Al Tengco’s gamble

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

In this gambling republic, Alejandro Tengco, Chairman of gaming regulator Philippine Amusement & Gaming Corp. (PAGCOR), isn’t afraid to roll the dice and place bets.

One big gamble for instance, is his move to drop his businessman’s hat to join the administration of President Marcos.

Leaving one’s comfort zone – he was president and CEO of construction company Nationstar Development Corp. before joining government – is a gamble in itself; what more joining Marcos 2.0, which Tengco did at the risk of drawing the ire of the Jesuits from his Alma Mater, the Ateneo de Manila University. Ateneo, as we all know, is a staunch critic of the Marcoses and Martial Law.

But here he is now at a table surrounded by journalists. We listen to him discuss his plans as the current PAGCOR chief.

The venue of our meeting is the popular Chinese restaurant Hai Shin Lou in Makati, which, we were pleasantly surprised to learn, is one of his many businesses.

“Food is my passion,” he said.

Over a hearty meal, we listen to his ideas for the Philippine gaming industry.

It was a huge gathering with economic journalists and some of his friends including power couple Edgard Cabangon, chairman of ALC Group of Companies, and Sharon Tan.

Tengco’s voice is firm, serious and even slightly booming. He minces no words in expressing his opinion on PAGCOR’s mandate as a regulator.

He plans, for instance, to privatize all land-based casinos owned and operated by PAGCOR in the second half of 2025 so that the agency could just stick to its regulatory mandate. This would allay any conflict-of-interest concerns when it comes to regulating private casinos.

While this has always been the plan even by previous PAGCOR chiefs, Tengco said none of his predecessors succeeded in fulfilling this task.

He also plans to keep the POGO sector alive, despite the controversies, saying that it provides employment to close to 70,000 Filipinos.

He now calls it International Gaming Licensees (ILG), conceding that the term “POGO or Philippine Offshore Gaming” just got too controversial.

Gross gaming revenues

Amid the reforms Tengco introduced, together with the recovery of the gambling industry after COVID-19, the Philippines recorded P285.27 billion in gross gaming revenues or GGR in 2023.

The new GGR record is 11.22 percent higher than the previous high of P256.49 billion set in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak and higher than the P214.33 billion recorded in 2022.

This was in contrast to the all-time GGR low of P98.79 billion at the height of the pandemic in 2020.

This shows that the gaming industry has fully recovered and is now poised for sustained growth, setting the stage for another record-setting haul this year.

The controversial logo

With the rosy numbers, I teased Tengco that despite the initial controversy surrounding it, the new PAGCOR logo, it seems, is turning out to be an auspicious one after all.

I personally find it expensive at P3 million for its simple stylized P and flame-like design although some friends in the creative industry said it was within standard rates.

Clearly, it was a big gamble for Tengco but he stands by it, saying that it was part of the agency’s overall rebranding to weed out fake PAGCOR licenses.

Gaming sector makes strong comeback

For 2024, PAGCOR expects the country’s gross gaming revenues to reach P336.38 billion, especially with the scheduled opening of new integrated resorts this year.

The country’s integrated resorts are still the biggest contributors to the gaming industry’s revenue pie with a P207.48-billion take in 2023 followed by the fast-rising Electronic Games or e-games sector with P58.16 billion.

E-casinos, e-bingo, sports betting and specialty games that together make up the e-games sector are projected to contribute P61.75 billion in 2024 and should be the fastest growing sector in the next few years, Tengco said.

“We are really excited with the phenomenal growth of E-Games in the Philippines and this is where PAGCOR will be betting,” he said.

Gambling Republic

It’s not surprising that the PAGCOR chief is excited about e-games because of the revenue that could be raised and which in turn, could help boost state coffers and fund social services.

But personally, I don’t like the casino business as I’ve interviewed people whose lives were destroyed because of their gambling addiction.

As the regulator, PAGCOR, I hope would continue to address this.

Singapore for instance, makes it more expensive for their locals to gamble.

Tengco said he has already raised the minimum gaming fees in casinos to P1,000 from P200 previously.

I also hope the younger generations don’t get lured into e-games.

It’s bad enough that these dark internet cafes are brimming with kids, still in their school uniforms, spending their time in front of computers playing games. I hope these kids don’t get lured into e-games where they may even wager their school allowances.

These outlets should not be near schools and e-games operators should have a way of making sure these students do not have access to these bets-taking E-games.

It’s up to Tengco to guard our kids against this.

Asked about the future of e-sabong, Tengco said there is no mandate yet from President Marcos to allow its resumption.

It’s good to hear about Tengco’s plans for the industry. I do hope that with him at its helm, PAGCOR would be the tough whip that it should be when it comes to regulating our gambling republic.

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Email: [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at EyesWideOpen on FB.

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