Distributed gaming is disrupting regional casinos, it is more convenient for gamblers to drive to a local bar they might already frequent than to drive an hour to one of the first generation riverboat style casinos that doesn't provide much more in terms of experience than a typical bar. Gaming tax revenue via VGT surpassed that of the casinos in Illinois for the first time last year, giving them a possible lobbying advantage for continued expansion in the future. The big wildcard is Chicago, which currently does not allow VGTs within the city limits, given Chicago's fiscal situation (it's not good) that will likely change in the future as well which would provide a massive boost to the distributed gaming industry. VGTs, like the lotto, are an easy short term fix for politicians looking to avoid raising property taxes.
The new gaming law isn't all positive for operators, the Illinois tax rate on VGTs is increasing from 30% to 34% in 2020, the VGT operator (Accel) and the business owner by law must split the revenue 50/50, essentially the government (mix of state and local) gets 1/3rd, VGT operator gets 1/3rd and the business owner gets 1/3rd. Since VGT operators can't compete on price in Illinois, it means they must compete on service, machine quality, and other areas where scale will give Accel an advantage over smaller competitors that can't spread those costs over a larger base, have buying power with suppliers or don't have the accumulate data that Accel has built up to help improve operations. Fixing the pricing also creates sort of a unnatural oligopoly structure to the industry in Illinois (this is not the case in other markets like NV or MT), there won't be pressure to reduce their split or lose a contract and the gambling customer base isn't price sensitive (the hold rate on Accel's machines is about 8%, meaning it'll pay back about $0.92 of every dollar played) creating a pretty durable margin.
Scale matters, this is a fragmented industry with a lot of potential to roll-up the smaller players in the state and enter into new jurisdictions as more states legalize distributed gaming as a way to increase their tax revenues. Accel has been a serial acquirer of smaller Illinois competitors, they've completed 9 deals since distributed gaming was legalized in 2012, and now that they have a public stock as currency, I would anticipate them doing more in the future. Smaller operators in Illinois or elsewhere in the country might find it attractive to sell to Accel yet retain some equity upside in a liquid public stock. Rolling up an industry like this seems less risky as the end product and pricing is generally the same, its a fairly standardized product and since pricing is fixed, you're not expected to share any synergies with the customer. Accel also has a conditional license to operate in Pennsylvania, where lawmakers recently approved VGTs located in truck stops, a potential first step before a broader roll out to other liquor license holders, it will be a small market initially, but like Illinois, Pennsylvania has really pushed gaming as a tax revenue source.
Accel is projecting about $115MM in EBITDA for 2020, after their most recently closed acquisition, they have over 10,000 VGTs and representing about 1/3rd of the Illinois market. Maintenance capital expenditures are pretty limited, mostly just servicing existing machines occasionally, creating a pretty attractive free cash flow conversion rate. Using management estimates (its a SPAC, these could be wildly ambitious and include a lot of assumptions from the new gaming expansion and recent acquisitions), I'm coming up with ACEL trading around 9.2x EBITDA or a just sub 10% free cash flow yield (pre-growth capex).
I bought a small toehold position, could be a mistake as the SPAC aspect makes me nervous, but I like the business.
- There's some poor counterparty credit risk aspect to their business model, they partner with small local mom and pop type operators, you're not likely to see VGTs at a Buffalo Wild Wings for example, but you will in the beat up corner bar. Bars and restaurants go out of business regularly and their 7 year contracts aren't enforceable if the business in question closes down.
- No one is going to include Accel in an ESG portfolio, it's about the opposite of ESG, VGTs are an eye sore (often they're in a separate room with a seedy looking saloon door entrance), encourages addictive gambling and just not a great productive use of time/money for society, truly a tax on the addicted and often poor. But it's a proven business model and the hold percentage is much better to players than say the state lotto industry.
- Accel currently doesn't have a players rewards program that many gaming companies utilize to market to and retain customers. Given distributed gaming is a natural competitor to the regional casinos, could it make sense for someone like PENN to acquire Accel, roll out their rewards program and link the two customer bases together to drive people to the regional casinos? It's unclear if current regulations would allow Accel to have a rewards program, but an eventual combination with a regional casino player could make sense.
- Accel also does similar arrangements with other bar equipment like pool tables, darts, jukeboxes, sort of an open a bar out of the box type arrangement, but the non-gaming side is just sub-5% of total revenues.
- Like every other SPAC, Accel does have warrants that will dilute equity at $11.50 and above, the capital structure is a bit confusing but that's par for the course for a SPAC, I imagine they'll attempt to buyback some of the warrants.
- They pitched themselves as a "gaming-as-a-service" company in the SPAC investor decks, thankfully that's been removed in the latest post-merger presentation on their website, seemed a little scuzzy even for a distributed gaming SPAC.
- Every SPAC needs a story on why it went the SPAC route versus the traditional IPO route -- Clairvest is a Canadian PE firm with a solid track record in gaming (they own a chunk of the highly successful Rivers Casino just outside O'Hare Airport) that owns a piece of Accel, they had some board and governance rights if the company went IPO but not if the company merged with a SPAC. Clairvest ultimately sued and recently the two sides came to an agreement with Clairvest remaining equity owners in Accel and getting a board seat. Unclear to me what the dispute was between Clairvest and Accel that started the SPAC route, but in the end its been resolved somewhat amicably, make with that story what you will.
Disclosure: I own shares of ACEL