Wall Street's poker gamble: All-in with WPT
Many investors have folded on World Poker Tour owner WPT Enterprises, but now might be the time to raise your bet on the stock.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Poker may not seem as hip as it was just a few years ago. And nobody's feeling that more than shareholders of WPT Enterprises, operator of the World Poker Tour.
Wall Street has pretty much cashed in all its chips on WPT over the past few years. The stock, which hit an all-time high of $29.50 in 2005 on merger speculation, has since sunk to about $5.
A group of investors led by poker legend Doyle Brunson made an offer to buy the company in 2005, but the takeover overture turned out to be a, uh, bluff. WPT (Charts) then hired investment bank Thomas Weisel last February to explore the possibility of a sale, only to have the company announce in September that it had decided to remain independent.
But some analysts think that the company is now a good bet.
WPT reported fourth-quarter numbers after the close Monday, and the results were mixed: sales jumped 13 percent, but the company reported a loss of 5 cents a share, larger than analysts were expecting. Wall Street also expects WPT to post a loss of 4 cents a share for all of 2007.
Still, the company, which generates the majority of its sales from domestic television licensing revenue - World Poker Tour and Professional Poker Tour shows air on the Discovery Holding (Charts)-owned Travel Channel - hopes to become a winning hand with investors once again thanks to the relaunch of its online poker site later this year.
Clint Morrison, an analyst with Feltl & Co., a Minneapolis-based investment bank, said the company's first online poker site - which is only available to consumers outside of the U.S. since Internet gambling is illegal here - has not been as big a success for WPT as the company originally hoped.
That's because the site, which was run by a third party, had several technical problems and often crashed. Morrison said the company has learned from its past mistakes and invested heavily in software to develop a new site that it should roll out sometime in the second quarter of this year.
And even without the prospect of getting money from U.S. poker junkies, Morrison still thinks that WPT could do well with a new site since online poker is about a $1 billion market globally.
"The whole story is going to be WPT bringing up their new online poker site. That's where the real growth and the upside for the stock is. They should be able to leverage a strong brand in what is a large and profitable market," Morrison said.
To that end, despite the glitches on the first WPT online poker site, revenue from online gambling has already become an increasingly important part of the company's overall financial health. WPT generated $3.2 million in online gaming sales during 2006, more than 10 percent of the company's total revenue.
And one fund manager who owns shares of the company thinks that online poker could wind up being a much bigger revenue and profit generator once the new site kicks in.
"If they can just get a small piece of the online gaming market, it could be big for WPT. With their brand name and presence you would think they should be able to do really well," said Daniel Perkins, co-manager of the Perkins Discovery fund. "If they can get just 2 percent of the online gaming market, that could mean $20 million in sales and maybe they can do a lot better than that."
To put the $20 million figure in perspective, WPT is expected to generate just about $28 million in total sales in 2007.
However, WPT's decision to go it alone in online gaming also means more risks for the company. Traci Mangini, an analyst with ThinkEquity Partners, wrote in a recent report that she would prefer to see WPT partner with other poker companies on an online network in order to reduce costs.
"Given the capital-intensive nature and technical expertise needed to develop the network in-house, we continue to believe that this is not the best course of action for the company," she wrote.
"While joining a poker network does mean it must share revenues [typically 20-25 percent of the rake], we believe the benefits of immediate player liquidity, faster ramp up, and elimination of significant costs [capital expenditures and technical expertise needed to build and maintain the site] outweigh the loss of control and ability to retain 100 percent of revenues," Mangini said.
Morrison concedes that profits will probably take a hit in 2007 as the company invests in the new site. But he thinks that will be worth it in the long run.
Turning away from online gaming, WPT does stand to benefit later this year from a partnership it struck in December with U.K.-based PartyGaming PLC, which runs PartyPoker.com, the world's largest online poker site.
As part of the deal, PartyGaming will sponsor international broadcasts of World Poker Tour and Professional Poker Tour events for the next few years.
Todd Eilers, an analyst with Roth Capital Partners, wrote in a recent research note that the sponsorship deal could add significantly to WPT's profits in the second half of this year and 2008. He added that the partnership is "a step in the right direction" that could open the doors for similar advertising deals in the future.
"We believe the financial terms are favorable for WPTE and we look for the company to continue to make similar strategic moves in the near future," Eilers wrote.
Still, it's clear that poker is not the cultural phenomenon that it was just a few years ago. Ratings for World Poker Tour shows are down from peak levels a few years ago, as are ratings for the World Series of Poker events on Walt Disney (Charts)-owned ESPN.
But Morrison is not concerned. He said that WPT's stock may have fallen out of favor on Wall Street but that the popularity of poker worldwide bodes well for WPT over the next few years.
"Maybe poker has suffered from a little bit of faddishness on the investor's side of things. But this is still a big market that is not going away and WPT should command a significant presence," he said.
Feltl & Co. has performed investment banking for WPT Enterprises, but Morrison does not own the stock. Other analysts quoted in this piece do not own shares of WPT, and their firms have no banking relationships with the company.