ventures is an investor in Betable and also in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True. Story and opinions are my own.
(Image by Beto Chagas via Shutterstock)